British Reporting on the American Civil War

The American Civil War held considerable importance for Britain. In 1861 it was estimated that one-fifth of the entire British population was dependent directly or indirectly on the prosperity of the cotton-manufacturing areas, which in turn depended on the American South for 80 per cent of their supplies. This clear commercial relationship made for sympathy with the South, but after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation it also became an embarrassment, because then the commercial interest had to be reconciled with Britain’s long-preached sentiments of humanity. A country so experienced in moral accommodation would no doubt have had little difficulty in bringing about this reconciliation, but the issue was further complicated by a major political factor. The ruling class in Britain had nurtured a barely concealed hatred of America and her democratic institutions, and now clearly desired their downfall. If the American experiment in democracy could be shown to have failed, demands for greater democracy in Britain could be kept from becoming an issue. Britain’s interests in the war were, then, very strong, and at one stage it appeared highly likely that she would actually intervene–the American general Winfield Scott, in Paris on a propaganda mission for Lincoln, had to return to New York to prepare for its defence against a British invasion….

But The Times began with a heavy disadvantage. Its chief proprietor, its editor, and its foreign manager were all singularly ill-equipped to handle the news from America during this important period of history. The chief proprietor, John Walter III, was openly anti-Unionist. The editor, John Delane, was ignorant of American affairs and had little feeling for American institutions. The foreign manager, Mowbray Morris, had been born in the West Indies and was in sympathy with the South and slavery. Since these were the men who not only engaged the correspondents to cover the war but also presented the news the correspondents sent, it is not surprising that The Times’ coverage of the Civil War caused such a cleavage between the two nations that it required a generation to heal it….

The engagement of [biased] war correspondents like Mackay and [Francis] Lawley and the adoption of a pro-South attitude in its leading articles were bad enough, but The Times went even further to promote the Southern cause. When New Orleans fell it carried black mourning borders; it suppressed the fact that a Liverpool shipyard was building a warship, the famous Alabama, for the South and recorded her sailing to begin a career as a commerce raider in only five words in its “Ship News” column. And it commissioned Spence, the Confederate agent in Liverpool, to write a series of pro-South articles for The Times, under the signature “5,” for which it made him a gift of a specially bound edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The combination of poor and subjective war correspondents and the attitude at The Times’ office towards America produced a disastrous coverage of the war.

In July 1863, misled by Mackay (who was to be made to pay for it later), The Times confidently predicted that the Southern general Lee was about to capture Washington. In 1864 it reported Sherman’s march to the sea as a folly from which he would find it difficult to extricate himself. When Sherman reached Savannah, Delane was made physically ill by the set-back, but recovered rapidly and was able to write that The Times was doing its best “to attenuate the mischief.” This took the form of a piece in which Sherman was given credit for “one of the ablest, certainly one of the most singular military achievements of the war,” but which then went on to say that the South had little use for Savannah as a port anyway.

At the beginning of the war The Times referred to Lincoln as an uneducated rail-splitter. Half-way through the war he was “a sort of moral American Pope” or “Lincoln the Last.” When he was assassinated, he was suddenly recognised as having been “one of England’s best friends.” Naturally, this recognition that it had been wildly astray in its military and political estimates of the war was not accomplished by The Times without some unpleasant recriminations and extensive scapegoat-hunting. Although it was clear that at least some responsibility lay with the executives, who had allowed their prejudices to interfere with their selection of war correspondents and with the manner in which they were briefed, blame had to be placed farther down the editorial ladder. So Mackay was peremptorily sacked. Morris broke the news to him. “This has been brought about by your blind and unreasonable condemnation of all public men and measures on the Federal side,” he wrote. “You have presented the English public with a distorted view of the Federal cause … Every statement was one-sided and every remark spiteful.”

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 34-40

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