- 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
While the history of the wartime press in the South has its rough parallels to the story of the Northern press, it proved to be much less of a testing ground of basic issues. In part this was simply a matter of size. The Confederacy had fewer newspapers to begin with, and the number soon dwindled under the pressure of Union gains in the Mississippi valley and around the Southern perimeter. In addition, the dailies and weeklies that survived shrank to four or even two pages as the result of shortages of everything from newsprint to reporters. Nor did Southern papers in general assume the adversarial stance that marked a large share of the press in the North. “Be therefore, I suggest, as amiable as consistent with truth,” the editor of the Charleston Mercury wrote his Richmond correspondent in the spring of 1862, urging him in his dispatches to present “as much as possible of the bright side of things.” This unity of support for the Confederate cause continued largely unbroken throughout the war, leaving the real debate over the role of newspapers in wartime to be fought out in the north.
That debate was to be greatly complicated by the institution of the press leak. Leaking inside information to favored reporters and editors was nothing new, but during the war it reached undreamed-of proportions. Every newspaperman had his sources, and now journalists were challenged daily to separate the practice of using sources for news gathering from the malpractice of sources using them for self-promotion.
Although he held no press conferences in a formal sense, President Abraham Lincoln had a generally amiable relationship with newspapermen. Correspondents wandered into the White House at all hours for a chat, on the understanding that what was said was (in today’s journalistic terminology) on “deep background” and not for attribution. The Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, complained in his diary that the President’s affinity for political gossip permitted “little newsmongers to come around him and be intimate,” but in fact, Lincoln usually got as much as he gave in such encounters, pumping reporters for whatever news they had and for insights into the mood of the country. This familiarity with the press was not universally appreciated. At a White House strategy conference in January 1862, McClellan confided to a colleague that he was reluctant to reveal anything to the President: “If I tell him my plans, they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret.” He added that Lincoln would tell everything to Tad, his eight-year-old son.
General McClellan was calling the kettle black. Shortly after this White House conference he wrote to his chief of staff, then in New York, and told him to see James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the Herald , and find out which of two Herald reporters in Washington was Bennett’s “confidential” man. “I would like to know which one Mr. B. wishes me to communicate fully & unreservedly with,” McClellan continued. “I am anxious to keep Mr. B. well posted & wish to do it fully—ask how far I can go in communicating important matters to either.” The general, a conservative Democrat opposed to the Republican administration, did all he could to drum up newspaper support for his own views, particularly his insistence that slavery not become a war issue. McClellan’s most trusted army confidant, Gen. Fitz-John Porter, wrote poisonous letters to the editor of the New York World , an antiadministration paper, denouncing government policies root and branch and predicting disintegration of the Army of the Potomac if emancipation ever became a reality. Both papers incorporated these leaks from the army’s high councils into their assaults on the Lincoln administration.
Some of the war maps the Herald offered its readers were of such improbability that a competitor termed them “striking and lifelike pictures of a drunkard’s stomach.”
It did not take long for the officer corps to become aware of the power of the press. Many West Pointers and regulars distrusted newspapermen. Yet at the same time, any career officer could see the war as his chance for rapid advancement and could see as well that getting his name favorably mentioned in the papers did no harm. The West Pointer Henry M. Naglee was acknowledging this reality when he wrote to a Herald man after one of the Peninsular battles to explain what had really happened. “For God’s sake make no major-generals without knowing all of the truth,” he added. However gingerly, the regulars began to talk to correspondents, at least when the battle was done. “If I have watermelons and whiskey ready when officers come along from a fight,” the Tribune ’s Charles A. Page confided to Greeley, “I get the news without asking questions.” No reporter needed to ply a politically appointed general with anything beyond the promise to spell his name right. Newspaper support did much to keep military incompetents such as Nathaniel Banks, Franz Sigel, John Charles Frémont, and Benjamin Butler in command long after they had failed the test of battle.