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Civil War Articles
The Third Day at Gettysburg
Colonel Patrick O'Rorke
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Ringgold Cavalry in Alleghenies
Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
15th Illinois Infantry
8th New Hampshire Infantry
Confederate Railroad
Shenandoah Campaign
Fredericksburg Campaign
Commanders and Censors
Unconventional Warfare
Sun Tzu and Overland Campaign
ACW Military Theory
Bear Creek Massacre
Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The City Point Explosion
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
The Maple Leaf Adventure
The Battle of Pea Ridge
History of 138th PA
The Battle of Franklin
Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
Battle of Wilson's Creek
Life and Death of the 10th NJ Inf
The Death of General Zook
Barrancas: The First Shots
Custer and the Battle of Waynesboro
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle Rainbow
The Mistake of All Mistakes
Stony Hill Tour
6th WI at Gettysburg
Witmer Farm
Barlow's Knoll
Wheatfield at Gettysburg

Rob Dean Articles
Commanders and Censors
Small Battle: Big Implications
Why the Bulge Didn't Break

Recommended Reading


The Peloponnesian War


Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power


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Commanders, Correspondents, and the Constitution: The Birth of Conflict between the Military and the Free Press during the Civil War
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.[1]

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 strategy.[2]

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 war reporting.

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."[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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 Scott.

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 …."[6]

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."[7]

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.[8] 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 historian wrote.[9]

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.[10]

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."[11] 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 States."[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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 society."[15]

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.[16] 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."[17] 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.[18]

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 concluded.[19]

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 flag."[20]

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."[21]

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."[22] 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."[23] 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."[24] 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 river.[25]

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."[26]

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.[27] 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."[28]

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.'[29]

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.[30] "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?"[31]

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.[32] 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 less noise!"[33]

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."[34] 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."[35] 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.[36] 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."[37]

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.[38]

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."[39]

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."[40] 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.[41]

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."[42] Soon afterward a newspaper reported that Sherman was insane, and the news was reprinted around the country.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] 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."[46] 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. [47] 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."[48] 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.[49] 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."[50]

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.[51]

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.[52] 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."[53]

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.[54] 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.[55] It was common for an officer to develop a close relationship with a particular reporter. Generals Rosencrans, Butler, and Hancock had their favorites.[56] Even Sherman eventually allowed New York correspondent Henry Villard to become a regular companion.[57] 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."[58] 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.[59]

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 newspapers.[60]

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.[61]

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."[62] 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.[63] 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."[64] 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."[65] 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.[66] 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 place."[67]

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."[68]

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.[69] "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 paper.[70]

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."[71]

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."[72] 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 job.

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 disciplined.

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.[73] 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.[74]

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 perspectives.[75]

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."[76] 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.[77]

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."[78] 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."[79]

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Rob Dean.

Written by Rob Dean. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Rob Dean at:
RKDean4680@aol.com.

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.
© 2014 MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: militaryhistoryonline@hotmail.com