- Historic Sites
1.the First News Blackout
The Civil War ignited the basic conflict between a free press and the need for military security. By war’s end, the hard-won compromises between soldiers and newspapermen may not have provided all the answers, but they had raised all the modern questions.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was a good hater, and he hated few things more than newspapermen. His encounter with the correspondent Floras B. Plympton of the Cincinnati Commercial in September 1861, five months into the Civil War, was typical. Plympton approached the general on a railroad platform in Kentucky and asked him for an interview. He handed over letters of introduction, including one from Sherman’s brother-in-law. Sherman’s response was a fierce glare and the demand that Plympton take the next train back to Louisville and out of the war zone. “Be sure you take it; don’t let me see you around here after it’s gone!”
“But, General!” Plympton protested. “The people are anxious. I’m only after the truth.”
“We don’t want the truth told about things here—that’s what we don’t want! Truth, eh? No, sir! We don’t want the enemy any better informed than he is. Make no mistake about that train!”
As the war progressed, Sherman warmed to his theme that the press was a “set of dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan”—defamers of the army and publishers of military secrets for which they deserved punishment as spies. While Sherman was admittedly an extreme case, his tirades pointed up the problems facing a free press in wartime. Most basic issues in the debate over the role of journalists in Vietnam—a debate given more recent currency by the Grenada invasion—first were aired in the Civil War. Not all the answers were at hand by 1865, but the important questions had been asked and certain precedents established.
At the time of Fort Sumter the American press was entering lusty manhood (it was preponderantly a male institution), brash and contentious, confident of its power to sway the public. It had a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of news, information, and opinion. The celebrated war correspondent William Howard Russell, sent by the Times of London to cover the American conflict, concluded that the press ruled the land, if not always wisely. The citizenry, he wrote in his diary, regarded the “chiefs of the most notorious journals very much as people in Italian cities of past time might have talked of the most infamous bravo or the chief of some band of assassins.” Of the nation’s 3,000 or so newspapers, the leading New York journals were the most influential. James Gordon Bennett’s Herald , Horace Greeley’s Tribune , Henry J. Raymond’s Times , and William Cullen Bryant’s Evening Post had an impact far beyond their circulations. (The Herald’s 80,000 led the dailies in early 1861; the weekly edition of the Tribune exceeded 200,000.) Countless papers across the country picked up copy verbatim from the New York journals, spreading the messages of these early press lords far and wide.
And messages they were. Where editorial opinion left off and objective reporting began was often difficult to discern. Correspondents were largely anonymous; if dispatches were signed at all, it was with initials or pseudonyms. As a rule, it was plain enough when one read any story in their papers where Mr. Bennett or Mr. Greeley stood on the matter. Nor was it necessary to read all the papers to learn the various positions of their publishers; editors devoted much space to extracts from their competitors, which they then attacked with great vigor. Indeed, attack was their favorite tactic in all things, and the thin-skinned —in the military, in the government, in the political arena—were to face rough times during the war years. Plympton’s Cincinnati Commercial , for example, soon took its revenge on General Sherman, announcing that his transfer from command in Kentucky in November 1861 was due to mental aberration. He was “stark mad,” said the Commercial , a canard that Sherman was to be a long time living down and one that did little to soften his opinion of the press.
As the newspapers mobilized to cover the war, it became obvious to both Washington and Richmond that, in the interests of military security, some measure of censorship was necessary. Neither press nor government had much in the way of precedent or policy to guide them. A civil war was a people’s war, the press insisted, and (as Plympton told Sherman) the people were eager for the truth. But how much truth were they entitled to, and was the press the best judge of it? It seemed clear that the right to know did not extend to troop strengths or movements or campaign plans, but what of army morale and arms-supply mismanagement and inept generalship? What would be the effect on enlistments and on civilian support of the war effort if defeat were portrayed with stark reality? When did patriotism overrule candor? And since newspapers passed through the lines with comparative ease, when did the public’s right to know conflict with the need to prevent the enemy from learning? Would reporters competing to be first in print act responsibly for the greater good? Would they slant news from the field to reflect their papers’ politics? Would the generals and the civilians responsible for managing the war respect the freedom to report if it came down to covering the tracks of their own ineptitude? Fundamental questions all; what answers were discovered came through frequently contentious trial and error.