- Historic Sites
The Media And The Military
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Reason enough for Sherman to hate the press, but his detestation of the media went deeper than hurt feelings over personal attacks. In 1855, when he was a partner in a San Francisco bank, Sherman had gone to the local newspapers to ask them to stop printing inflammatory articles on the wobbly economics of Northern California and was coldly refused. That the press would risk possible financial panic to pursue some quixotic search for truth struck Sherman as irresponsible. Also, the very development of the popular press in the nineteenth century was part of a democratic tide that terrified the general, who admitted to being something very close to a monarchist. He saw the rise of landless mechanics, freed blacks, and the penny press, with its ideas that one man’s vote was as good as anyone else’s, as an invitation to civic chaos. He couldn’t do much about the mechanics because they were shouldering weapons in his army, and he held off the blacks at more than arm’s length by trying to restrict their participation in the Western theater to work in labor battalions. He could get at the press, however, and he attacked it vigorously, describing correspondents as a “set of dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan.” He routinely banished reporters from his command, had several of them arrested, and stood ready to order up the firing squad when he could get one of them in his sights.
In truth, the press did not draw from the elevated levels of society. Henry Adams said he went into journalism as “the last resource of the educated poor who could not be artists and would not be tutors. Any man who was fit for nothing else could write an editorial or a criticism.” It should be remembered, however, that as the troops, freshly levied from farm and factory, had to learn how to be soldiers, so a large body of newspaper reporters had to learn how to cover a war.
American newspapers had eagerly reported the progress of the Mexican War fifteen years earlier. This was the first conflict to field war correspondents, but news they gathered took so long to get from the distant desert armies that it could scarcely offer any help to Santa Anna by the time it reached the headlines. Most of the Civil War, on the other hand, would be fought out close to a telegraph key. And it was a civil war: to an extent, the more serious lapses of the men who covered it had to reflect the uncertainties and terrible cross-purposes of the time.
There were some grave breaches of security. Sherman was forced to fight a battle he had hoped to avoid at Goldsboro when the Confederate general William Hardee read in the New York Tribune that that was where the Yankees were heading. “It’s impossible,” Sherman told his staff, “to carry on a war with a free press.” Surprisingly, some of the press agreed with him. Henry Villard, a distinguished correspondent and editor, allowed that “if I were a commanding general, I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.”
Sherman fought a battle he had hoped to avoid after a Rebel general read where the Yankees were going in the New York Tribune.
It was pointed out at the time that Sherman may have also hated the press because he was “too much like them to love them.” Sherman wrote supremely well and could have been a media star earning considerably more than his general’s pay had he switched professions. Worse even than being a mere newspaper scribbler, Sherman was a natural-born publicity peddler. When he telegraphed Washington in September 1864, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” he showed he knew something of how to fashion a headline, and four months later, when he wired President Lincoln offering him the city of Savannah as a Christmas present, he delivered a masterstroke in public relations.
In an irony of history, Sherman, who was so pilloried in the press, may have also been a chief beneficiary. When he was girding up for his march, newspaper stories about a lunatic Union general coming South with a torch to set fire to the Confederacy struck precisely the note that the general wished to be sounded. Southerners, he said, “entertained an undue fear of our western men, and, like children, they had invented such ghost-like stories of our own prowess in Georgia they were scared by their own inventions.”
Freedom of the press as guaranteed by the Constitution is a particularly American concept. While the American press is not impervious to control or attack, it is afforded legal protections not available elsewhere. During World War I, Winston Churchill seriously suggested that The Times of London be commandeered and turned into an official government publication, to be used as “a sure and authoritative means of guiding public opinion.”
By this time the press had become an unpleasant fact of life for the military. If correspondents could not be kept off the field, however, it was essential they be controlled. The British press and army censors acted in concert to keep the horrors of trench warfare out of news accounts. Late in December 1917 Prime Minister David Lloyd George confided to the editor of the Manchester Guardian : “If the people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”