Civil War led journalism toward news

Reporters in the field did their best to convey truth

September 16, 1999|By Michael Kenney | Michael Kenney,Boston Globe

The Union forces appeared to be on the way to a major victory during the early hours of the first battle of Bull Run, and in midafternoon, the New York Herald reporter telegraphed his editors that he was heading back to the office "with details of a great battle. We have carried the day. The rebels ... are totally routed."

In New York, extras were on the streets by 5:30 that afternoon of July 21, 1861, hailing a great victory. But on the field at Manassas -- as the South calls the battle -- the tide had turned and the Union forces were routed by a fierce Confederate counterattack.

It was evening before the extent of the Union defeat became known in Washington, but when the reporter tried to file a correction to his earlier "victory" dispatch, he was told it was "too late to countermand dispatches already sent" and closed the office.

And when the Philadelphia Inquirer published the first complete and accurate report of the battle, angry, disbelieving crowds gathered outside its offices.

Such, reports Brayton Harris, were the professional perils of covering the Civil War. "It was not an easy job," he writes, for these early war correspondents "shared the weather and battlefield and 'amenities' with the common soldiers."

And of the 500 known to have covered combat in the war (350 for Northern papers, 150 for Southern), several were killed, about 50 had been held as prisoners of war, and "most just wore out."

Harris is a retired Navy captain. He served as a military censor in Korea, and he lends perspective not only to the Bull Run story, but also to the understanding of how large a factor censorship was in the reporting of the Civil War.

In the North, such action was initially against Southern-sympathizing newspapers. But, writes Harris, "suppression at times crossed over the line from controlling sedition to punishing honest criticism." When the St. Louis Evening News criticized Gen. John Charles Fremont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, for not having rescued the Union garrison at Lexington, Mo., Fremont closed it down only to be relieved of command after an investigation of his conduct.

South papers

In the South, there were few Northern-sympathizing papers and most of their publishers sold them shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. As Union forces took over Southern cities, they often took over the local papers as well. Among the illustrations is one depicting Union soldiers who had been printers before the war, putting out the Loyal Georgian, a "new Union paper."

Fredericksburg, fought on Dec. 13, 1862, "is perhaps the one battle that had everything," writes Harris. "It was covered on-scene by specials from Northern, Southern, and international newspapers" and was reported "with color, flair and style, the copy written under the pressure of competition and fear, most of it late at night by flickering candlelight."

Henry Villard, covering for the New York Tribune, "followed the initial assault as far as the first ridge outside of town, then lay on the ground to observe; by the middle of the afternoon he had seen enough" of what was to be a bloody Union defeat, Harris writes. He was halted by Union troops on the road to Washington but, "spurred on by a desire to beat the competition," found a pair of fishermen who rowed him out into the Potomac River, where he hailed a passing steamer.

After filing his story -- and sending it to New York by train to avoid censorship -- he was summoned to the White House to give an account of the battle to President Lincoln who, Villard wrote, was "very much obliged," for he was "very anxious and had heard very little."

In marshalling this lively account of Civil War reporting, Harris has wisely resisted the temptation to write about the battles themselves, giving only the barest essentials of the action while focusing on the way it was reported.

Perhaps best of all, Harris leaves the reporters to tell their own story as much as possible. As a New York Herald reporter challenged his readers: "Those who suppose that the labor of a news gatherer upon the battlefield is facile and rapid, should stroll, as I have, over the ground where the dead yet lie unburied, and the survivors expect momentarily to resume the conflict."

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