James McPherson Talks About the New York Times's Coverage of the Civil War

Roundup: Talking About History

From NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ (June 22 2004):


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On April 15th, 1861, the (technical difficulties). With the start of the Civil War, newspapers became more important than ever. A new book called"The Most Fearful Ordeal" collects The New York Times' newspaper coverage of that war. It not only gives us an idea of how the battles were described in their own time, it shows the state of journalism in that year (technical difficulties). He's a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of several books about the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning"Battle Cry of Freedom." Here's a short reading from the beginning of George Smalley's report on the Battle of Antietam which was written for the New York Tribune and was also published in The Times. Smalley was actually a volunteer aide for one of the generals at the battle.

Mr. JAMES McPHERSON (Author): 'Fierce and desperate battle between 200,000 men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is the greatest fight since Waterloo, all over the field contested with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo. If not wholly a victory tonight, I believe it is the prelude to a victory tomorrow. But what can be foretold of the future of a fight in which from five in the morning till seven at night the best troops of the continent have fought without decisive results?'

GROSS: It wasn't easy for George Smalley to get his copy from the battlefield to the newspaper. James McPherson told me how Smalley did it.

Mr. McPHERSON: And when it was over, he went to Frederick, Maryland, hoping that he could telegraph his report on what he saw to the Tribune. But the lines were tied up and he couldn't get through, and so he hired a locomotive to take him to Baltimore. He tried to get through from Baltimore and couldn't get through, so he took a train from Baltimore all the way to New York, stayed up all night long and all the next day writing his article while he was riding on the train and got into New York on the morning of the 19th and, exhausted, hadn't slept for probably more than 48 hours, turned in his article. And the Tribune published it on the 20th, and it is generally regarded as--and it's several thousand words, it's five or 6,000 words. It's generally regarded as the best example of Civil War reporting and maybe one of the best from the 19th century.

GROSS: What was the importance of newspapers for Americans during the Civil War?

Mr. McPHERSON: Newspapers were really the only medium of communication for civilians in the Civil War. It's the only way they could find out immediately what was happening in the war. The telegraph had been invented about 15 years before the war and during the 1850s, just about every part of the country was wired so that reporters could send in information from considerable distances to newspapers and the War Department in Washington could get reports from far-flung Army commanders and then give that information to the newspapers so that, unlike any previous war where there had not been telegraphic dispatches, people in Boston or New York or Chicago could read about military operations, great battles that had taken place just a day or two before.

GROSS: News reports are often called the first draft of history. You point out in your notes in this book that the news reports were sometimes wrong. What was an example of that?

Mr. McPHERSON: There was a tendency--and this was true of all newspapers on both sides in the war, especially in their first reports of a particular battle--to exaggerate the success of their own side, to minimize the casualties of their own side and to maximize the casualties of the other side, a little bit like the body count statistics that many of us can remember from the Vietnam War and that we're actually seeing again sometimes in Iraq.

A good example of that is the second battle of Bull Run which was one of the most humiliating Union defeats at the end of August of 1862. And the initial reports sent in by the special correspondent of The New York Times talking about the Confederates in this battle writes, 'They are in a country utterly barren of supplies and have been too busy to forage for them if the country did afford them. The rations they carried with them must be exhausted, and the opinion, therefore, begins to be suggested as probable in well-informed circles that today's battle'--the battle was even then going on--'or at least tomorrow's must exhaust their resources and compel either a surrender or a hasty retreat.'

Well, a Northern reader reading that story would assume that the Confederates were on their last legs, that this was going to be a great Union victory. But then two or three days later, the news comes that, in fact, it was a great Confederate victory and it's the Northerners who are beating a hasty retreat. So here is a story that raises hopes high only, when the truth finally comes in, to dash them all the more severely.

GROSS: Since the treatment of prisoners has been such a big news story in the news from Iraq, I thought I'd ask you to read a paragraph that was from a news item in July of 1861. And this is about the treatment of the wounded Union soldiers by rebels who captured them. And would you read this paragraph for us on page 84?

Mr. McPHERSON: I surely will. 'The treatment of our wounded by the rebels is reported as having been brutal to the last degree. Several soldiers assert that they saw them repeatedly draw their knives and cut the throats of our men as they lay upon the ground. Others stabbed them with their bayonets and inflicted every conceivable indignity upon them. In charging up the hill on the Warrenton road, they set fire to the house used as a hospital for our men, some of whom escaped the flames by getting through the windows. A Massachusetts man passing a wounded rebel stopped and gave him water but had not gone five rods when he saw him trying to stab another wounded man lying by his side. Such brutality would disgrace savages.'

Let me say about that that atrocity stories like this were fairly common on both sides in the early months of the war, when the war was a novelty, when the level of demonization of the enemy was at its highest. As the war went on and as it became clear that these early stories were quite exaggerated, there were far fewer atrocity stories. People were more realistic about that. And while the treatment of POWs on both sides in the war certainly left a lot to be desired and there was a high mortality rate among prisoners, that was more often a consequence of disease and neglect rather than deliberate atrocities.

This reporter in this story is reporting what he's been told. For example, 'several soldiers assert that they saw them repeatedly draw their knives and cut the throats of our men.' He's not necessarily reporting what he saw himself. What's important about it, though, I think is that when people in the North read this, they believed it; at least, at first they believed it. I think they became more skeptical and even cynical about reports as the war went on, but it did a lot to mold Northern opinion and, for that matter, similar stories in the Southern press to mold Southern opinion in the early months of the war and probably, I think, had something to do with making this war more and more bitter, violent, more and more thorough as it went on. The Civil War started out as a war merely to suppress an insurrection, a kind of police action. And as time went on and as casualties on both sides mounted and as the stakes for both sides grew larger and larger, the war became far more bitter, far more violent, far higher number of casualties. And I think these early atrocity stories probably had something to do with that....

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