June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
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.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was a good hater, and he hated few things more than newspapermen. His encounter with the correspondent Floras B. Plympton of the Cincinnati Commercial in September 1861, five months into the Civil War, was typical. Plympton approached the general on a railroad platform in Kentucky and asked him for an interview. He handed over letters of introduction, including one from Sherman’s brother-in-law. Sherman’s response was a fierce glare and the demand that Plympton take the next train back to Louisville and out of the war zone. “Be sure you take it; don’t let me see you around here after it’s gone!”
“But, General!” Plympton protested. “The people are anxious. I’m only after the truth.”
“We don’t want the truth told about things here—that’s what we don’t want! Truth, eh? No, sir! We don’t want the enemy any better informed than he is. Make no mistake about that train!”
As the war progressed, Sherman warmed to his theme that the press was a “set of dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan”—defamers of the army and publishers of military secrets for which they deserved punishment as spies. While Sherman was admittedly an extreme case, his tirades pointed up the problems facing a free press in wartime. Most basic issues in the debate over the role of journalists in Vietnam—a debate given more recent currency by the Grenada invasion—first were aired in the Civil War. Not all the answers were at hand by 1865, but the important questions had been asked and certain precedents established.
At the time of Fort Sumter the American press was entering lusty manhood (it was preponderantly a male institution), brash and contentious, confident of its power to sway the public. It had a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of news, information, and opinion. The celebrated war correspondent William Howard Russell, sent by the Times of London to cover the American conflict, concluded that the press ruled the land, if not always wisely. The citizenry, he wrote in his diary, regarded the “chiefs of the most notorious journals very much as people in Italian cities of past time might have talked of the most infamous bravo or the chief of some band of assassins.” Of the nation’s 3,000 or so newspapers, the leading New York journals were the most influential. James Gordon Bennett’s Herald , Horace Greeley’s Tribune , Henry J. Raymond’s Times , and William Cullen Bryant’s Evening Post had an impact far beyond their circulations. (The Herald’s 80,000 led the dailies in early 1861; the weekly edition of the Tribune exceeded 200,000.) Countless papers across the country picked up copy verbatim from the New York journals, spreading the messages of these early press lords far and wide.
And messages they were. Where editorial opinion left off and objective reporting began was often difficult to discern. Correspondents were largely anonymous; if dispatches were signed at all, it was with initials or pseudonyms. As a rule, it was plain enough when one read any story in their papers where Mr. Bennett or Mr. Greeley stood on the matter. Nor was it necessary to read all the papers to learn the various positions of their publishers; editors devoted much space to extracts from their competitors, which they then attacked with great vigor. Indeed, attack was their favorite tactic in all things, and the thin-skinned —in the military, in the government, in the political arena—were to face rough times during the war years. Plympton’s Cincinnati Commercial , for example, soon took its revenge on General Sherman, announcing that his transfer from command in Kentucky in November 1861 was due to mental aberration. He was “stark mad,” said the Commercial , a canard that Sherman was to be a long time living down and one that did little to soften his opinion of the press.
As the newspapers mobilized to cover the war, it became obvious to both Washington and Richmond that, in the interests of military security, some measure of censorship was necessary. Neither press nor government had much in the way of precedent or policy to guide them. A civil war was a people’s war, the press insisted, and (as Plympton told Sherman) the people were eager for the truth. But how much truth were they entitled to, and was the press the best judge of it? It seemed clear that the right to know did not extend to troop strengths or movements or campaign plans, but what of army morale and arms-supply mismanagement and inept generalship? What would be the effect on enlistments and on civilian support of the war effort if defeat were portrayed with stark reality? When did patriotism overrule candor? And since newspapers passed through the lines with comparative ease, when did the public’s right to know conflict with the need to prevent the enemy from learning? Would reporters competing to be first in print act responsibly for the greater good? Would they slant news from the field to reflect their papers’ politics? Would the generals and the civilians responsible for managing the war respect the freedom to report if it came down to covering the tracks of their own ineptitude? Fundamental questions all; what answers were discovered came through frequently contentious trial and error.
The first move toward censorship involved control of the telegraph, which was revolutionizing both military and newspaper communications. Initially this was sporadic and local, but on July 8, 1861, less than three months after Fort Sumter, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott announced that henceforth the Washington telegraph office would carry “no dispatches concerning the operations of the Army not permitted by the Commanding General.” This was softened somewhat by a subsequent disclaimer: “This is not intended to stop telegraphic accounts of encounters or battles or other general information,” but only “to secure correctness in sending forward news. …” Yet it was clear enough that the army and the government would be determining that “correctness.” Richmond took a similar step at about the same time. No controls were placed on reporters directly or on their mail.
A corps of newsmen attached itself to the Federal army that advanced from Washington a few days later to meet the Confederates along Bull Run. Irvin McDowell, the Union commander, told William Howard Russell of the Times that he hoped reporters would outfit themselves in white uniforms indicating the “purity of their character.” McDowell was not known for his wit, and possibly he was serious. After the Federals had been checked on July 21 and fled pell-mell back to Washington, however, reporters found the High Command banning all telegraphic dispatches, regardless of their correctness. The New York Times called the effect of the censorship a “wanton and reckless trifling with the feelings of the public. …”
As often happens to bearers of bad tidings, the press came in for criticism after Bull Run. Greeley’s New York Tribune was denounced for pushing the army into action before it was ready with the strident and repeated war cry “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond!” But the sharpest fire was reserved for the man reputed to be the world’s leading war correspondent, William Howard Russell. When the issue of the Times carrying his account of the battle finally reached American shores a month later, the public was in no mood for Russell’s candor in terming the rout a “miserable, causeless panic … scandalous behaviour.” Threatening letters filled his mail, official Washington snubbed him, and someone tagged him “Bull Run” Russell. When the next spring his credentials were revoked, the “hideously outraged” reporter took the next steamer for home.
Samuel Wilkeson, the New York Tribune ’s chief Washington correspondent, was notably adept at cultivating government sources. He boasted to his managing editor that “[I] soon shall fasten my grapples on the necessary influences here. I shall have them….” The measure of his success was a special exemption, signed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, that allowed his telegraphed dispatches to the Tribune to go unread by censors. Another Tribune man, Adams Hill, had a pipeline to a complaisant assistant secretary in the War Department who let him read all the military telegrams as they arrived. In one instance the Tribune used such telegrams—which now would be labeled “top secret”—to attack General McClellan for failing to feed his troops into the Second Bull Run battle in August 1862, resulting in a Union defeat. And Malcolm Ives of the New York Herald brazenly announced to the War Department that he expected special preference in return for the Herald ’s support of administration actions.
Gen. George B. McClellan, appointed to replace the defeated McDowell, met with correspondents in an attempt to establish ground rules for self-censorship. He promised press facilities and cooperation in return for an agreement to publish nothing that would lend aid or comfort to the enemy. Someone wondered about maps of Washington’s defenses that had appeared in such illustrated papers as Leslie’s and Harper’s Weekly . McClellan professed no concern; the maps were so inaccurate they served the cause by confusing the Confederates. (The New York Herald also offered its readers war maps, some of such improbability that a competitor termed them “striking and lifelike pictures of a drunkard’s stomach.”) The more experienced and professional reporters expressed a willingness to exercise self-restraint, but it was seldom honored by the so-called newspaper guerrillas. These outriders on the fringes of journalism sent off to their papers whatever they could get their hands on, whether fact or rumor, without regard to military security. On occasion those in the field, in comfortable safety far to the rear, fabricated eyewitness accounts of battles. Unwilling to wait for the press to rid itself of the guerrillas, Secretary of War Cameron broadened General Scott’s restrictions on the telegraph into a ban on “all correspondence and communication, verbally, or by writing, printing, or telegraphing, respecting operations of the Army or military movements on land or water …,” and put teeth into the regulation with a reminder that the fifty-seventh Article of War imposed the death penalty for furnishing the enemy with such information. The principle of full censorship was thus established; how effective it would be remained to be tested.
While the history of the wartime press in the South has its rough parallels to the story of the Northern press, it proved to be much less of a testing ground of basic issues. In part this was simply a matter of size. The Confederacy had fewer newspapers to begin with, and the number soon dwindled under the pressure of Union gains in the Mississippi valley and around the Southern perimeter. In addition, the dailies and weeklies that survived shrank to four or even two pages as the result of shortages of everything from newsprint to reporters. Nor did Southern papers in general assume the adversarial stance that marked a large share of the press in the North. “Be therefore, I suggest, as amiable as consistent with truth,” the editor of the Charleston Mercury wrote his Richmond correspondent in the spring of 1862, urging him in his dispatches to present “as much as possible of the bright side of things.” This unity of support for the Confederate cause continued largely unbroken throughout the war, leaving the real debate over the role of newspapers in wartime to be fought out in the north.
That debate was to be greatly complicated by the institution of the press leak. Leaking inside information to favored reporters and editors was nothing new, but during the war it reached undreamed-of proportions. Every newspaperman had his sources, and now journalists were challenged daily to separate the practice of using sources for news gathering from the malpractice of sources using them for self-promotion.
Although he held no press conferences in a formal sense, President Abraham Lincoln had a generally amiable relationship with newspapermen. Correspondents wandered into the White House at all hours for a chat, on the understanding that what was said was (in today’s journalistic terminology) on “deep background” and not for attribution. The Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, complained in his diary that the President’s affinity for political gossip permitted “little newsmongers to come around him and be intimate,” but in fact, Lincoln usually got as much as he gave in such encounters, pumping reporters for whatever news they had and for insights into the mood of the country. This familiarity with the press was not universally appreciated. At a White House strategy conference in January 1862, McClellan confided to a colleague that he was reluctant to reveal anything to the President: “If I tell him my plans, they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret.” He added that Lincoln would tell everything to Tad, his eight-year-old son.
General McClellan was calling the kettle black. Shortly after this White House conference he wrote to his chief of staff, then in New York, and told him to see James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the Herald , and find out which of two Herald reporters in Washington was Bennett’s “confidential” man. “I would like to know which one Mr. B. wishes me to communicate fully & unreservedly with,” McClellan continued. “I am anxious to keep Mr. B. well posted & wish to do it fully—ask how far I can go in communicating important matters to either.” The general, a conservative Democrat opposed to the Republican administration, did all he could to drum up newspaper support for his own views, particularly his insistence that slavery not become a war issue. McClellan’s most trusted army confidant, Gen. Fitz-John Porter, wrote poisonous letters to the editor of the New York World , an antiadministration paper, denouncing government policies root and branch and predicting disintegration of the Army of the Potomac if emancipation ever became a reality. Both papers incorporated these leaks from the army’s high councils into their assaults on the Lincoln administration.
It did not take long for the officer corps to become aware of the power of the press. Many West Pointers and regulars distrusted newspapermen. Yet at the same time, any career officer could see the war as his chance for rapid advancement and could see as well that getting his name favorably mentioned in the papers did no harm. The West Pointer Henry M. Naglee was acknowledging this reality when he wrote to a Herald man after one of the Peninsular battles to explain what had really happened. “For God’s sake make no major-generals without knowing all of the truth,” he added. However gingerly, the regulars began to talk to correspondents, at least when the battle was done. “If I have watermelons and whiskey ready when officers come along from a fight,” the Tribune ’s Charles A. Page confided to Greeley, “I get the news without asking questions.” No reporter needed to ply a politically appointed general with anything beyond the promise to spell his name right. Newspaper support did much to keep military incompetents such as Nathaniel Banks, Franz Sigel, John Charles Frémont, and Benjamin Butler in command long after they had failed the test of battle.
If many leaks were more self-serving than harmful, others posed a clear and present danger to military operations. In October 1861 The New York Times prepared a story on a naval expedition, complete with details of its composition and force, and ran it before the ships even set sail. Samuel du Pont, commander of the flotilla, was furious and predicted that the story would be picked up by Southern papers—as, in fact, it was —”and may add some four or five thousand lives to the list of casualties, but what does the Times care for that if it can be in advance of rival sheets!” His fears were groundless, for he seized Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, at a cost of only thirty-one casualties, but the fact remained that a serious security breach had occurred. Early in 1862 a similar leak, this one in the New York World and the Chicago Tribune , appeared to compromise a naval expedition heading for North Carolina. In April the St. Louis Republican published its correspondent’s report on plans for taking Confederate-held Island No. 10 in the Mississippi.
Investigative reporting, too, ruffled official feathers. The detective Allan Pinkerton, in charge of McClellan’s secret service, complained bitterly that a newspaper had blown his cover. He had taken the cover name E. J. Alien and was horrified to find himself revealed to the world as Allan Pinkerton by the Washington Star in its exposé of his arrests of those suspected of disloyalty. (Unfortunately for the Union cause, Pinkerton’s unfrocking did not destroy his alleged usefulness, and he continued to crank out wildly exaggerated estimates of Confederate strengths that would contribute to the failure of McClellan’s 1862 campaigns.)
Inadvertence and inexperience accounted for most press lapses. The reliability of information—and of its source —was not easily judged by men new to the job of war reporting. Experience was needed to separate real news from “chin news,” that is, “somebody hearing something from somebody else, which somebody told him he got from somebody who heard from some reliable source,” as one newsman described it. Editors at the home office often enough showed poor judgment in distinguishing legitimate news from militarily sensitive information. Erratic censorship was another contributing factor to security leaks. A correspondent might find his entire story killed for some minor infraction, and the next day an unwitting breach of security would be passed unnoticed by what the Philadelphia Press called the “ignorant, political fops” who held posts as censors. Reporters were infuriated to find news cut from their own dispatches appearing in a rival paper. Whoever was to blame, the security leaks resulted eventually in an attempt at a total press blackout.
Edwin M. Stanton, who replaced Cameron as Secretary of War in January 1862, moved swiftly to centralize power in his office, including control over press censorship. All telegraph lines, rather than just those radiating from Washington, came under War Department management. Nothing that would allow the enemy even to guess at the position or strength of any forces or at any military movements, past, present, or future, was to be published. Violators would have their telegraphic privileges revoked and their papers banned from shipment by rail. Stanton also empowered police in the major cities to enforce this edict by seizing the press run of any offending paper. During McClellan’s Peninsular campaign against Richmond that spring, every correspondent with the army was required to sign a “parole” so restrictive about what could be reported that only the weather seemed a safe topic. It appeared that the news the government deemed fit to print was what Edwin Stanton elected to release from official sources. The New York Times raged at the “vexatious despotism of the War Department since Mr. Stanton became its chief… to Press and people an intolerable grievance.”
Stanton’s actions confirmed, at least in principle, the broadest construction of censorship, and the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives found that policy to have a chilling effect on press freedom. On March 20, the committee issued a report that included an appendix of suppressed dispatches that had nothing to do with army movements but dealt instead with political and other general topics. Of equal importance, the report noted, correspondents were deterred from writing similar commentaries “because they knew they could not send them to their papers by telegraph.” The committee concluded that to maintain a free press, telegraphic censorship “cannot extend beyond what may be legitimately connected with the military or naval affairs of the nation. …”
Stanton, as it turned out, was employing a tactic he was often to use: staking out an ambitious position and then retreating to safer ground when attacked. Some of his edicts were rescinded, and others became dead letters. When he ordered the suspension of Harper’s Weekly for publishing a bird’s-eye drawing of the siege of Yorktown on the Peninsula, for example, Fletcher Harper of the House of Harper confronted the secretary and pressured him into lifting the suspension by a reminder that Harper’s Weekly was a strong administration supporter. Some exasperated correspondents simply evaded the censorship. Reporters for the New York Herald smuggled dispatches to colleagues in Baltimore for forwarding to New York by special messenger.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.