Said of the grisly realism of the PBS series...


October 03, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

A COMMENTATOR said of the grisly realism of the PBS series on the Civil War that if there had been television at Antietam, public opinion would have required the Union to halt the war.

Maybe, but I doubt it. The public then knew what was going on. War journalism was the best ever till that time. The change from the previous war journalism was as dramatic as that television brought.

There was a mass literate audience for it, for the first time in history, and there was also a large body of literate men fighting the war. They both read the press and reported to it, directly and indirectly, through letters home. There were a lot of reporters on the scene. There had seldom been more than a few war correspondents in earlier American and European wars. More than 500 reporters from Northern newspapers covered the Civil War. Also, for the first time there was printing and communications technology available to provide readers with news in a matter of days or hours, while it was still news, not history, and thus affect mass public opinion.

Newspapers and magazines showed as well as told readers what was happening. They lacked the technology to print photos, but used much art work. Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Weekly alone had 80 staff artists and published some 3,000 drawings, much of battles.

A lot of the reporting from battlefields was poor. In fact, terrible. But a lot was quite good. A classic of all war journalism was George Smalley's coverage of Antietam for the New York Tribune: "The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse's steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are everywhere upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing that makes one's heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of the sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you cannot stop to give."

That story appeared in the Tribune a day later, and in The Sun and numerous other papers within a few days. Americans everywhere knew about Antietam's 1862 horror, without television.

The people who knew the war's horrors best were, of course, the soldiers who were fighting it. Did they want it over at any price? No.

In 1864 Lincoln favored the policy of unconditional surrender, with all its bloody implications of more Antietams. That policy was endorsed in the Republican platform. Democrat George McClellan ran on a platform that called for an immediate end to hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the South. (He himself was equivocal, but he was clearly the peace candidate.) Lincoln won with 55 percent of the vote. In the states where soldiers could vote, he got 76 percent of their vote. In Maryland soldiers voted 2,800 for Lincoln, 321 for McClellan.

So the people knew the horrors of the war and still voted to continue it.

But should they have? Was it worth it? Did it make any difference?

Saturday: "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg."

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