- 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
General Pope informed the reporters with him that they must leave—an order given reluctantly, for he welcomed the notice he was receiving from portions of the press—and the blackout remained in force throughout the Second Bull Run campaign. The consequences were chaotic. All anyone could learn was that the Confederates under Lee and Jackson were stalking Pope’s army somewhere off to the west of Washington—the cannon fire could be heard in the capital— and reporters were reduced to scurrying around the city and the outlying camps to interview stragglers and wounded and refugees arriving from the front. Each bit of rumor and gossip was more sensational than the last and was soon in print: Washington and Baltimore were about to be overrun; the Confederates were two hundred thousand strong (four times their actual numbers); Stonewall Jackson was surrounded; one of Pope’s corps was cut to pieces; McClellan had rushed heroically to the rescue; McClellan was branded a traitor and cashiered. In cities across the North, crowds surrounded the bulletin boards in front of newspaper offices, clamoring for news. In Philadelphia, said the Ledger , “no such excitement has been seen since the time when the news of the firing upon Fort Sumter was given to the public.”
A handful of reporters had evaded the press embargo and remained with Pope’s Army of Virginia to chronicle its defeat at Second Bull Run, but their stories were delayed and did not appear in print for several days. In its own confusion the War Department hoped that no news would be considered good news. Its only release during the fighting was a dispatch from General Pope claiming victory, which ran in the papers at the same time the first outriders of defeat came stumbling back to Washington from the battlefield. It was soon all over the capital that Lee’s victorious army had crossed the Potomac and was invading Maryland. The War Department refused to acknowledge that fact for three days, by which time the Confederates were occupying Frederick, twenty-three miles north of the river. By early September Robert E. Lee’s invading army was pushing a shock wave of panic before it, made all the worse by the inability of the press to find out anything close to the truth of what was happening. “Newspapers tell us little or nothing about the situation in Maryland,” the New York diarist George Templeton Strong protested, and he wondered if the enemy would reach Philadelphia and New York and even Boston. The public mood, suffering from an “epidemic of indigo,” as Strong put it, was not improved by reports leaking through the censorship that other Confederate forces were marching northward through Kentucky for the Ohio River. “Between the tide of rumors and the ebb of facts, your correspondent floats like a craft without a rudder,” the Tribune ’s man in Louisville wrote.
The World , in rare concert with the Tribune , labeled the news blackout military despotism and pledged to publish “even though it rains interdicts.”
The press gag demonstrated that in a news vacuum rumor will rush in to fill the void. For the North these weeks of late August and early September 1862 marked a major crisis—in retrospect a time of peril greater than the Gettysburg campaign the following year—and at no time during the war was the demand for reliable information greater and the public so ill informed. The meager diet of news from the War Department reflected badly on the administration’s credibility, suggesting to many that if the truth was so unpalatable, there must be a cover-up taking place. The Tribune spoke of “mismanagement everywhere,” from headquarters in the field to the highest councils in Washington. Several papers ran speculations of a national upheaval in the making, of dark plots for “usurping the authority of the government and overthrowing by a violent revolution the President and Cabinet.” Recriminations would have followed the Second Bull Run disaster in any event, but Halleck’s blackout only aggravated the situation.
So far as the correspondents knew, the press ban was still in place when McClellan—in command again after Pope’s failure—marched his army into Maryland to meet Lee’s challenge. In fact, so the New York Evening Post reported, Halleck had given up trying to enforce his blackout, but the reporters took no chances and resorted to subterfuge in order to cover what promised to be a major story. One got himself appointed to a general’s staff, and another reworked an old army pass to avoid the provost marshals. In contrast with Second Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, which checked Lee’s invasion, produced some of the finest reporting of the war. The Evening Post ’s William Cullen Bryant, reprinting the account by George Smalley of the Tribune , ranked it with the “best battle pieces in literature,” better than anything by “Bull Run” Russell. The story earned the respect of the men in the ranks, perhaps the reporters’ toughest audience. Not trusting the unpredictability of the censors, Smalley and other newsmen had traveled to their home papers and filed their stories in person.