- 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
The first move toward censorship involved control of the telegraph, which was revolutionizing both military and newspaper communications. Initially this was sporadic and local, but on July 8, 1861, less than three months after Fort Sumter, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott announced that henceforth the Washington telegraph office would carry “no dispatches concerning the operations of the Army not permitted by the Commanding General.” This was softened somewhat by a subsequent disclaimer: “This is not intended to stop telegraphic accounts of encounters or battles or other general information,” but only “to secure correctness in sending forward news. …” Yet it was clear enough that the army and the government would be determining that “correctness.” Richmond took a similar step at about the same time. No controls were placed on reporters directly or on their mail.
A corps of newsmen attached itself to the Federal army that advanced from Washington a few days later to meet the Confederates along Bull Run. Irvin McDowell, the Union commander, told William Howard Russell of the Times that he hoped reporters would outfit themselves in white uniforms indicating the “purity of their character.” McDowell was not known for his wit, and possibly he was serious. After the Federals had been checked on July 21 and fled pell-mell back to Washington, however, reporters found the High Command banning all telegraphic dispatches, regardless of their correctness. The New York Times called the effect of the censorship a “wanton and reckless trifling with the feelings of the public. …”
As often happens to bearers of bad tidings, the press came in for criticism after Bull Run. Greeley’s New York Tribune was denounced for pushing the army into action before it was ready with the strident and repeated war cry “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond!” But the sharpest fire was reserved for the man reputed to be the world’s leading war correspondent, William Howard Russell. When the issue of the Times carrying his account of the battle finally reached American shores a month later, the public was in no mood for Russell’s candor in terming the rout a “miserable, causeless panic … scandalous behaviour.” Threatening letters filled his mail, official Washington snubbed him, and someone tagged him “Bull Run” Russell. When the next spring his credentials were revoked, the “hideously outraged” reporter took the next steamer for home.
Samuel Wilkeson, the New York Tribune ’s chief Washington correspondent, was notably adept at cultivating government sources. He boasted to his managing editor that “[I] soon shall fasten my grapples on the necessary influences here. I shall have them….” The measure of his success was a special exemption, signed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, that allowed his telegraphed dispatches to the Tribune to go unread by censors. Another Tribune man, Adams Hill, had a pipeline to a complaisant assistant secretary in the War Department who let him read all the military telegrams as they arrived. In one instance the Tribune used such telegrams—which now would be labeled “top secret”—to attack General McClellan for failing to feed his troops into the Second Bull Run battle in August 1862, resulting in a Union defeat. And Malcolm Ives of the New York Herald brazenly announced to the War Department that he expected special preference in return for the Herald ’s support of administration actions.
Gen. George B. McClellan, appointed to replace the defeated McDowell, met with correspondents in an attempt to establish ground rules for self-censorship. He promised press facilities and cooperation in return for an agreement to publish nothing that would lend aid or comfort to the enemy. Someone wondered about maps of Washington’s defenses that had appeared in such illustrated papers as Leslie’s and Harper’s Weekly . McClellan professed no concern; the maps were so inaccurate they served the cause by confusing the Confederates. (The New York Herald also offered its readers war maps, some of such improbability that a competitor termed them “striking and lifelike pictures of a drunkard’s stomach.”) The more experienced and professional reporters expressed a willingness to exercise self-restraint, but it was seldom honored by the so-called newspaper guerrillas. These outriders on the fringes of journalism sent off to their papers whatever they could get their hands on, whether fact or rumor, without regard to military security. On occasion those in the field, in comfortable safety far to the rear, fabricated eyewitness accounts of battles. Unwilling to wait for the press to rid itself of the guerrillas, Secretary of War Cameron broadened General Scott’s restrictions on the telegraph into a ban on “all correspondence and communication, verbally, or by writing, printing, or telegraphing, respecting operations of the Army or military movements on land or water …,” and put teeth into the regulation with a reminder that the fifty-seventh Article of War imposed the death penalty for furnishing the enemy with such information. The principle of full censorship was thus established; how effective it would be remained to be tested.