In Four Years in Rebel Capitals: An Inside View of Life in the Southern Confederacy from Birth to Death, one of the finest memoirs of the era, journalist T. C. DeLeon wrote that the South's best wartime newspapers—among which he included the Richmond Whig and Examiner—boasted the thinking of some of the sharpest minds in the region. Their pages "recorded the real and true history of public opinion during the war. In their columns is to be found the only really correct and indicative 'map of busy life, its fluctuations and its vast concerns' in the South, during her days of darkness and of trial."
DeLeon's words underscore the basic truth that Civil War America was a newspaper culture. When the war broke out in 1861, some 120 newspapers were published in Virginia. Every town of any size boasted at least a weekly paper. Richmond, a city of nearly 39,000 people, had four daily newspapers. Two years into the war, though, only seventeen of the state's papers were still in publication (and the attrition was not over). By mid-1864, outside Richmond and Petersburg, the number of pro-Confederate presses in the state could be counted on one hand. The causes of decline were numerous. Like men in other occupations, editors, printers, and their employees joined the army, creating a severe labor shortage. Then, as the conflict lengthened, the cost of newsprint, lead typeface, glue, and other supplies spiraled out of control, making it harder to stay in business. Union occupation of Northern Virginia, Norfolk, and other places closed still more papers or converted them into Union organs. Recovery was slow. Five years after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia still had only half the number of newspapers it had offered in 1860.
Months before Virginia seceded in April 1861, most of the state's newspapers had already embraced disunion. Robert Ridgeway, editor of the Richmond Daily Whig was the only editor in central Virginia to oppose secession during the Secession Crisis, and public pressure forced his resignation in March. "Lincoln gives us no alternative," his successor declared, "but to fight or run." In the Shenandoah Valley, the Staunton Spectator, in contrast to its Southern-rights rival, the Staunton Vindicator, remained strongly Unionist right up to the moment that U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 state militia to quash the rebellion in South Carolina. A day after the president's proclamation, the Spectator accused Lincoln of declaring war on the South.
Founded in 1804 by Thomas Ritchie, the Enquirer was the oldest newspaper in Virginia. Guided by Ritchie, a key figure in the group of elite Democrats known as the "Richmond Junta," the Enquirer had championed Jeffersonian Republicanism and Jacksonian Democracy. So prominent was the paper during the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren that it had earned a reputation as the "Democratic Bible." "Father" Ritchie died in 1854, and by 1860 the paper had been taken over by a small group of Richmond businessmen; its chief editor was O. Jennings Wise, son of former Democratic governor Henry A. Wise. Modeled after the London Times, the Enquirer was among the most read and most admired newspapers in the South at the outbreak of the war. Its editorials, writes historian Harrison A. Trexler, "were restrained and balanced and had real literary merit."
The Whig had long been the only Whig paper in the capital, and it retained its partisan identity during the war. Early on it evinced distrust of Confederate president Jefferson Davis's administration, one reason being the president's perceived bias against former Whigs. "Of hundreds of Brigadiers," or military men appointed to the rank of brigadier general, the paper observed, "less than a half-dozen Whigs, who happened to be West Pointers, were deemed fit for public duty and the rule was even more stringent in the civil service."
No editor in the South embodied the personal journalism of the era more than John M. Daniel, editor of the Examiner. Daniel was known for his mordant, combative personality and rapier-like pen. Diminutive in size but big in talent, Daniel gathered around him a talented editorial staff, which included Edward A. Pollard and his younger brother H. Rives Pollard. Along with the Whig, the Examiner would become one of the Confederacy's most influential critics of the Davis administration. Indeed, Daniel's hostility to Davis, a fellow newsman observed, was so extreme at times, so "like a frenzy," as to call into question the editor's mental balance.
The Dispatch had the largest circulation in Richmond and devoted far less space to editorials than its three rivals. This was perhaps just as well. Trexler scarcely exaggerated with his description of the paper's editorials as "devoid of critical content" and "juvenile, if not sophomoric." Consider, for example, the innocuous Dispatch editorial "Sectionalism," which appeared early in the Secession Crisis:
Any sectional organization is prima facie hostile. It is hostility to another section in some way or other. And in communities where such organizations occur it is absolutely necessary for peace and order, and to prevent separation, that, even in the ordinary elections, the equality of sections shall be preserved by electing officers alternately from the different divisions. If this be so even in municipal and State matters, how much stronger are the feelings of sectionalism in a Confederacy of States, and how much more imperative it is that measures of equality shall negative their dangerous tendencies.
Reporting and Propaganda
The first obligation of the wartime press was to report the war, which was no easy task given the era's transportation and communications. Then, too, beginning in 1861and continuing for the duration of the war, Confederate military and civilian officials censored war news, mainly through their monopoly of the telegraph. Richmond and other Virginia papers often supplemented the lack of news from Confederate authorities with reports from Northern papers or with reports from sources that reported as facts what in reality were only rumors. For more than a week after the Battle of Gettysburg, Richmond newsmen were totally reliant on Northern papers and rumors in reporting the battle. On July 7, 1863, four days after the battle ended, when Lee's army was in retreat from the Pennsylvania battlefield, the Examiner reported: "LATEST NEWS FROM THE NORTH. THE BATTLE RENEWED AT GETTYSBURG—THREE DAYS FIGHTING—THE BATTLE STILL RAGING—DESPERATE FIGHTING—" The next day, heeding a rumor, the Examiner claimed: "OUR ARMY AGAIN VICTORIOUS—MEADE'S ARMY ANNIHILATED—FORTY THOUSAND PRISONERS TAKEN—"
Even after Lee's army was safely back in Virginia, the meaning of what had happened in Pennsylvania remained unclear. "The Confederates did not gain a victory" at Gettysburg, the Examiner wrote, but "neither did the enemy. He succeeded in defending himself, and we failed in some portions of an attack.—But the failure was very different from that of the enemy at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. We killed more of the enemy than we lost; we took very many more prisoners than [we] lost." General Lee, the Dispatch claimed, abandoned the battle only after Union troops fled to high ground behind the town, occupying impregnable positions. The Dispatch opined "that, like most other events in this world," Gettysburg "has been productive both of good and evil, though we are disposed to think that the good more than balances the evil."
The loss of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with its 27,000 defenders on July 4, 1863, was harder to extenuate or exculpate. Taken by surprise, the Examiner allowed that the news from Vicksburg "is not less astonishing than unpleasant. It is the most unexpected announcement which has been made in this war." The defeat was all the more shocking, the journal rued, because Vicksburg "was impregnable by assault." Within days, however, Daniel's paper slipped into propaganda mode: "We do not hesitate to repeat what we have said before, that the public of the North and the South both rate the importance of Vicksburg far too highly." After first calling the news from Mississippi "a heavy blow," the Dispatch, like its rival, resorted to propaganda: "We tell our countrymen that they have no reason for despair, or even for despondency at the loss of Vicksburg. The pertinacious gallantry with which it has been defended has made our people place too high an estimate upon its importance."
Covering Jefferson Davis
Defeat trapped editors in a dilemma of their own making. Having adopted the posture of a "patriotic press," they felt duty-bound to sustain public morale and minimize setbacks. Defeat suggested that Confederate generals had been outthought and outmaneuvered by Union generals. Defeat implied, too, that Union soldiers had outfought their Confederate counterparts. Above all, the logic of defeats such as Vicksburg and Atlanta meant thinking the unthinkable: that the South might lose the war. Honest, objective reporting thus became tantamount to sedition.
Whenever a manifestly injudicious appointment is made, the exclamation is made, "Do not destroy confidence in the new commander and in the Government by objections which come too late to do any good. Since the appointment is made, the plain duty of every patriot is to uphold the Government, give the officer a fair trial, and await the result." Nor is this reasoning without force. Whenever the legitimate consequences of an injudicious appointment ensue in the shape of a disaster, such as the fall of Atlanta, the cry is raised, "Beware how you make bad worse. At a time like this, when the sky is dark, the plain duty of every patriot is to put on a smiling face, cheer up the people and sustain the government," etc. This reasoning also has its force; and thus the Administration is secure in its appointments, however unwise they may be. The most temperate and sensible opposition to such appointments is promptly silenced by the clamor "faction," "faction"; at all events, it is unavailing; compulsory acquiescence is claimed as popular approbation, and so the chain of causes and consequences (bad appointments and disasters) extends, link by link, its dangerous length, until, at last, the cause itself may be imperiled.
Richmond's newspapers never resolved the dilemma. At the positive end of the spectrum, the Enquirer generally supported the Davis administration, and earned the reputation of being an administration organ. In May and June 1862, when the Army of the Potomac, during the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days' Battles, hammered at the gates of Richmond, the paper worked to sustain public faith in the government, cautioning against know-it-all newspaper editors who wrote as if they could order victories with their meals. The president and his generals, the journal observed, bore the responsibility for tens of thousands of lives and the fate of the Confederacy itself; they had to "weigh the results of actions" as "newspaper generals" did not. In the years that followed, the Enquirer often chided its journalistic peers for what it deemed unwarranted attacks on the government. When the Sentinel began publication in 1863, it followed the Enquirer's lead in backing the government.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Enquirer and the Sentinel were the Whig and the Examiner. Even in the first months of war, neither was more than lukewarm in support of Davis's administration. After the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee early in 1862, both journals abandoned any semblance of neutrality. The Whig believed the defeats had cost Davis "the confidence of the country." The Examiner lamented: "If any candid observer is asked for the cause of our present tide of misfortune, he will be compelled to give the mortifying answer: that the Yankees have outwitted us; that they have managed their power with much more judgment; and that on just the point where the South was supposed superior to the North—that is to say, in the art of government—the Yankees have beaten us." Neither gazette ever retreated from their harsh consensus that Jefferson Davis was an incompetent war leader.
The Examiner and the Whig became the journalistic voices of the political faction in the Confederate Congress backing General Joseph E. Johnston in his long-running quarrel with President Davis. Regarding the Atlanta Campaign, they were as one in depicting Johnston as a proven, battle-tested commander and Hood as a commander woefully out of his depth. Both papers blamed Davis for the Atlanta disaster.
To be sure, Jefferson Davis was a flawed leader who made serious mistakes, and given the Confederacy's record of defeat from mid-1863 on, it is hardly surprising that the press became increasingly critical of the official who bore ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the Southern cause. Long before the war was lost, however, the Whig and the Examiner targeted the Confederate president for unrelenting attacks, which became increasingly personal and questioned not merely the president's direction of the war but his character and intelligence, as well as that of his cabinet officers (especially Judah P. Benjamin of the War and State departments, Christopher G. Memminger of the Treasury, and Stephen R. Mallory of the Navy). Historians disagree about the press's role in undermining confidence in the Confederate experiment. Common sense, however, suggests that as the Northern anaconda tightened its grip on the South, the daily diet of invective served up by the Whig and the Examiner contributed to the decline of morale.
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First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: May 18, 2011