Daily Archives: 25 May 2005

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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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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