History's People: Chester County's Uriah Hunt Painter, Civil War Correspondent

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
October 18, 2012

Nearly 150 years ago, Chester Countian Uriah Hunt Painter was exactly where he wanted to be –in the middle of one of the biggest battles in American history, the Battle of Gettysburg.

But it wasn’t easy to get there. Just days earlier, the accomplished young correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer was cut off from the action when Confederate General “Jeb” Stuart shut down railroad transportation. Painter was trapped in Washington for days, before catching a train north after several attempts. Upon arrival, the well-composed reporter entered the battlefield and, as one historian has since noted, “moved calmly through the tumult.”

By the next day, July 3, the Inquirer ran a full account of the battle and even sold papers in Gettysburg to those soldiers still in the thick of battle!

Born in 1837 to affluent Quaker parents, Painter grew up in West Chester and attended Oberlin College. He spent his early adulthood as a surveyor and telegraph lineman, learning practical skills that later came in handy when reporting news. By the age of 20, he managed his father’s lumber business in the borough.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Painter found himself writing for the Inquirer as a correspondent in Washington D.C. By the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the 24-year-old directed the entire War Bureau of the newspaper.

As in every other facet of American life, the Civil War proved to be a turning point in the history of journalism. As relayed by J. Cutler Andrew’s The North Reports the Civil War, before the war, newspapers were “small scale enterprises.” Before 1861, there was little urgency to news reporting. Journalists regarded the telegraph as a cumbersome and expensive way to relay news. The wires were hard to access and unreliable. Working as a journalist was dull, poor-paying work.

With the onset of the war, people wanted their news as instantaneously as possible. Correspondents followed armies with voracious competitiveness and newspaper sales increased exponentially. Between 1859 and 1863, the circulation of Painter’s own Inquirer skyrocketed from 7,000 to 70,000. As summed up by Andrew, people wanted an “uninterrupted flow of news.”

As Donald A. Ritchie, Ph.D., historian of the U.S. Senate states, “when the Civil War began, the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer hired the young Uriah Hunt Painter to ‘go wherever you think it will advance the enterprise of the Inquirer.’”

In the process, reporters like Painter did more than simply publish information, they influenced public opinion. When reporting on the first Battle of Bull Run, Painter got caught deep behind Confederate lines. By pretending to be a rebel, he eluded capture, hopped on a half-wounded horse, and rode to Washington. In the nation’s capital, he boarded a train in the early morning hours, arrived in Philadelphia, and wrote the story of the battle.

Meanwhile, Union supporters celebrated a false Bull Run victory that Washington press had erroneously reported. When Painter’s article announced the devastating news of Northern defeat, a mob formed outside of the Inquirer offices until news was confirmed. As Dr. Ritchie explains, “when Union troops lost that battle, the War Department censored telegraph reports from Washington.” By taking the train directly to Philadelphia, Painter bypassed the censorship of the telegraph lines to report the news directly, in person.

Later in the conflict, Painter formed an alliance that gave him a great advantage over other reporters. As a close friend of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Painter had access not only to restricted information, but also Stanton’s own telegraph line and cipher. Such an alliance proved incredibly beneficial in an age when censors scrutinized telegraph correspondence to eliminate objectionable material.

At points, Painter even influenced the course of the war effort. In September 1862, following the Battle of Chantilly in Northern Virginia, Painter acquired new information about the course of Lee’s Army. Confidently, Painter reported to the Inquirer and the War department that the rebel army was heading north into Maryland, not towards Washington as other papers reported. In the end, Painter’s controversial report accurately foretold Lee’s crossing into Maryland for what would ultimately become the bloody Battle of Antietam.

Painter’s reporting did have its unlucky and low points. On September 17, 1862, while battle raged on at Antietam, Painter prepared for his wedding in Mansfield, Ohio which took place the next day. As a result of his absence, the Inquirer sorely lacked adequate coverage of the bloodiest day in American history.

Following the war, Painter continued as a correspondent for several other prominent newspapers. He spent many years reporting from Washington, and frequented the Capitol reporting on Congressional matters. In fact, Dr. Ritchie dedicates an entire chapter in his work Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents to Painter’s work in D.C. Dr. Ritchie conducted research at the Chester County Historical Society for portions of the chapter.

Painter was ultimately a jack of all trades and a successful businessman. He owned business interests in the lumber, ice, railroad, fish, telegraph, and telephone industries. In his lifetime, he owned and operated two opera houses, including the one at Horticultural Hall, the current home of the Chester County Historical Society.

In fact, the Historical Society will forever be in debt to Painter for their home. He bequeathed the building, Horticultural Hall, to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a veterans organization for Union soldiers. But he specified in his will that the Historical Society would acquire the building upon the death of the last GAR veteran. This occurred in 1938.

Upon Painter’s death in 1897, his body was returned to West Chester. After a viewing at the family homestead at the northwest corner of High and Chestnut Streets, he was buried at the nearby Oaklands Cemetery.

The story of Uriah Hunt Painter and the countless other stories of Chester County during the Civil War will be part of “On the Edge of Battle: Chester County and the Civil War.” This exhibition opens to the public on Friday, Oct. 19, with a special opening reception featuring a keynote address by Historian of the U.S. Senate Donald A. Ritchie, Ph.D. on Thursday, Oct. 18. For more information, visit www.chestercohistorical.org.

Caption (below): West Chester’s Uriah Hunt Painter followed the course of the Civil War from the front lines, reporting to the American public through the Philadelphia Inquirer. Photo courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society.