BASED ON THE BOOK, WAR NEWS: Blue & Gray in Black & White, by Brayton Harris




by Brayton Harris


THE ORIGIN of the "war correspondent," like the origin of any species, is shrouded by imperfect history. We know it happened, we just don't know when and how.

There have been writers on war, whether as participant or historian, as long as there have been war and writing, and in cultures lacking the latter, the former has been recorded in pictures. The term "war correspondent" was early and easily attached to anyone who sent letters from a war zone to a newspaper, whether as working newsman or merely a literate member of an armed force.

There were, however, two pre-conditions: there had to be a newspaper to which the correspondence might be sent, and "newspapers," as we know them, did not begin to appear in any appreciable numbers until the 1840s. And there had to be a convenient war.

Thus, the first professional war correspondent may have been George Kendall, one of five or six otherwise anonymous American journalists attending the Mexican War of 1846-48. Kendall was covering for the New Orleans Picayune (of which he was co-founder and editor) and the group, which worked in close cooperation, included a representative of the New Orleans Delta and at least one journalist on the payroll of the New York Herald. Building on a Herald experiment of 1845, utilizing horseback messengers across the plains, steamboats up the rivers and the first newly-installed telegraph lines for the last leg of the journey, they managed to get copies of their dispatches to Washington well before any army reports, and into print before any official government announcements. They thus demonstrated the sort of enterprise which was to be a major feature of Civil War reporting, but otherwise seem to have had so little impact that many histories of that war—or of journalism—fail to mention their effort.

A few years later, another small group of journalists went to war, but with more measurable effect. Edwin Lawrence Godkin of the London Daily news, Thomas Chenery and William Howard Russell of the London Times, and Richard C. McCormick of the New York Evening Post were witnesses to the Crimean War, 1854-56. They 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.

The British correspondents had a significant impact on both the war and the government. Because of their reports citing deplorable conditions at the Crimean front—a grossly inadequate supply system, bone-headed leadership, and a grotesque shortage of medical staff and facilities--they were blamed for the downfall of a British government and indirectly held responsible for the death (from poor health aggravated by shame) of the British commander, Lord Raglan. The government tried to counter the criticism with carefully staged photographs of happy, healthy soldiers in the battle zone. The effort failed; Florence Nightingale's pioneering ministrations came in direct response to reports of the shabby treatment of British wounded.

Russell was the standout, a careful, thorough reporter who took nothing for granted, who assembled widely separated points of view into a coherent whole, and who wrote in a readable, swinging style. He went on to establish a reputation as the world's leading war correspondent. Russell brought his professionalism to the American Civil War, where he proved that his reputation was well-deserved—but as we shall see, his efforts may be more appreciated in our time than they were in his.

This book is not about Russell, but through the early period of the war he was important as both reporter and subject of the news, and must be given his due. However, he was but one of perhaps five hundred journalists assigned by newspapers, North, South and international, to participate in the first truly public war. This book is an exploration of their individual and collective efforts.


The brilliant mission of the newspaper is . . . to be, the high priest of history, the vitalizer of society, the world's great informer, the earth's high censor, the medium of public thought and opinion, and the circulating life blood of the whole human mind. It is the great enemy of tyrants and the right arm of liberty, and is destined, more than any other agency, to melt and mold the jarring and contending nations of the world into . . . one great brotherhood . . .
--Samuel Bowles, editor-publisher of the Springfield Republican 1851

THE TYPICAL AMERICAN NEWSPAPER in the early years of the 19th Century was a journal of opinion, a cheerleader for politicians, a vehicle for cultured discourse and cultural pretension. It was not, however, much of a news paper. Few editors made any effort to leave the office to gather information, and much of what they did publish about the world outside their door came to them in the mail: letters from subscribers; copies of speeches which may or may not have been delivered; copies of other newspapers, part of an informal system of exchange, from which interesting items could freely be appropriated.

However, within the space of a very few years, advancing technologies, increasing literacy and journalistic enterprise would change the American newspaper forever. The metamorphosis perhaps began in 1828, when a man named David Hale bought the New York Journal of Commerce and demonstrated the commercial value of enlightened competition. At that time, most New York newspapers obtained news from Europe–of interest to businessmen throughout the city--by picking up copies of foreign newspapers from newly-arrived ships. Hale found a better way: he purchased a fast schooner and stationed it outside the entrance to New York harbor to meet incoming ships, gather up copies of the European newspapers, and head for port under full sail. By the time the newcomers were tied up or anchored and ready to receive visitors, the Journal of Commerce would already have posted the news on an increasingly popular public bulletin board. Then, since the ships from Europe might arrive at any time during the day, Hale began issuing an afternoon edition of his morning paper—an "extra" edition, if you will, thus launching a peculiarity of American journalism which would burst into full flower during the Civil War.

Hale's next innovation was a "pony express" to gather state news (especially on election day). One of Hale's editors soon learned this trade, and split off to start his own newspaper. In 1830, his Boston Atlas and was able to publish returns from every town in Massachusetts by nine o'clock of the morning after the election. Other competitors got the message, and by 1833 there were at least two pony express routes between New York and Washington. (Within a few years, they would be replaced by a newly-established railroad.)

One of those enlightened by Hale's success was a thirty-nine-year-old immigrant from Scotland, James Gordon Bennett. In 1835, with ten years newspaper experience under his belt and a largely-borrowed stake of five hundred dollars, he rented a basement office and invented the modern newspaper—the New York Herald. He was to set the style and tone of much of what subsequently would pass for American journalism; he offered this editorial prescription in the first edition of the Herald:

What is to prevent a daily newspaper from being made the greatest organ of social life? Books have had their day–the theaters have had their day–the temple of religion has had its day. A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all these in the great movements of human thought and of human civilization. A newspaper can send more souls to Heaven, and save more from Hell, than all the churches or chapels in New York—besides making money at the same time.

It would be hard to verify the accuracy of the first part of that final sentence, but the rest was prophetic: the Herald funded its coverage of the Civil War at a level of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year and Bennett was able to refuse a post-war purchase offer of two million dollars.

The Herald was filled with crime and scandal—and innovation. In 1836, Bennett published what was probably the first newspaper "interview" (with the madam of a house of ill repute in which an inmate had been murdered), but he also gets credit for establishing the Wall Street report as a regular newspaper feature, and engineered a change in the rules of Congress to allow attendance by journalists representing papers published outside of the District of Columbia. He made his newspaper, well, interesting. The New Orleans Picayune had him dead to rights: "The Herald may be said to represent, in one particular, the genius of the universal Yankee nation--that is, in its supreme regard for what is vulgarly called the main chance." Horace Greeley was to join Bennett as one of the most influential newspapermen of the age, if not of all time. Greeley started as a printer's apprentice, and in the 1830s moved on to become an editor and writer of political tracts for the conservative Whig Party. In 1841, he founded the New York Tribune.

If Bennett thought to be a sort of benign Pied Piper and make money, Greeley's announced intention was "to advance the interests of the people, and to promote their Moral, Political and Social well-being." He promised that "the immoral and degrading Police Reports, Advertisements, and other matter which have been allowed to disgrace the columns of our leading Penny Papers, will be carefully excluded from this, and no exertion will be spared to render it worthy of the virtuous and refine, and a welcome visitant at the family fireside."

The Tribune was launched as a Whig daily, but in 1854, disenchanted with that party's ambivalence toward slavery, Greeley helped to organize, and shifted his editorial allegiance to, the Republican Party. He thenceforth became the self-anointed messiah of abolition, sent forth with his newspaper to savage the forces of slavery and to salvage mankind.

The Herald and the Tribune, of course, were not the only innovative newspapers in the nation, but their efforts were representative and their influence was transcendent. Newspapers began to shift from a limited local focus to coverage of a broader scene. The Herald established a European bureau in 1838; by 1850, the Tribune had at least sixteen designated "correspondents" writing letters under contract, with three full-time correspondents in Washington and part-time stringers in California, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, and nine in other countries.
Another major factor in Civil War journalism was Henry J. Raymond, who spent the first nine years of his adult life working for Horace Greeley. The two men became increasingly disenchanted with each other, and Raymond split off in 1848 to pursue what was to become a dual career. He was elected to the New York State legislature in 1849, elected Speaker in 1851, and launched the New York Times that same year. It was his vision that good newspaper might come somewhere between the Herald and the Tribune. In his first editorial, he pledged that the Times would uphold "every just effort to reform society, to infuse higher elements of well-being into our political and social organizations, and to improve the condition and character of our fellow men."

Raymond's strained relationship with Greeley was irrevocably broken in 1854 when Greeley wanted the party's nomination for lieutenant governor of New York—and Raymond won, not only the nomination but the office. Raymond would hold other elective offices during the Civil War, while at the same time running his newspaper. Greeley ran his newspaper during the Civil War, while at the same time trying to gain elective office. When New York Senator William H. Seward—who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination—was given a cabinet post as secretary of State, Greeley asked President Lincoln to support his candidacy for the senate seat; the president gently declined. Greeley also was himself to be an (unsuccessful) candidate for president in 1872. As one of his associates once remarked, "Mr. Greeley would be the greatest journalist in America if he did not aim to be one of the leading politicians in America."

The year the Herald was founded was a seminal year in the history of communications. The world's first news agency began operations, linking London and Paris by carrier pigeon, the number of miles of operational railroad track in the United States passed the one-thousand mark, and Samuel F. B. Morse created his code for reducing written letters into an audible or visible series of dots and dashes. Two years later, Isaac Pitman introduced a different sort of code, a method of quick or "short-hand" writing by which newspapers were able to offer verbatim reports of public and political speeches—much to the distress of the speakers, who preferred to leave a written copy of their remarks with favored journals.

Then, in 1844, came the technological breakthrough that would help free journalism forever from the constraints of the mail bag. Morse transmitted the first public telegraph message --"What hath God wrought"–by sending electrical impulses over wires strung between Baltimore and Washington, DC. The electro-magnetic "telegraph" was not a new idea, but Morse made it practical. However, since the term "telegraph" (from the Greek words for distance and writing) already was applied to various forms of signaling devices, his invention was for some years differentiated in the press by the adjective, "magnetic."

This telegraph was a mixed blessing, providing rapid transmission of the news but at considerable cost. The Washington-to-New York tariff for a typical 2000-word newspaper column was about $100; from New Orleans to New York, perhaps $450; this, at a time when the man writing the column might have earned less than ten dollars for his effort. To reduce telegraphic charges, the correspondents frequently eliminated prepositions, conjunctions, and unnecessary words to a point where intelligibility disappeared. Here, an example from the April 18, 1863 Savannah Daily News:

Jackson, April 17–Eight boats passed Vicksburg last night; one burnt two disabled five succeeded. Rumor canal Milliken's Bend reach Mississippi near New Carthage believed construction Batteries opposite Vicksburg paid burn bridge Big Black Vicksburg attacked within ten 10 days all officers absent ordered report opposite Vicksburg sixty-four 64 steamers left Memphis for Vicksburg soldiers niggers nor papers allowed below Cairo Yankees fortifying Rolla RR north Memphis Bulleting argus suppressed editors arrested.


In the earlier days of the telegraph, the more affluent papers quickly learned how to use wealth to competitive advantage on fast-breaking news, by plugging up the wire with a wad of dummy copy to prevent transmission of a rival's dispatch. One common tactic: the reporter would to rush to the telegraph office before he had even written his own story, and hand the telegrapher a pocket Bible open to the first page, with the instruction, "Start sending at Genesis and don't stop 'till I say so." He could then polish his copy, to be sent when ready, while any exasperated competitors could only wait.

To forestall such un-gentlemanly behavior and impose some fairness, the telegraph companies established the "fifteen minute system," whereby each customer was allowed to send material in blocks of fifteen minutes. The telegrapher would send copy until the allotted time had expired, then shift to the copy of another for fifteen minutes, and so on, until returning to the first customer for another fifteen minutes of glory.

This, however, satisfied none of the newspapermen. Hale suggested to Bennett that they might pool their interests. They did—along with those of the Tribune, the Sun, the Express and the Courier and Enquirer to form the "New York Associated Press" early in 1849. (The Times was added afer it began publication in 1851.) Subscribing newspapers around the nation were permitted to copy any given report, providing that they paid a share of the telegraphic costs, thus substantially reducing the price tag for everyone. The New York Associated Press quickly grew into a major business enterprise on its own, with additional bureaus in Washington and Albany, a staff of fifty agents culling news from local papers for re-transmission to members, and favorable contracts with the American Telegraph Company and Western Union.

As the war intruded, a "Southern Associated Press" tired to fill in the gaps, but midway through the war, when editors complained of high prices and poor service, a rival "Press Association of the Confederate States of America" was established, with headquarters in Atlanta and about twenty correspondents in the field. Members could count on a weekly report of about 3,500 words for a flat rate of twelve dollars, ten cents a word for additional material. The Press Association made a special effort to ensure objectivity but in this, was not entirely successful. Some newspapers complained that they were being forced to pay telegraph charges for editorials and speculation.

By 1860—only a dozen or so years after Kendall's pioneering effort at war correspondence--the "telegraph" had become a fifty-thousand-mile network, Kansas to the Atlantic seaboard, and a San Francisco-New York telegraph line was opened in 1861. (A trans-Atlantic cable had been put into service in 1858, but the insulation failed; the cable handled 750 messages in a week, and died. The wartime replacement: fast boats and tight scheduling. From the North, copy would be sent to New York or Boston and put aboard the earliest trans-Atlantic packet. Near the coast of Ireland, the dispatches were placed in a phosphorescent floating buoy and tossed overboard, to be retrieved by a local boat and hustled off to the nearest city with a telegraph for transmission to London and retransmission to the rest of Europe. Dispatches from the South were carried in returning blockade-runners or by diplomatic pouch from the French consulate at Richmond.)

Publishing news received by telegraph became as much a marketing ploy as a journalistic service, highlighted in special columns headed "News from the Magnetic Telegraph." Not everyone, however, appreciated the benefits of the telegraph. Out-going President James Buchanan shared his concerns in a December, 1860 letter to James Gordon Bennett:

I do not know whether the great commercial and social advantages of the telegraph are not counterbalanced by its political evils. No one can judge of this so well as myself. The public mind throughout the interior is kept in a constant state of excitement by what are called "telegrams." They are short and spicy, and can easily be inserted in the country newspapers. In the city journals they can be contradicted the next day; but the case is different throughout the country.

Six weeks later, the editor of the Philadelphia Morning Pennsylvanian offered this caution to his readers:

Every day's experience and observation more and more convinces us that that great institution, the magnetic telegraph, instead of being a blessing, is a curse to the country. . . . We warn the people to beware of this new power in our midst . . . .

And beware also, the editor wrote, the motives of the telegraph company:

Its whole stock in trade consists in the perpetual excitement of the community—in a morbid appetite for startling news and a monomania for extravagant and almost incredible rumors; because this diseased condition of the public mind furnishes a market for the sale of improved "extras" and "sensation" newspapers—bringing grist to two mills—the telegraph and the printing office.

That sounds a bit like "sour grapes." Perhaps the Morning Pennsylvanian could not much afford the use of the telegraph . . .

Coupled with the growth of a literate population—the literacy rate among Northern whites reached eighty-nine percent in 1850--the number of active newspapers in the United States quadrupled between 1825 and 1860. There were almost 2,500 on the eve of the Civil War (twice as many in the North as in the South, and with four times the circulation). At least 373 of these were published daily, perhaps eighty of which were in the South. New York alone supported seventeen daily newspapers, and thanks to convenient rail service, the Herald, Tribune and Times offered same-day home delivery in Washington. (Washington entered the war with three dailies of its own, none of which could compete with the New York papers in style, size or timeliness; Richmond had four.) The Herald had been publishing a Sunday edition for some twenty years, and was joined in 1860 by the New York Tribune, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Herald. Railroads laid on special "Sunday expresses" to speed delivery. Some papers began publishing both morning and evening editions (One wag commented, "They issue those evening editions to contradict the lies that they tell in the morning.")

For most of the nation's newspapers, the basics of production had not much changed in 400 years. The pressman would lay a single sheet of paper on top of the inked typeform in the bed of the press, bring down the pressure platen, release it, and carefully pull the sheet away. The impression of two pages would be left on the sheet and—when the ink had dried—it would be flipped over and put it back in the press to print two pages on the other side. When folded, this produced a four-page newspaper–the size of all but a few of the New York papers, which published eight-page editions.

New printing technology was entering the marketplace, but initially only the major New York newspapers could afford the investment. First came the Hoe Lightning rotary steam-powered printing press, thirty-four-feet high, fed by eight sheet-handlers, which could spit forth 20,000 impressions an hour. Next, by April 1861, the Tribune had developed a technique for casting lead printing cylinders from a papier-mache mold of the type. Presses could be run faster, and duplicate cylinders could quickly be made and mounted on other presses to increase the run for special editions. Within four months, the Herald and the Times had mastered the process; espionage, we presume, was not limited to military affairs. In 1863, the Philadelphia Inquirer installed a press that could print both sides of the paper—now fed from a roll—at the same time.

The public's appetite for illustration was as great as that for information, and by 1860, more than 200 print-makers–of which the firm of Currier & Ives was perhaps the best known–were turning out lithographs and copperplate engravings celebrating everything from country courtship to warehouse fires. Newspaper publishers, eager to capitalize on this public enthusiasm, were faced with a practical limitation: the most energetic printmakers could not turn out more than about 300 copies a day. Photography, just then coming into wide-spread use, certainly had promise and already was providing reference images for artists, but no method had yet been devised for directly converting a photograph into a printing plate.

Newspapers found an interim solution in the revival of an ancient form of printed illustration, pre-dating even the 15th Century invention of movable type: the woodcut. A drawing was transferred to the surface of a block of wood and transformed into a relief printing surface under the hands of a skilled craftsman. The block was then mounted in the printing frame along with the type. Even today, school children use the technique to transform linoleum-faced blocks (soft, and therefore easily carved) into printed greeting cards. To withstand the rigors of the printing press and to forestall a premature wearing away of the image, the 19th Century printers used hard-grained wood.

The first "illustrated newspaper" thus produced may have been the London Illustrated News, founded in 1842. The first American version was launched a dozen years later, bankrolled in part by the showman P. T. Barnum. It proved to be a failure, barely making expenses, and soon was abandoned. However, Barnum's head engraver went off on his own in 1855 with the eponymous Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Leslie found the right balance of artistic style and newsworthy content, and by 1860 was selling an average 100,000 copies per issue. One edition, featuring a championship prize fight in England (the blocks for which had been engraved on the passage home) sold 347,000 copies.

In 1857, the Harper Brothers, who ran a book publishing house and knew a good thing when they saw it, began a competing weekly which they grandly named Harper's Weekly Journal of Civilization. A third New York production, the Illustrated News, had a moment in the sun but did not survive past the middle years of the war. A Confederate counterpart, the Southern Illustrated News--inaugurated when the war intruded on delivery of the Northern weeklies--stumbled along with limited success for twenty-five months.

While the printing rate of the wooden block was acceptable, the carving rate was snail-paced, especially for larger illustrations. The need for timely material and the demands of weekly deadlines led to the development of a multiple-block system, whereby a large drawing was divided among blocks of perhaps 4 by 5 inches. These could be locked together in a frame while the drawing was laid down; then, separated, each block was carved by a different engraver, all to be reunited when ready for the press. At first, these fragmented illustrations were crudely executed, with the block-lines starkly evident. Later refinements, including the appointment of a "master engraver" to cut the lines that crossed the edges, led to some of the finest examples of the wood engraver's art ever produced.

By the start of the Civil War, the larger newspapers had become big business, indeed–the Tribune of 1861 was a corporation with a board of directors and 212 employees, 28 of whom were editors. On most large papers, the editor-in-chief set the policy but otherwise stayed out of the way and let a "a managing editor" actually run the newspaper. A reporter offered an apt analogy, when he wrote

The modern newspaper is a sort of intellectual iron-clad, upon which, while the Editorial Captain makes out the reports to his chief, the public, and entertains the guests in his elegant cabin, [which is known as] the leading column, and receives the credit for every broadside of type and every paper bullet of the brain poured into the enemy, back out of sight is an Executive Officer, with little popular fame, who keeps the ship all right from hold to maintop, looks to every detail with sleepless vigilance, and whose life is a daily miracle of hard work.

Little popular fame, but a handsome level of compensation. Frederick Hudson, who occupied that position of "executive officer" at the Herald, was the highest-paid newsman in the nation, with an annual salary of $10,000–at a time when the salary of a member of the president's cabinet was $8,000. Bennett, who spent a great deal of time in Europe (at one point in the 1850s remaining abroad for eleven months), turned more and more of the management over to Hudson, and by 1861 rarely went into the office.

Hudson's counterpart as managing editor of the Tribune, was Charles A. Dana. Given that post in 1849, Dana would grow to exercise so much control over the editorial content of the paper that, near the end of March, 1862, Greeley issued an ultimatum to the Tribune company board of directors: either Dana must go, or he would quit. That left the members of the board with a bit of a dilemma, as Dana owned about one-third more of the company stock than Greeley and could provoke a messy confrontation. However, when Dana heard of this meeting, he simply left the office, never to return. His post as managing editor went to Sidney Gay, more of an administrator and less of an activist. Dana soon was given a job as a special investigator for the War Department, and in 1864 was appointed an assistant secretary of war. He became editor and part-owner of the New York Sun in 1868, and gave tepid support to Greeley's candidacy in the 1872 campaign.

As the newspaper horizons expanded, so grew the profession of newspaper correspondent. Who were they? There not much biographical data for most, and what can be studied is not statistically significant, but nonetheless useful. Of seventy-eight Northern war correspondents for whom the data is relatively complete, four out of five had been in newspaper work before the war. More than half had been born in a city. Three women reported from Washington. There was at least one black correspondent: Thomas Morris Chester of the Philadelphia Press. There was a smattering of lawyers and schoolteachers. One journalist was a professional mariner. At least two had served a prison term. The average age was in the late twenties; half a dozen were nineteen or less when the war started—Joe Robinson of the Philadelphia Inquirer was sixteen. Some were immigrants; nineteen-year-old Joe McCullagh from Ireland, eight years in America; twenty-six-year-old Henry Villard, born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard, who left his native Bavaria in 1853 and borrowed the name of a former schoolmate to hide from his father, who wanted to put him in the army back home. Of the fifty for whom educational background is available, nearly half had attended college. Notable among the artists: Thomas Nast was twenty, Winslow Homer twenty-one.

The pay was, well, adequate. When the war began, a New York-based staffer for the Tribune earned about as much as a captain in the Union Army, roughly $27 a week; space-rates for free-lance writers began at $7.50 a column. A presumed glamor may have drawn some to the job; travel, meeting famous people, and for many, the journey began with a few unsolicited letters to a newspaper. However, most papers received far more letters than could ever be printed, and rather than an offer of encouragement, the editor's response was more likely to be along the lines suggested in one reporter's post-war memoir: "My Dear Sir—Your article has unquestionable merit; but by the imperative pressure of important news upon our columns, we are very reluctantly compelled . . .etc." Of course, many new reporting jobs opened up the moment the war began--but any presumed glamor quickly evaporated at the first sight of mangled dead.

By general policy, few reporters were allowed to write under their full names. Some were permitted use initials, but most articles in most papers were published unsigned or under fanciful nicknames: Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette was "Agate," Franc Wilkie of the New York Times was "Galway." Richmond correspondent George W. Bagby covered for newspapers in South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia under the pseudonyms, respectively, Hermes, Gamma, Malou and Pan.

Bennett had long insisted on anonymity for Herald reporters; Sam Wilkeson, while the New York Tribune Washington bureau chief, advised his editor, "The anonymous greatly favors freedom and boldness in newspaper correspondence. I will not allow any letter writer to attach his initials to his communications, unless he was a widely known & influential man like Greeley or Bayard Taylor . . . . Besides the responsibility it fastens on a correspondent, the signature inevitably detracts from the powerful impersonality of a journal."

Such considerations did not apply to the country weeklies–the only newspapers seen by a large portion of the population–or to the less affluent city dailies, which could not afford to hire reporters or pay telegraph tolls. Editorial opinion remained their own, but most "news" was clipped from the big city exchange papers and set in a section under a heading such as "THE LATEST INFORMATION."

The Census of 1860 classified 80% of US newspapers (including all 373 dailies) as "political in their character." Many were supported almost entirely by office-holders or office hunters, subsidized by "honoraria" or local government printing contracts in exchange for well-positioned coverage. James Gordon Bennett offered an 1862 editorial slap at "country editors" who enjoyed "free paper, pens and ink, free drinks and chewing tobacco, free board at the hotels, free travel by railroad."

The modern concept of "balanced reporting" was unknown; this made for a lively press, but left an uncertain historical record. Reporters usually–although not always–slanted their copy to match the political character of their newspapers, which fell roughly into one of four categories. On the far right–in today's lexicon–were the Radical Republicans, for whom the only cause for going to war was the abolition of slavery; the Tribunes of New York and Chicago and the Philadelphia Inquirer were at the head of that pack. Slightly to the left were the moderate Republicans, who supported abolition but saw the war more as a struggle to preserve the Union: representative were the New York Times, Cincinnati Commercial, and Boston Journal. The middle ground was held by the Independents–the New York Herald fits here, although it often acted more like a member of the next group, the Democrats.

Northern Democrats knew that the Party could not regain political power in a heavily-Republican North unless the breach was healed and the Party was re-united with the more populous Southern Democrats. Thus, the aim of many if not most of the Northern Democrats was settlement, not conquest; ending slavery was not a goal, but an impediment; the path to peace was seen as enlightened discourse, not battlefield victory. (This position aroused the deepest suspicion among the Radicals, who assumed that Democrats serving in the army were not committed to victory.) The more militant faction called themselves the "Peace Democrats," although the opposition tagged them with the pejorative label "Copperhead," borrowed from the venomous snake of the same name. At some point in the first year or so of the war, some Peace Democrats began wearing copper Indian head pennies as a badge of identification (or defiance).

The most strident of the Democrat newspapers were the Chicago Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the New York World. The Times was vitriolic on general principles. The Enquirer reflected the economic concerns of readers along the Ohio valley, largely farmers, who had lost access to their normal markets in the South and were forced to ship their wares on high-priced railroads to the east. Business was bad, taxes were high, banks were failing, and there was an undercurrent of fear among the working classes that they were about to be overrun with an onslaught of cheap labor by a people they didn't know, didn't understand, and didn't particularly like. The constituency of the New York World included brokers, merchants and shippers who had lost business because of the war, and recent immigrant Irish workingmen who, like the Ohio farmers, were "poisonously suspicious of the Negro." The World began life as a religious journal of balanced opinion but fell on hard times in the first winter of the war, to be rescued, and transformed, by a syndicate of Democrats.

Many Democrat newspapers were clearly identified as such by their title, although the Missouri Democrat was a Republican paper and the Missouri Republican, an organ of the Democrats. Most Southern papers were Democrat; a few were Whig, the philosophical predecessor of the Republican Party which had largely ceased to exist in the North and was barely noticed in the South. Southern papers, of whatever political persuasion, quickly fell in line behind the cause of secession.

All Democrats–North and South--saw the war as a "Black Republican" plot lead by a "demented despot" (read: Lincoln) to overthrow civil liberties and the rule of law (read: take lawful property away from slave holders) and force full racial equality on the nation. It is not an exaggeration to say that, as a rule, where the Republican press celebrated the rustic wisdom and sweet humanity of blacks, the Democrat press portrayed them as degraded and inferior beings, unfit for participation in a society as complex as that of the United States.

In 1841, Charles Dickens, the world's most popular author, paid a visit to the United States, where he spoke out perhaps too vigorously against the lack of copyright protection in America. He was not treated well by the American press, some portions of which enjoyed the benefits of that lack of copyright. Dickens returned fire (and boosted sales of the monthly installments of his current project, Martin Chuzzlewit as well) by satirizing American newspapers under such names as the Sewer, the Stabber, the Family Spy, the Private Listener, the Peeper, the Keyhole Reporter, and the Rowdy Journal.

Satire—but not too far off the mark, then or now. A Dickensian newsboy hawks his wares, offering the "exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at great expense, by his own nurse." Colonel Driver, the quasi-fictional editor of the Rowdy Journal explained, "It is in such enlightened means … that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent."
"Quasi-fictional." Driver was Bennett:

Colonel Driver, in the security of his strong position, and in his perfect understanding of the public sentiment, cared very little what [anybody] thought of him. His high-spiced wares were made to sell, and they sold; and his thousands of readers could as rationally charge their delight in filth upon him, as a glutton can shift upon his cook the responsibility of his beastly excess.

. . . with a modest dash of Hale: "The colonel occasionally boards packet-ships, I have heard, to glean the latest information for his journal . . ." Greeley, celebrated for his penchant for heavy-handed editorials, also took a shot: "We are a busy people, sir," said the captain of one of those packet-ships, "and have no time for reading mere notions [although] We don't mind 'em if they come to us in newspapers . . ."

Dickens's running argument with the American press was not aided when Chuzzlewit arrived on these shores. "I have been given to understand by some authorities," the author wrote in the Introduction to the later, 1844, edition, "that there are American scenes in these pages which are violent exaggerations . . . beyond all bounds of belief." He acknowledged that he had focused on "the ludicrous side of the American character" but pointed out that much of what he wrote was a literal paraphrase of some newspaper reports of June and July 1843, "at about the time when I was engaged in writing those parts of the book."

We note, in passing, that Dickens appears to have invented—or at the least, first put into print--the term "war correspondent," several years before any professional journalist seems actually to have filled the role. Colonel Driver introduced an assistant as "My war correspondent, sir, Mr. Jefferson Brick."

The author, however, offered no explanation of Mr. Brick's duties.

Read on (and obtain citations for the above, if you're doing a research project) by going to the rest of the book, available from WAR NEWS: Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War, by Brayton Harris

mmmSee above f or a general overview of Military-Media Relations, from 1848 to the Gulf War.

This ESSAY is Copyright © 2010, Brayton Harris. "Fair Use" is welcome, an acknowledgement would be appropriate: Harris, Brayton. War News: Blue & Gray in Black & White. Newspapers in the Civil War. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2010

WAR NEWS (published in 1999 as Blue & Gray in Black & White) is an exploration of the individual and collective efforts of newspaper journalists during the Civil War. As eyewitnesses to one of the most memorable conflicts in history, they left a record that is sometimes brilliant but, at other times, marred by shoddy journalism, sensationalism, and self-serving reporting. They were, however, the American public's primary source of information about the battles that were tearing the nation apart. This book focuses on the personalities, politics, and rivalries of editors; the efforts of newspapers to influence military appointments, strategy, and tactics; advances in printing technology; formal and informal censorship, the suppression of dissident newspapers, and, most of all, the war correspondents themselves.
Civil War journalism


BRAYTON HARRIS is a retired U. S. Navy captain who served as a media coordinator in Vietnam and as a special assistant to the secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. He has also been a printer, a publisher, and an editor, and is the author of more than two hundred articles and ten books, including The Age of the Battleship: 1890-1922 and The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social, and Military History.

Read the first chapter:
The War Correspondent

Read a related essay:
Military-Media Relations

Visit a website covering
Civil War Submarines

Explore the full Bibliography

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