- 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
Others besides Sherman could have served Joseph Heller as a model for Catch-22 ’s General Dreedle (“Take him out and shoot him!”). During the 1864 Virginia campaign, for example, Gen. Ambrose Burnside became so outraged at the criticisms of William Swinton of The New York Times that he ordered the correspondent before a firing squad. Ulysses S. Grant, the new general-in-chief, reduced the sentence to banishment from the army. Edward Crapsey of the Philadelphia Inquirer , in trying to explain the working relationship between Grant and the Army of the Potomac commander, George Gordon Meade, during the same campaign, made the mistake of arousing the terrible-tempered Meade. Before expelling him from the army, the general had Crapsey mounted on a mule and, to the accompaniment of the “Rogue’s March,” paraded him through the camps bearing placards front and back reading “Libeller of the Press.” “It will be a warning to his Tribe,” Meade’s provost marshal wrote with satisfaction in his diary. This humiliation of the respected Crapsey united his fellow correspondents; for the remainder of the campaign they consistently excluded Meade’s name from their dispatches, except in connection with any check the army suffered.
Despite these incidents, enough ground rules were now established to temper somewhat the warfare between press and government. The War Department unbent enough to issue regular summaries of military events that not only helped drive rumor from the news but gave newsmen guidance on what it was safe to report. For their part, editors compromised for the sake of the general good by toning down the accounts they printed of such Union debacles as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Security leaks remained a problem right to the end of the war, enabling Confederate commanders to continue gathering useful information on Federal strengths and intentions from Northern papers passed through the lines. Nor did irresponsible reporting disappear. In the competition for exclusives, newspapers had Vicksburg captured well before the event, and in the summer of 1864 one of Sherman’s officers wrote home that the correspondents took Atlanta some weeks in advance of the army.
Nevertheless, press corps professionalism grew with experience. “The judgment of our reporters not only becomes better,” the Chicago Tribune thought in 1864, “but their candor improves also.” The spur of competition had something to do with this, for papers were delighted to point out in print their rivals’ mistakes. The daily volume of war news might still be (as a foreign observer noted) “fresh, strong, and rather coarsely flavoured—like new whiskey from a still”—but it was confirmation of an essential principle surviving wartime pressures: the right of the people to know the truth, as best the press could deliver it.
The government’s efforts to manage the news during the Civil War present an equally checkered history. The most stifling of the censorshjp decrees fell through the weight of ineptitude and the enterprise of reporters. General Halleck’s press blackout of 1862 succeeded only in sowing confusion and dissension on the home front.
In remarking on that general’s attempt to ban newsmen from his army, Albert Richardson of the New York Tribune stated perhaps the single most important condition for the preservation of press freedom in wartime. It would never be achieved, he thought, “until it is clearly settled that an accredited Journalist, in the legitimate exercise of his calling, has just as much right in the army as the Commander himself, and is there on just as legitimate a mission. …”
If that ideal was not achieved by 1865, it was a good deal closer to realization than it had been four years earlier.