- 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
Paradoxically, the campaigns of 1862 that reached their climax at Antietam marked both the government’s maximum effort to manage the news and a growing professionalism on the part of the press. Greeley’s Tribune was one paper to demonstrate this maturity. The correspondent Samuel Wilkeson wrote a stinging indictment of the administration’s role in the Peninsula failure, in sharp contrast with the paper’s editorial stance on the matter. While pointing out that the dispatch did not represent the paper’s views, the Tribune nevertheless ran it in its entirety. Writing to Wilkeson, Greeley outlined his conversion to objectivity. Henceforth news would be reported dispassionately, he said, and editorials written separately, “to be submitted to criticism and revision here, instead of embodying them in dispatches. …” To be sure, not all newspapers (including the Tribune ) always abided by this distinction, but an important start was made to enlarge the credibility of the news columns.
When Sherman heard that three newspapermen had been killed in the Vicksburg campaign, he said: “That’s good! We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.”
Another important step in this direction appeared in 1863, although credit for the reform belongs not to the press but to Gen. Joseph Hooker. Taking command of the Army of the Potomac early in the year, Hooker paused in his preparations for the spring campaign to announce that the “publication of injudicious correspondence of an anonymous character, makes it necessary to require all newspaper correspondents to publish their communications over their own signatures.” Once they came out from behind the cloak of anonymity, Hooker wrote, they had “license to abuse or criticize me to their hearts’ content.” Later in the year the requirement was extended to newsmen with the Western armies. At first not all reporters were comfortable with being made so personally responsible for what they wrote —Wilkeson of the Tribune insisted that anonymity “greatly favors freedom and boldness in newspaper correspondence”—but as a rule it produced more careful and accurate reporting. It also enhanced reputations. War correspondents had Joe Hooker to thank for the recognition that came with a by-line.
After 1862 Washington made no further attempt at a total ban on reporters traveling with any of the armies but instead left the matter to the generals in the field. “I expelled them all from our lines in Mississippi,” Halleck pointedly reminded Hooker. “Every general must decide for himself what persons he will permit in his camps.” Henceforth anything ranging from a security violation to an alleged slight inflicted on military amour-propre became grounds for expulsion.
To the surprise of no one in the press corps, it was General Sherman who went the farthest of any field commander to gag battlefield reporting. After reading the New York Herald ’s account of his failure in an early attack on the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, Sherman determined to make an example of its author, Thomas Knox. Knox would be tried by military court-martial as a spy, Sherman explained, “because I want to establish the principle that such people cannot attend our armies, in violation of orders, and defy us, publishing their garbled statements and defaming officers who are doing their best.” Should Knox be found guilty, wrote the Tribune ’s correspondent, the precedent would utterly hamstring the press. “No one can send intelligence of matters connected with the army,” he predicted, “and especially no one can criticize the conduct of Generals in the field without subjecting himself to a similar charge.”
The trial held in February 1863 acquitted Knox of the most serious charge—of spying and giving information to the enemy—finding him guilty only of defying Sherman’s ban on correspondents’ accompanying the expedition, and he was ordered to leave the army. Although relieved at the outcome, those reporters who remained with Sherman gave him an even wider berth than before. As for the general, Knox’s expulsion did nothing to mollify his views. When later in the Vicksburg campaign it was reported (falsely, as it turned out) that three newsmen had been killed, he exclaimed, “That’s good! We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.”