Charles Coffin (July 26, 1823 - March 2, 1896) was an American journalist best known for his reporting of Civil War battles. He was also an author and wrote columns in newspapers expressing his political opinions.
Coffin’s reputation was widespread and he was perhaps the best-known newspaper correspondent during the American Civil War. Biographer W.E. Griffis referred to him as “a soldier of the pen and knight of the truth.” Yet he remains little known to the present-day generation. Only in an advanced college journalism class will you read and hear discussed the work of Coffin.
Coffin inherited 80 acres of land in Illinois, and he and his wife Sally traveled from the East coast to inspect the property. While in Illinois he would become interested in politics, and he attended the Republican National Convention of 1860 held in Chicago.
After the convention, Charles was a member of the group that traveled from Chicago to Springfield to advise Abraham Lincoln that he had won the party’s nomination for the presidency. In his job as a newspaper reporter, he went on to cover the 1860 election campaign and was in Washington to cover Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861.
Long opposed to slavery and succession, he was loyal to the Union cause. However, due to an accident in his youth that left him unable to use his right leg, he was not able to serve in the military. Therefore, many encouraged Coffin to become a war correspondent due to his eye for detail and his command of language.
On his own and not employed by any newspapers, Coffin began visiting the Union army camps and fortifications around Washington and sending reports to a variety of newspapers. The reports included “human interest” stories obtained through interviews with military personnel ranging from newly enlisted privates to generals.
Coffin was always welcome at Union army camps and was well-known and on friendly terms with many of the highest Union officers, including General Grant.
During the battle at Gettysburg, with the reporting of Pickett’s ill-fated charge, Coffin rode 28 miles through a driving rainstorm, boarded a train in Baltimore, Maryland, from where he was able to telegraph his story of the battle to the Boston Journal. Reporting of this battle was the first news the nation had of the decisive battle and the Confederate retreat.
After the war, Coffin returned to Boston and wrote a series of books detailing his experiences as a correspondent.