- 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
In spite of such efforts, press coverage of McClellan’s defeat before Richmond that summer was severely limited by the suppression of both mail and telegraphic dispatches, demonstrating that despite assurances to the contrary, reports of a battle’s unhappy outcome would be treated the same as leaks about army movements. On July 9, a week or so after the campaign had ended, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts rose on the Senate floor to denounce this censorship as “most disastrous to the interests of the country. … It appears to me that we have an organized system of lying in this country that is calculated to degrade and deceive and delude the American people.” As a founder of the Republican party, Senator Wilson could hardly be accused of anti-administration bias.
In the Western theater, meanwhile, the press suffered an even heavier blow at the hands of Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Following the Battle of Shiloh early in April 1862, Halleck set his army in motion toward the Confederate forces that had fallen back to Corinth, Mississippi. The pace was glacial, however, averaging less than a mile a day, and the general grew increasingly irritated with questions from reporters as to why the Federals “were putting up breastworks every hundred yards between Shiloh and Corinth.” Halleck had an old regular’s low tolerance for newspaper criticism to begin with, and on May 13 he retaliated with an order banning all noncombatants from his army, on the ground that Southern spies had infiltrated the ranks of these “unauthorized hangers on.” When newsmen found themselves included in the expulsion notice, they got up a petition of protest, stating that it was nothing but a conspiracy to keep the press— and the people—from learning “the condition of the army, the treatment… of its soldiers, or the management of battles.” Halleck was unmoved and blandly pointed out that the reporters were perfectly welcome to see news summaries prepared by his staff at a base well to the rear. While Secretary Stanton was enlarging the scope of press censorship, General Halleck was establishing the precedent that the army could arbitrarily ban correspondents from the field.
The press grew increasingly restive at the erosion of its role during the early months of Stanton’s regime. No responsible correspondent or editor raised objections to censorship as applied to information vital to the enemy. Nor did they deny there were incompetents in their ranks fully deserving of being banned from the armies—those who “lavish more superlatives, hyperbole, exaggerations and nonsense than they would upon the crash of a dozen worlds butting against each other in space,” as Franc Wilkie of The New York Times described them. They brought the profession into disrepute, “a disrepute which has fallen alike on those who deserve it, and those who do not.” Yet it was obvious that censorship and restrictions on the right to report were also being used to hide incompetence and to suppress legitimate comment on political matters and Washington’s management of the war. The consequence of such suppression, Greeley of the Tribune warned, “will be a fearful one, and it will rest wholly on the Government .” The World , in rare concert with the Tribune , labeled it military despotism: “This is the people’s war…. There must be freedom of information, and freedom of speech. And so there will be, even though it rains interdicts.”
General Halleck brought his jaundiced view of the press with him when he was ordered to Washington in July 1862 to become general-in-chief of the Federal armies. In spite of McClellan’s attempt, “in the best interests of the service and the country,” to ban correspondents following his defeat, several Northern papers carried stories of the Army of the Potomac’s impending evacuation from the Peninsula on the day the withdrawal began. Halleck’s anger at this security leak was raised to a higher pitch by a correspondent’s dispatch (intercepted and suppressed) announcing the retreat of Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia, newly formed to guard Washington, after its beating at the hands of Stonewall Jackson early in August. The general decided drastic measures were required.
Halleck’s first impulse was to ban reporters from all the Union armies. Lincoln overruled that idea as penalizing all for the sins of the few, so Halleck settled for an order removing the correspondents assigned to Pope’s army; only official communications were to pass between Pope and Washington, by either mail or telegraph. The blackout order promptly appeared in the newspapers, and Halleck told Pope to plug up the leaks at his headquarters.