|Commanders, Correspondents, and the Constitution: The Birth of Conflict between the Military and the Free Press during the Civil War
by Rob Dean
The emergence of mass-distribution newspapers in the decades before the
American Civil War forced U.S. military leaders to face one of the stickiest
dilemmas for their democracy. The desire of free people to know about their
military collided with the need for military leaders to plan strategy and
deploy troops without the enemy knowing the details of those plans.
News from the battlefield sold a lot of newspapers because Americans were eager
to know what was happening. News from the front lines also angered generals and
politicians. Some feared that news stories revealed information the enemy could
use as one more weapon against the United States. Others were convinced that
incomplete or inaccurate reports caused political division or damaged morale
among civilians and troops alike. During the Civil War, those concerns grew so
serious that the government and the military censored the news.
The clash of competing interests grew from the serious fact that making war, as
it always had been, was a grave matter. The soldiers' choice to kill or be
killed was the human condition at its most raw. News coverage amplified for the
public the danger and thrill of war, and that meant readers rushed to buy the
latest dispatches. After all, the conduct of war represented public interest in
its purest form. News coverage informed the great mass of people who supplied
manpower to the army, who defined morale, and who either endorsed or rejected
war through the exercise of political and economic power. But to military men,
news coverage also had the potential to harm.
How to write about war is an issue as old as civilization, and issue that
remains controversial today. Thucydides, the Greek writer considered by many
the first historian, wrote firsthand accounts of the Peloponnesian war in the
fifth century B.C. Because he was on the scene, he fit the profile of the first
war correspondent as well. Like any news reporter wanting people to read his
story, Thucydides worried that his facts might be boring, but he worried most
about getting his story straight. He anticipated obstacles to accuracy because
some sources of information would lie or manipulate the facts out of
self-interest. Further, Thucydides anticipated that future writers might revise
the story, so he worked doubly hard to seek a story "nearest the sum of the
truth of all that had been uttered," a version of the story that would hold up
to criticism and new interpretations.
Military writer Victor Davis Hanson, a leading voice in explaining Western
military dominance, said a strong nation allows dissent and chooses reform.
Though flawed, press coverage of the United States in Vietnam, for example,
exposed the need for U.S. military reform. To Hanson, the interplay of news,
criticism, and reform shaped up this way:
What, then, are we to make of this final tenet of Western military practice,
this strange 2,500-year-old habit of subjecting military operations to constant
and often self-destructive political audit and public scrutiny? Can any good
come of a volatile Western citizenry that dictates when, where, and how its
soldiers are to fight, even as it permits its writers, artists, and journalists
freely and sometimes wildly to criticize the conduct of their own troops? …
[It is] true that the institutions and process of that [Vietnam-era]
self-recrimination helped to correct serious flaws in American tactics and
Beginning with the U.S.-Mexican War, press coverage of the military has carried
risks that could cost lives or obscure truth. As Hanson warned, reporters and
media organizations sometimes may have chosen critical, sentimental, or
sensational stories that lacked full historical, cultural, strategic, or
operational perspectives. On the other hand, as Thucydides warned, politicians
and military leaders may have tended to lie or manipulate.
This article examines how the United States responded in 1861 when the right of
free people to know about the actions of their government collided with the
duty of the military to guard battle plans. This study concludes that while
there were excesses by both correspondents and censors, reporters also had free
access on the battlefield, a circumstance that established unwritten rules by
which the media and the military would manage, or struggle to manage, future
The First War Correspondents Go to Mexico
In 1844, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. Two years later, the United
States was at war with Mexico, and the revolution in communications changed the
conduct of war. Historian Donald Frazier wrote, "In the United States, news
from the front arrived in just a few days, and politicians and generals alike
could react rapidly to changing circumstances. The public kept abreast of news
and supported the war to a greater or lesser degree based on the latest reports
from the front." The U.S.-Mexican War began with an attack provoked by
America, continued as an exercise of U.S. power, and ended only after the
United States gained a vast territory from present-day Texas to California. The
Mexican War was a product of what historians call Manifest Destiny, the term
from U.S. history used to describe American ambitions to expand its territory
beyond the eastern seaboard and spread democracy to lesser people of the
continent, in the case of 1846 the Mexicans and Native Americans in what is now
the American Southwest.
After two years of fighting, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war 1in
1848 and gave the Mexican government a U.S. payment of $15 million and gave
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to the United States. In many
ways, the war also gave the country a preview of the Civil War to come a decade
down the road. The issue of U.S. expansion deepened the national debate about
whether states would join the United States as free or slave. The conduct of
the Mexican War itself became a proving ground of sorts for future military
strategy and a training ground for many officers who became leaders in the
Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, and Winfield
The Mexican War also revolutionized the role of the press by introducing the
concept of the modern war correspondent. U.S. newspapers sent full-time
reporters to the war scene, and they used modern technology to send up-to-date
reports home. Of course, by the standard of the day, a report published two
weeks or more after it was written was considered timely. A report in the New
Orleans Picayune, a leading provider of war news, was typical. The
last in a series of Christopher Haile's dispatches sent Sept. 20, 1846, from
Monterrey did not appear in the Picayune until Oct. 4. For readers,
the story was worth the delay. Haile was part of a team organized under the
supervision of George Kendall, founder of the Picayune who took
special interest in the war and who spent most of the conflict in the field. A
one-time cadet at West Point, Haile had the credentials that earned him
assignment as the Picayune's special Army correspondent. Haile's
careful reports ranged from description about troop formations to the details
of troops chasing a fleeing spy. "[The spy] broke from the guard and ran for
the chaparral, but, unfortunately for the poor devil, he was running directly
into the camp of the 2d Division, which lies hid in the bushes," Haile wrote.
"… [T]he guard not wishing to shoot him, and, after a smart footrace through
the thorn bushes and various extraordinary feats of dodging, he was captured
Newspapers also published dispatches from soldiers who wrote home, giving
readers graphic descriptions of battle never before available. For example, the
following was part of an article published in November 1846: "The other day, I
dissected several of my fellow creatures in the most approved military style;
but do you think it was pleasant to see their bowels gush out, and hear their
cries of agony?" While the soldier's words helped a reader see and feel the
action, the same soldier offered thoughtful words, too, about his mother's
advice to keep the Bible at his side. The soldier concluded, "No, no! If you
want me to be a good soldier, don't request me to read my bible. The spirit
there and the spirit here are not at one."
At the beginning of the penny-press era, coverage of the war in Mexico gave
publishers a way to make a mark in a crowded field. It was the first time
U.S. correspondents flocked to a foreign war and spent piles of their bosses'
money. "By combining pony express, steamships, railroads, and the fledgling
telegraph, the press established a two-thousand mile communications link that
repeatedly beat military couriers and the U.S. mail with the Mexico news," one
The experience was a sign of things to come. There would be no turning back
from high-speed delivery of news, and publishers, politicians, and generals all
saw the potential for greater profit and power. American printers following the
U.S. Army established camp newspapers, and some became permanent newspapers in
occupied territories. Military leaders learned to use the newspapers. In some
cases, the military bankrolled the newspapers because they helped the army
maintain order and exercise local control through publication of official
decrees and regulations.
The press had become a valuable tool in the effort to win over public opinion.
Generals saw the value in winning support back home. "The U.S. press often was
the channel by which officials in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City learned of
actions in the other capital," a historian found. "For the general public, it
was the only communication link." The U.S. government saw the value in
pressing national interests. "By that time also, some newspapers were being
edited by U.S. writers in places that were under U.S. control," Mexican scholar
Jesus Velasco-Marquez wrote. "Their goal was to convince the residents of the
need to accept the U.S. terms for peace. [One newspaper] even pursued a
propaganda campaign favoring annexation of all of Mexico by the United
When U.S. forces ended their occupation of Mexico, there were 25 American-owned
newspapers in 14 cities, and mostly they told the story according to American
leaders. For U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Mason, good press was what he
saw and good feelings were what he described. Speaking in 1847, he said:
Nothing is more remarkable, or more indicative of the intelligence and
education of our people than the fact newspapers have been established in every
town of importance …. American journals have been busy in imparting
information, in combating crime, in inculcating virtue, in fostering all the
attributes of humanity in the bosoms of American soldiery.
During the war in Mexico, U.S. newspapers first demonstrated the boldness to
send reporters to a distant place and the initiative to get their stories into
print before official Army reports could get back to Washington or before the
government had time to prepare its own official announcements. The experiment
to cover war in Mexico paid off for a small number of newspapers. A dozen years
later, that sort of enterprise by the press became all-out competition to cover
the Civil War in every detail.
In Mexico, the United States fought a war of national ambition with a spirit of
confidence. By 1861, the United States faced a crisis of deep division. In
between, it was a war in Europe that redefined the role of war coverage.
British news reports on the Crimean War of 1854-1856 had significant impact on
the military and the government. Writing in 1999, Brayton Harris, retired U.S.
Navy captain and author of seven books, said reports of inadequate supply
lines, poor leadership, and shortages of medicine "were blamed for the downfall
of a British government." The Crimean War served as a lesson to the U.S. Army
that had triumphed in Mexico and was then only a few years from a bitter
conflict at home, Harris said, and the lesson was that the work of reporters in
the Crimea "demonstrated a different sort of basic truth, one which has held in
every war since: an unfettered, honest journalist is a burden to an army in the
field, anathema at the seat of government, and vital to a democratic
Censorship: A Newspaper-Military Agreement Fails
By 1861, the military and the press began the Civil War fully aware that the
stakes were high. The nation's very survival was at risk. In the weeks and
months after war broke out on April 12 at Fort Sumter, Southern generals
learned they could get useful information about Union deployments and troop
strength simply by reading the newspaper. General George McClellan,
commander of the Union army, met with editors and reporters to find a way to
control the flow of information that was helping the enemy. On August 2,
McClellan and the newspaper representatives signed guidelines governing news
coverage. The guidelines were to go to "editors of all newspapers in the loyal
States and District of Columbia." The guidelines said:
1st. That all such editors be requested to refrain from publishing, either as
editorial, or as correspondence of any description, or from any point, any
matter that may furnish aid and comfort to the enemy.
2nd. That they be also requested and earnestly solicited to signify to their
correspondent here and elsewhere their approval of the foregoing suggestion,
and to comply with it in spirit and letter.
Also, resolved. That the government be respectfully requested to
afford to the representatives of the press facilities for obtaining and
immediately transmitting all information suitable for publication, particularly
touching engagements with the enemy.
Two central themes stood out in the agreement. First, 12 newspaper
representatives signed on, meaning the guidelines were of their own doing, and,
second, the voluntary censorship focused on matters of war. Less than 90 days
after McClellan won the agreement, politics intruded and turned press-military
relations chaotic. Secretary of State William Seward issued an order on Oct. 22
that extended censorship to non-military operations of the government. "This
instruction certainly goes far beyond the spirit of the resolution approved by
the government and the press, and it is difficult to understand why the ‘civil
operations' of the government should be included," a House investigation
In effect, Seward's order allowed the government to censor press reports of a
political nature, news that, while perhaps embarrassing or controversial to
government officials, did not damage the Army's ability to make war. The
government confirmed the worst fears of the press. When correspondents
compromised, the politicians tightened control. Reporters and editors saw a
need for independence, a hope that author Harold Evans expressed this way: "So
much heroism; so much folly; so many brilliant moves; so many blunders; so many
might-have-beens. … [I]n all war reports we share vicariously in the terrible
excitement of combat. We exult in victories, but we want to know whether the
cause is just, the means proportionate to the end, and the execution
honorable." In the American democracy of 1861, when the Civil War widened the
risks to every person in the country, newspaper readers wanted all the news
that war correspondents could deliver. Evans continued, "Newspapers naturally
played on the notion that only independent reporting would satisfy the popular
appetite. … Governments, for their part, became willing to give reporters
battlefield access because they presumed the journalists would wave the
Reports on political debates and on the non-military operations of government
often were not what the politicians and officials wanted to read in the
newspapers, the censor decided. One suppressed news item read, "Governor
Boutwell has been invited to deliver an address here on February 22. Slight
snow storm." The censor refused to clear news of an agreement between the
secretary of the treasury and a congressional committee on the matter of a new
treasury note. Another bland story that never saw print reported "that the
Mexican government intends to issue letters of marque and reprisal for prey on
the commerce of France and Spain."
Military officers and government officials paid attention to news reports and
often reacted quickly. The official record of the war included many dispatches
in which one officer tried to set the record straight for another officer. In
October 1862, General John Pope cabled headquarters to explain that a river
crossing by land forces was slow and dangerous and that gunboats were
ineffective. "I write you frankly the facts, as I know you desire to have
them," Pope wrote. "The newspaper puffing concerning the gunboats has misled
the public greatly." Sometimes officers read in the newspapers their own
critical comments about another officer and then tried to recast what had
happened. On Oct. 21, 1862, General W.S. Rosencrans wrote to General U.S. Grant
to deny any efforts to spread division in the ranks. One day later, Rosencrans
complained to General Henry Halleck about "the spirit of mischief among the
mousing politicians on Grant's staff to get up in his mind a feeling of
jealousy." More than once officers indiscreetly defended themselves when
fellow officers suspected them of being the source of a leak. On July 8, 1862,
Halleck snapped at Grant, "The Cincinnati Gazette contains the substance of
your demanding reinforcements and my refusing them. You either have a newspaper
correspondent on your staff or your staff is very leaky. This publication did
not come from these headquarters." Headline-seeking officers sometimes
spoon fed favorable stories to reporters but then, when the heat was on, turned
around and blamed the press. In March 1862, General John Pope competed with
Navy officers for favorable coverage. At the same time Pope complained that
"newspaper puffing concerning the gunboats has misled the public greatly," the
Army general acknowledged that he, too, had leaked his own plan to blockade a
War coverage exposed contradictions in the American system, but conduct of the
war also showed that high-mindedness was not always in conflict with the
Constitution or commercialism. Soldiers said they fought for what they
believed. Correspondents said they went to the battlefield to inform the
country. The newspapers spent money on war coverage. They made money, too. War
changed news coverage, and changes in news coverage affected the public. When
technical advances in photography simplified the process of making multiple
copies, images from the battlefield brought the human cost of combat home for
every American. Matthew Brady shocked civilians with his 1862 New York exhibit
that documented combat death at Antietam. The New York Times editorialized,
"Mr. Brady has done something to bring us the terrible reality and earnestness
of the war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and
along the streets, he has done something very like it."
In an assessment shared by many historians, James Randall found that
"newspapers of the North, though in many ways deserving of admiration,
undoubtedly did the national cause serious injury" by revealing military
information, reporting official mistakes, puffing up generals, and focusing on
sensational aspects of war. Another historian put it this way: "[T]here is
no doubt that many newsmen – especially in the North – revealed secrets best
left unwritten, and many editors passed along material best left unpublished.
Some were in tune with the 1862 lament of the Cincinnati Commercial that ‘The
people want news more than they want victories'; some were so vehemently
opposed to the war that they wanted to interfere."
Much of the press coverage was very good. George Smalley of the New York
Tribune distinguished himself with his report from Antietam in
September 1862. The report was remarkable in two ways. Completed just two days
after the battle and filling five columns of newsprint, the article was both
thorough and well written. It also was important because it was the first
battlefield account to reach President Lincoln. Smalley, a Yale graduate and
one-time lawyer, put down his pen for a time during the battle to serve as
messenger for General Joseph Hooker. Smalley's story depicted the heat of
battle and the ebb and flow of attack and retreat. One passage read:
In ten minutes the fortune of the day seemed to have changed – it was the
Rebels now who were advancing; pouring out of the woods in endless lines,
sweeping through the cornfield from which their comrades had just fled. Hooker
sent in his nearest brigade to meet them, but it could not do the work. He
called for another. There was nothing close enough, unless he took it from his
right. His right might be in danger if it was weakened, but his center was
already threatened with annihilation. Not hesitating one moment, he sent to
Doubleday: ‘Give me your best brigade instantly.'
The best reporters told the story as they saw it, despite pressure to report
the official version. In 1862, government and military officials tried to
create the impression of Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley, where the
story as reporters saw it was the emergence of Confederate General Stonewall
Jackson as a formidable figure. From Lincoln on down, U.S. leaders
characterized the campaign as a "gallant battle" that left Jackson on the run.
Many reporters told the story that way, but "probably the most honest newspaper
account of the action" came when New York Times reporter Charles Webb
contradicted both the generals and his fellow colleagues. "These gentlemen,
whose feelings and sympathies so influence them that they cannot record
faithfully, will have a long account to settle with history some day," Webb
wrote. "… Will not truth and common sense satisfy the popular craving, or is it
always necessary to pander to the appetite that demands a victory in all cases,
an assurance that the enemy lost at least one more man than we?"
The President, the Generals, and the Press
Lincoln was a Washington outsider, the country lawyer from faraway Illinois,
the tall man with the stovepipe hat and a face that had been around. He was a
commanding and polarizing figure from the moment he arrived in Washington, both
the man of his time and a curiosity. "He lived in a glass mansion, his every
movement news," a writer said. Press coverage turned personal and nasty.
Writers called him ugly, awkward, and socially inept; they ridiculed the first
lady as plump and unfashionable. Some reporters knew Lincoln from his days in
Congress and remembered him more for his storytelling than for his work as a
lawmaker. Lincoln was accessible, but his press relations were haphazard.
Editors from around the country sent editorials to Lincoln's office in hopes of
influencing decisions, but Lincoln depended on bright men on his staff to let
through only news that mattered to him. Always the storyteller, the president
delighted in telling editors they should heed the call of the frightened man
who, when lost in the forest during a nighttime thunderstorm, knelt to pray, "O
Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little
Lincoln knew the power of public opinion and possessed the political skills to
move it his way. On the campaign trail, he had said: "Our government rests in
public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the
government." In his first inaugural address, he reasserted his respect for
public opinion when he said, "This country, with its institutions, belongs to
the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing
Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or
their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it." While in office,
he showed that same respect to reporters. Despite some of the ugliness written
about him, he was courteous and hospitable to correspondents, but when the War
Department banned a respected English reporter from the front, Lincoln did not
intervene on behalf of the reporter. When a dispute broke out in Washington
between officials' efforts to control the press and reporters who resented
those efforts, Lincoln revealed that he was a critic more than he was a
defender of the press. He complained that the "faultfinding of the press"
injured the government and that newspapers were too impatient. His charge
aroused opponents to fire back that the faultfinding spirit came from Lincoln
supporters. Once again ignoring personal criticism against him, the president
answered only that he hoped the Union press would be guided by a spirit of
"patriotism and fairness."
Throughout the war, Lincoln was an active commander in chief, frequently
communicating directly with commanders in the field, going in person to the
front lines to meet with generals, and inviting members of the press into his
office for private meetings. He loomed large over the country, and the people
were either strongly with him in his drive to halt secession by the
slave-holding South or bitterly opposed to him and his policies. The nation
chose sides, and so did the Northern press. Passions ran high, and frequently
public opinion incited violence against newspapers that took a position against
the Union cause. In only two years between August 1861 and August 1863, about a
dozen newspapers felt the pressure of mobs, military, or magistrates. Three New
York newspapers faced charges as Confederate sympathizers; federal authorities
seized a Louisville newspaper critical of the Union and arrested some of the
staff; a Union general shut down a St. Louis publication; and a group of
recuperating soldiers left their hospital in Iowa and ransacked the offices of
newspaper that had printed anti-Union articles.
At the front, officers often were frustrated by inaccurate news reports and by
stories that gave away military secrets. An example of inaccuracy happened at
Shiloh in 1862, and a colleague took the sloppy reporter to task and took on
the job of setting the record straight. The original story reported that a
widespread lack of planning allowed the enemy to overrun a camp and kill Union
soldiers as they slept. Harris said, "It was a damning indictment, although in
some particulars quite wrong. … [The reporter] had relied too much on the
testimony of terrified soldiers who had abandoned the fighting to seek safety
in the rear, and his anger led him into error." Three weeks later, another
reporter tried to explain that "you find it difficult to winnow the truth from
the bushel of falsehood. Here are the ordinary obstacles to learning the facts
about a battle – the jealousies, the cliques, the inordinate ambitions, the
untrust-worthiness of eyes and ears during periods of great excitement."
Release of military secrets was the hottest issue, and the role newspapers
played in informing the enemy bedeviled Union officers. The national reach of
big-city papers was a problem, but even local newspapers frequently ran
information about troop strength and movements. "I find some of the newspapers
frequently publish letters … giving important information concerning our
movements, positions of troops, … in positive violation of your orders,"
commander McClellan wrote to Secretary of War Stanton on May 27, 1862. "… I beg
you to suggest that another order be published holding the editors responsible
for its infraction." A mere nine days later, McClellan wrote Stanton that
orders on troop deployment were published in full in the Baltimore American.
"If any statement could afford more important information to the enemy, I am
unable to perceive it," McClellan wrote.
General William T. Sherman was the Army's most vocal press foe. He could skewer
the press with his sharp words, but when opportunities arose he could
manipulate the press to his advantage. His hatred of the press had its roots
early in the war. In the fall of 1861, Sherman asked for what the secretary of
war deemed excessive reinforcements. Sherman was relieved of command amid
stories that he was mentally unbalanced. General Halleck, Sherman's boss,
placed Sherman on leave of absence, explaining in a letter, "I am satisfied
that General Sherman's physical and mental system is so completely broken by
labor and care as to render him, for the present, unfit for duty; perhaps a few
weeks' rest may restore him." Soon afterward a newspaper reported that
Sherman was insane, and the news was reprinted around the country. That
left a scar. A lifelong friend of Sherman's confronted the Cincinnati editor
whose paper published the report and asked him to explain. "He answered, quite
cavalierly, that it was one of the news-items of the day, and he had to keep up
with the time; but he would be most happy to publish any correction I might
make, as though I could deny such a malicious piece of scandal affecting
myself," Sherman wrote.
After that, Sherman never missed an opportunity to blast reporters and
newspapers. "I never see my name in print without a feeling of contamination,
and I will undertake to forego half of my salary if the newspapers will ignore
my name," he reported to headquarters in 1863. After taking Atlanta,
Sherman outlined the conditions of Union occupation in which he delivered a
shot at the press, advising city fathers to "seek truth elsewhere." The
press was distasteful, but that did not keep Sherman from using it to an
advantage. On the eve of his march to the sea, Sherman leaked plans to The New
York Times.  Not knowing the source of the leak, Grant warned
Stanton to expect the enemy armed with the information to put up strong
resistance, and Stanton replied in matter-of-fact fashion, "If he cannot keep
from telling his plans to paymasters, and his staff are permitted to send them
broadcast over the land, the Department cannot prevent their publication."
Six weeks into the march, Sherman wired his president the he had delivered
Savannah as a Christmas gift, delivering as well a public-relations triumph
with the widely reported boast. Six months into the march, he did it again.
Approaching Washington in triumph, the general told headquarters to "let some
one [at a] newspaper know that the vandal Sherman is encamped near the canal
bridge …, where his friends, if any, can find him. Though in disgrace he is
untamed and unconquered."
He saved his final verdict until publication of his memoirs 11 years after the
war. Acknowledging no part in leaks, gossip, or controversy, Sherman wrote:
Newspaper correspondents with an army, as a rule, are mischievous. They are the
world's gossips, pick up and retail the camp scandal, and gradually drift to
the headquarters of some general, who finds it easier to make reputation at
home than with his own corps or division. … [T]hey are always bound to see
facts colored by the partisan or political character of their own patrons, and
thus bring army officers into the political controversies of the day, which are
always mischievous and wrong. Yet, so greedy are the people at large for war
news, that it is doubtful whether any army commander can exclude all reporters,
without bringing down on himself a clamor that may imperil his own safety.
Grant stood by Sherman when the insanity stories circulated. Sherman stood by
Grant when reports said he was a drunk. They also stood together in their views
of the press. Like Sherman, Grant thought the press got in the way of his army.
But like Lincoln, Grant used a soft touch to deal with the press. On one
occasion, the New York Herald appealed to Lincoln to overrule
Sherman's decision to ban a reporter from his camp. Lincoln left the matter in
Grant's hands, and Grant refused to veto Sherman's order. Grant's ability
to handle a difficult matter without stirring up controversy was tested again
when a correspondent lied to gain access to Grant's inner circle. Grant allowed
into camp a writer named Swinton, who claimed only to be gathering information
for a history of the war to be published after end of hostilities. Later,
another officer kicked Swinton out of camp for eavesdropping on a conversation
between Grant and General George Meade. Grant next heard of Swinton after he
was arrested and ordered shot at Cold Harbor. Grant said, "I promptly ordered
the prisoner to be released, but that he must be expelled from the lines of the
army not to return again on pain of punishment."
Grant also knew how to get cozy with the press on his own terms. He rewarded a
correspondent friendly to him with special treatment, permitting the reporter
to accompany the general in the field and allowing that reporter exclusive
access to Grant's command post at Vicksburg. A New York Herald reporter
named Keim also earned Grant's favor and developed a friendship that lasted
after the war. Some historians said a Keim article that praised Grant for his
tactics and ability as a commander contributed to Grant's selection as
commander. It was common for an officer to develop a close relationship
with a particular reporter. Generals Rosencrans, Butler, and Hancock had their
favorites. Even Sherman eventually allowed New York correspondent Henry
Villard to become a regular companion. Smalley's admiration for Hooker
grew, having begun at Antietam, where Smalley revealed, "I see no reason why I
should disguise my admiration of Gen. Hooker's bravery and soldierly
ability." Writing about General John Freemont, Webb of The New York Times
described respect tempered with a note of skepticism:
I have never met Fremont before, and if I never meet him again, I must say that
I like him immensely. If you ask me why, now, the reply will be because he
looks so splendidly on horseback. He has marched his men well, and managed to
keep them in good fighting order without rations; but the campaign, after all,
but begins with a battle, and until this is ended I shall not crown any man
with a laurel wreath.
Congress Investigates Censorship
By early 1862, military-press relations had deteriorated. Correspondents
considered their acceptance of voluntary censorship a meaningful compromise,
and then they thought the government took censorship too far. Meanwhile, Union
officers were blaming defeat in the field on disclosure of military information
in the Northern newspapers. On Feb. 25, 1862, the War Department took over
censorship from the State Department. That day the secretary of war ordered
editors not to telegraph any sensitive military information, and he empowered
army commanders and local police to arrest violators and stop delivery of
The military had taken the offensive against the press. But the issue of
censorship went beyond the press and the military. By the time of the February
order, Congress was more than two months into an investigation of the
effectiveness and legality of government censorship. The investigation asked
several questions. Were the rules clear? Did the censor apply them properly?
Did censorship go too far? Did newsmen comply? Were reporters reckless with
information useful to the enemy? The 14-page report of the House Committee on
the Judiciary found that censors, not the reporters, had gone too far, and that
the government, not the press, had used poor judgment. The report read:
The censorship seems to have been without any clearly defined limits, after the
departure from the original agreement between General McClellan and the
representatives of the press. A wide discretion was placed in the hands of a
person poorly qualified to exercise it.
No adequate measures seem to have been adopted to prevent the transmission of
what the censor denominated ‘contraband' intelligence …. The want of system
could produce delay and vexation, but could not accomplish the design of the
officer controlling the censorship.
… Despatches [sic], almost numberless, of a political, personal, and general
character have been suppressed by the censor, and correspondents have been
deterred from preparing others because they knew they could not send them to
their papers by telegraph.
That report came early in the war. As the fighting intensified and dragged on,
the detail in that March 1862 report faded. The lasting story about news
coverage during the Civil War developed, expressed by these words in a paper
presented to the Air Command and Staff College in 1997: "[B]y the time of the
Civil War, the media could publish military information while events were
actually occurring. Newspapers quickly became the source of intelligence. As a
result, the Civil War saw the start of military censorship of the media."
History further recorded that Civil War officers blamed defeat on the media,
distrusted the patriotism of reporters, considered them subversives motivated
by vanity and profit, and found newspapers liberal or, worse, reckless with
military information. James Randall, a leading Civil War and Lincoln
scholar in the first half of the 20th century, declared voluntary censorship a
failure because "it placed too great a strain upon the consciences of
correspondents and gave too great an advantage to certain less scrupulous
papers." But journalism historian Quintus Wilson said that fault did not
rest with reporters but with the government that went too far. He found "no
disposition to complain of the suppression of dispatches of military
character." The House committee's findings supported Wilson's analysis.
The United States began the war amid predictions of quick Union victory. In
July 1861, reality hit at Bull Run, and the government and military responded
with attempts to convince reporters that the panic and retreat they witnessed
was not Union defeat at all. A once-respected correspondent from England told
it as he had seen it, and his American press colleagues and the U.S. government
vilified him. Through the chaos at Bull Run and the smoke from official
sources, reporter Henry Villard rode into journalistic legend. He saddled his
horse and rode 18 hours to Washington to file the first account, which ran in
the New York Herald under the headline "The Disaster at Bull's Run."
Writing from the viewpoint of "we" the Americans, Villard wrote, "We were
retreating in good order, the rear well covered with a solid column, when a
panic among our troops suddenly occurred, and a regular stampede took
That turning point in American expectations marked a turning point in
military-press relations. The government saw clearly the risks in front-line
reporting, and the newspapers saw the risk of official manipulation. Less than
two months later, a reporter asked Sherman for an interview. Sherman refused
and ordered the reporter home on the next train. The reporter appealed, telling
the general that his newspaper only wanted to learn the truth. "We don't want
the truth told about things here," Sherman thundered. "… We don't want the
enemy any better informed than he is."
In varying degrees, that argument lasted until Appomattox.
Conclusion: The Civil War and Censorship
News coverage from the U.S.-Mexican War through the Civil War helped readers
feel the excitement and pressure of battle. "Journalism in the Civil War, then,
was not so much different as bigger, more prominent, and, as people anxiously
followed campaigns that involved their husbands and brothers and sons, more
important to ordinary people," a historian said. "The war pushed the
newspaper closer to the center of the national consciousness." The New York
Herald sent 40 correspondents at a time to cover combat and grew to 12
pages of news a day. The largest newspaper circulation belonged to the Herald,
which printed about 80,000 copies and raised the cover price twice during the
war. The New York Tribune distributed 300,000 copies of its Sunday
Indeed the American people rushed to get the daily news. Newspaper publishers
proved during the Mexican and Civil wars that he who writes about war is bound
to profit. Psychologist Lawrence Leshan found that readers responded most to
stories that made fighting men seem heroic. "The fresher the news, and the
greater the mythic character it gave our men in the fray, the more newspapers
it sold." Leshan found. "… The public grabbed this opportunity with enthusiasm,
and its appetite for [news] was eagerly exploited by the press."
The profit motive was insufficient, however, to fully explain the motives of
reporters. At Gettysburg, New York Times reporter Sam Wilkeson came
upon the lifeless body of his son. He went on with his work that day, and the
story he filed reflected his personal sadness along with careful description of
the landmark battle. "Musketry preceded the rising of the sun," Wilkeson began.
"A thick wood veiled this fight, but out of the leafy darkness arose the smoke
and the surging and swelling of the fire …. [Suddenly the firing ceased
mid-morning.] A silence of deep sleep fell upon the field of battle." It
could not have been hope for glory or profit that drove Wilkeson that day. He
signed on to get the story to Americans, despite any hardship, even when the
hardship included the otherwise-searing grief of finding a dead son. He did his
All evidence suggests that most soldiers and reporters shared the drive to
serve their country. But their disciplines were distinct, and they had
different ideas about service. Soldiers were part of carefully orchestrated
plans and highly disciplined actions. Reporters were anything but organized and
By 1861, the United States was seven decades beyond the birth of the democracy
and had the experience of numerous wars. Press freedom, that uniquely American
concept, was well established, a dependable shield for reporters but a
frustrating reality for military leaders. "It is impossible to carry on a war
with a free press," Sherman said. And Henry Villard, the reporter who broke
through to Washington with news of Bull Run, came to see the situation
similarly. "If I were a commanding general, I would not tolerate any of the
tribe within my army lines," he said.
The military had a tradition of criticism and reform, and the Civil War quickly
became another training ground. By the time war came, five military academies
existed in the United States, including West Point, founded in 1802. The
military had a tradition of self-assessment through study of theory and
history. The U.S. military cemented its commitment to preserving history after
the Civil War when the War Department compiled five years of orders, reports,
and messages into a rich 128 volumes called The War of the Rebellion: A
Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
By contrast, the American press operated day to day in an environment that did
not encourage reassessment and reform. No university offered journalism
training until 1908. The first national journalism review did not come along
until 1962. The organization called Military Reporters and Editors was founded
only in 2002. A 1978 study found failure by journalism historians to penetrate
philosophical and methodological issues and to develop alternative
The absence of scholarship did not obscure key issues, for anyone who took a
notebook into a combat zone felt tension and wanted to ease it. War
correspondent Joe Galloway, as if to represent combat reporters over time,
described his experience for the Air War College in 1996. From combat, he said,
he got good stories and "something far more important: A whole new crop of
comrades-in-arms and friends-for-life. We had trusted each other with our
lives." He urged mutual understanding and respect between the military and
the media – professions the founding fathers thought so important that they
specified duties, responsibilities, and rights in the Constitution and the Bill
of Rights. Galloway continued:
Some of you seated here today – the best and brightest of our nation's
defenders – are convinced that the press is your enemy. In any similar
gathering of reporters there would, no doubt, be some who believe the same
thing of you. This is a national tragedy.
The Civil War proved that both institutions had work to do to prove that their
expressions of high purpose were honest. On the front lines, soldiers and
reporters could be brothers and could still perform brilliantly. But the men
who occupied the offices of the government and the newspapers lived in separate
worlds. Some officials misused censorship, and some editors gave in to a
rushed, chaotic news process that sometimes distorted what was already
dramatic, confused what were complex realities, or revealed what should have
been kept secret. A final assessment came from Randall, the attentive
historian: "[V]oluntary restraint or popular pressure had far greater effect in
keeping improper material out of the newspapers than official repression."
This final cautionary note in his memoirs came from Sherman, the fiery general:
"Time and moderation must bring a just solution to this modern difficulty."
Show Footnotes and
. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, trans.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 13-14.
. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of
Western Power (New York: Anchor Books, 2001),437.
. Donald S. Frazier, "Communications," in The United States and Mexico at
War: Nineteenth-Century Expansionism and Conflict (New York:
Macmillan, 1998), 103.
. John L. O'Sullivan, "The Great Nation of Futurity," The United States
Democratic Review 6, no. 23 (November 1839): 426-430.
. Treaties and Conventions between the United States of America and Other
Powers Since July 4, 1776, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing
. Nathaniel Lande, Dispatches from the Front ( New York: Henry Holt
and Co., 1995), 62-63.
. "Latest from the Army," Yankee Doodle, 26 November 1846, 114.
. George H. Douglas, The Golden Age of the Newspaper (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1999), 1-9.
. Tom Reilly, "Newspapers: U.S. Press," in The United States and Mexico at
war: nineteenth-century expansionism and conflict, ed. Donald S.
Frazier (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 294.
. Frank L. Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United
States through 260 Years: 1690 to 1950 (New York: MacMillan, 1950),
. Reilly, "Newspapers: U.S. Press," 296.
. Jesus Velasco-Marquez, "Newspapers: Mexican Press," in The United States
and Mexico at war: nineteenth-century expansionism and conflict, ed.
Donald S. Frazier (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 294.
. Reilly, "Newspapers: U.S. Press," 296.
. Lande, Dispatches from the Front, 76-77.
. Brayton Harris, Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the
Civil War (Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 200), 2.
. Quintus C. Wilson, "Voluntary press censorship during the Civil War," Journalism
Quarterly, 19 (1942): p. 251.
. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Report on Telegraph Censorship,
Report No. 64 (Washington, D.C.: Committee on the Judiciary, 20 March 1862), 2.
. Ibid., 2.
. Ibid., 3.
. Harold M. Evans, "The combat correspondent: a look at war reporting, from
Caesar's commentaries to cell phones, Media Studies Journal 15, no. 1
(Summer 2001), pp. 3-4.
. U.S. Congress, Report on Telegraph Censorship, 7-8.
. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington,
D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897), Ser. 1, Vol. 8, p. 635, Cornell
University Making of America database (29 September 2006). (Hereafter Official
. Ibid., Ser.1, Vol. 17, pp. 283-287.
. Ibid., Ser. 1, Vol. 17, p. 83.
. Ibid., Ser. 1, Vol. 8, p. 635.
. Michael Browning, "War photos that changed history," Palm Beach Post,
12 May 2004.
. James G. Randall, "The Newspaper Problem in Its Bearing upon Military
Secrecy During the Civil War," The American Historical Review 23, no.
2 (January 1918): 303.
. Harris, Blue & Gray, 321.
. Lande, Dispatches from the Front, 107.
. J. Cutler Andrews, The North reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1955), 259.
. Ibid., 259.
. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press. (New York: McGraw-Hill,
. Ibid., 92-97.
. Abraham Lincoln, speech at a Republican banquet, Chicago, 10 December
1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2 (Camden: Rutgers
University Press, 1990): 385.
. Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address, 4 March 1861, Yale Law School
Avalon Project (9 September 2006).
. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, 95.
. Ibid., 130.
. John S. Bowman, ed., The Civil War almanac (New York: World
Almanac Publications, 1983), 63-162.
. Harris, Blue & Gray, 154.
. U.S. War Department, Official Records, Ser.1, Vol. 2, p. 194)
. U.S. War Department, Ser.1, Vol. 2, p. 214).
. William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (New
York: D. Appleton, 1876): 217.
. Joseph H.Ewing, "The New Sherman Letters," American Heritage Magazine
(July-August 1987): 3.
. Sherman, Memoirs, 216.
. U.S. War Department, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 30, p. 358.
. Sherman, pp. 126-127).
. Sherman's new, 1864).
. U.S. War Department, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, p. 740).
. Sherman, Memoirs, 231.
. U.S. War Department, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 47, p. 531).
. Sherman, Memoirs, 408-409.
. Ewing, "The New Sherman Letters," 8.
. Grant, p. 145).
. J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War, 67.
. Ibid., 67.
. Ibid., 67.
. Mott, American Journalism, 338.
. Lande, Dispatches from the Front, 109.
. J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War, 67. 259.
. U.S. War Department, Official Records, Ser. 2, Vol. 2, p. 246).
. U.S. Congress, Report on Telegraph Censorship, 12-13.
. Raymond R. Hill Jr., The Future of Military-Media Relationship: The Media
as Actor in War Execution (Air Command and Staff College, 1997): 7.
. Douglas Porch, "No Bad Stories:" The American Media-Military Relationship
(Naval War College Review 55, no. 1 (Winter 2002).
. Randall, "The Newspaper Problem in Its Bearing upon Military Secrecy
During the Civil War," 305.
. Wilson, "Voluntary press censorship during the Civil War," 256.
. Harris, Blue & Gray, 89-96.
. Henry Villard, "The Disaster at Bull's Run," The New York Herald,
23 July 1861, in A Treasury of Great Reporting, eds. Louis L. Snyder
and Richard B. Morris (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), 135.
. Peter Andrews, "The Media and the Military," American Heritage Magazine
(August-September 1991): 1.
. Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American
Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 67.
. Douglas, The Golden Age of the Newspaper, 56.
. Lawrence Leshan, The Psychology of War: Comprehending the Mystique and
Its Madness (Chicago: The Noble Press, 1992), 60.
. Sam Wilkeson, "Gettysburg: A Dispatch Written Beside the body of My Dead
Son," The New York Times, 4 July 1863, in The Mammoth Book of War
Correspondents, ed. J.E. Jones (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001),
. Ewing, "The New Sherman Letters," 2.
. Ibid., 2.
. Roy Atwood, "New Directions for Journalism Historiography," paper
presented at Association for Education in Journalism, Seattle, Wash., August
. Joe Galloway, "The Military and the Media: One Man's Experience," speech
delivered at Commandant's Lecture Series, Air War College, Maxwell Air Force
Base, Ala., 22 October 1996.
. Randall, "The Newspaper Problem in Its Bearing upon Military Secrecy
During the Civil War," 323.
. Sherman, Memoirs, 409.
Copyright © 2008 Rob Dean.
Written by Rob Dean. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Rob Dean at:
About the author:
Rob Dean is a newspaper editor in Santa Fe, N.M. He is on track to earn a master of arts in military history from Norwich University in Vermont in June 2008. His primary interests are civil-military relations and World War II. He earned a B.A. in journalism and history-political science at the University of Montana.
Published online: 05/17/2008.