- 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
If many leaks were more self-serving than harmful, others posed a clear and present danger to military operations. In October 1861 The New York Times prepared a story on a naval expedition, complete with details of its composition and force, and ran it before the ships even set sail. Samuel du Pont, commander of the flotilla, was furious and predicted that the story would be picked up by Southern papers—as, in fact, it was —”and may add some four or five thousand lives to the list of casualties, but what does the Times care for that if it can be in advance of rival sheets!” His fears were groundless, for he seized Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, at a cost of only thirty-one casualties, but the fact remained that a serious security breach had occurred. Early in 1862 a similar leak, this one in the New York World and the Chicago Tribune , appeared to compromise a naval expedition heading for North Carolina. In April the St. Louis Republican published its correspondent’s report on plans for taking Confederate-held Island No. 10 in the Mississippi.
Investigative reporting, too, ruffled official feathers. The detective Allan Pinkerton, in charge of McClellan’s secret service, complained bitterly that a newspaper had blown his cover. He had taken the cover name E. J. Alien and was horrified to find himself revealed to the world as Allan Pinkerton by the Washington Star in its exposé of his arrests of those suspected of disloyalty. (Unfortunately for the Union cause, Pinkerton’s unfrocking did not destroy his alleged usefulness, and he continued to crank out wildly exaggerated estimates of Confederate strengths that would contribute to the failure of McClellan’s 1862 campaigns.)
Inadvertence and inexperience accounted for most press lapses. The reliability of information—and of its source —was not easily judged by men new to the job of war reporting. Experience was needed to separate real news from “chin news,” that is, “somebody hearing something from somebody else, which somebody told him he got from somebody who heard from some reliable source,” as one newsman described it. Editors at the home office often enough showed poor judgment in distinguishing legitimate news from militarily sensitive information. Erratic censorship was another contributing factor to security leaks. A correspondent might find his entire story killed for some minor infraction, and the next day an unwitting breach of security would be passed unnoticed by what the Philadelphia Press called the “ignorant, political fops” who held posts as censors. Reporters were infuriated to find news cut from their own dispatches appearing in a rival paper. Whoever was to blame, the security leaks resulted eventually in an attempt at a total press blackout.
Edwin M. Stanton, who replaced Cameron as Secretary of War in January 1862, moved swiftly to centralize power in his office, including control over press censorship. All telegraph lines, rather than just those radiating from Washington, came under War Department management. Nothing that would allow the enemy even to guess at the position or strength of any forces or at any military movements, past, present, or future, was to be published. Violators would have their telegraphic privileges revoked and their papers banned from shipment by rail. Stanton also empowered police in the major cities to enforce this edict by seizing the press run of any offending paper. During McClellan’s Peninsular campaign against Richmond that spring, every correspondent with the army was required to sign a “parole” so restrictive about what could be reported that only the weather seemed a safe topic. It appeared that the news the government deemed fit to print was what Edwin Stanton elected to release from official sources. The New York Times raged at the “vexatious despotism of the War Department since Mr. Stanton became its chief… to Press and people an intolerable grievance.”
Stanton’s actions confirmed, at least in principle, the broadest construction of censorship, and the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives found that policy to have a chilling effect on press freedom. On March 20, the committee issued a report that included an appendix of suppressed dispatches that had nothing to do with army movements but dealt instead with political and other general topics. Of equal importance, the report noted, correspondents were deterred from writing similar commentaries “because they knew they could not send them to their papers by telegraph.” The committee concluded that to maintain a free press, telegraphic censorship “cannot extend beyond what may be legitimately connected with the military or naval affairs of the nation. …”
Stanton, as it turned out, was employing a tactic he was often to use: staking out an ambitious position and then retreating to safer ground when attacked. Some of his edicts were rescinded, and others became dead letters. When he ordered the suspension of Harper’s Weekly for publishing a bird’s-eye drawing of the siege of Yorktown on the Peninsula, for example, Fletcher Harper of the House of Harper confronted the secretary and pressured him into lifting the suspension by a reminder that Harper’s Weekly was a strong administration supporter. Some exasperated correspondents simply evaded the censorship. Reporters for the New York Herald smuggled dispatches to colleagues in Baltimore for forwarding to New York by special messenger.