Reporting from the American Civil War

Like many other aspects of the Civil War, its war correspondents have been romanticised into legend….

The legend conveniently overlooks the fact that the majority of the Northern correspondents were ignorant, dishonest, and unethical; that the dispatches they wrote were frequently inaccurate, often invented, partisan, and inflammatory. Edwin Godkin [of the London Daily News] wrote of his American colleagues: “Their communications are what you might expect from men of this stamp–a series of wild ravings about the roaring of the guns and the whizzing of the shells and the superhuman valour of the men, interspersed with fulsome puffs of some captain or colonel with whom they happened to pass the night.” Henry Villard, one of the better American correspondents, said, “Men turned up in the army as correspondents more fit to drive cattle than to write for newspapers,” and Professor J. Cutler Andrews, in his mammoth work The North Reports the Civil War, wrote, “Sensationalism and exaggeration, outright lies, puffery, slander, faked eye-witness accounts, and conjectures built on pure imagination cheapened much that passed in the North for news.” Given that it was an age of declamatory journalism and that objectivity was a rare quality, it is still a little disconcerting to find that one correspondent saw his job in these terms: “It is not within the province of your correspondent to criticize what has been done by the army or navy; nor will he state occurrences which it may be unpleasant to read.” Like him, most correspondents on both sides saw as an integral part of their task the sustaining of both civilian and army morale. A skirmish became “a glorious overwhelming victory,” a rout was transformed into “a strategic withdrawal before a vastly superior enemy,” a dead Confederate soldier had been not merely killed in battle but “sacrificed to the devilish ambitions of his implacable masters, Davis and Lee”; Confederate women had necklaces made from Yankee eyes, while the “unholy Northerners” used heads of Confederate dead for footballs. In this sort of reporting, accuracy mattered little, and the Northerner Henry Adams wrote from London to complain that “people have become so accustomed to the idea of disbelieving everything that is stated in the American papers that all confidence in us is destroyed.”

The correspondents fared little better in recognising the historic incident, in realising that they were privileged to be present at moments millions would later want to study as part of their nation’s development. No correspondent attending the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg took any notice of President Lincoln beginning, “Four score and seven years ago …” At the best, they reported, as did the Cincinnati Commercial, “The President rises slowly, draws from his pocket a paper, and when the commotion subsides, in a sharp, unmusical treble voice, reads the brief and pithy remarks,” and, at the worst, ended their accounts of the event with the single sentence “The President also spoke.”

One would have expected that the war correspondents from Europe, more experienced, more mature, and less involved than their American colleagues, performed more ably in the Civil War. Unfortunately, the majority were as bad, if not worse. More subtle in their bias, more devious in their propaganda, and better assisted by the political intrigues of their editors, they completely misled their readers on what was really occurring in America. The Times of London was particularly bad.

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. 20-22

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Filed under publishing, U.S., war

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