The Biases of Battle

By Hayden McDonald ’25

In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses.  In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.

Post-battle newspaper accounts of the fighting at Gettysburg are rife with “factual” reporting, proclamations as to the larger significance of the battle to the war effort, and vivid descriptions of key portions of the battle. However, many newspapers immediately embraced political reasoning to explain not only how the battle unfolded and why, but also how particular generals performed on the battlefield and in what light the American public should hold them.  Two mid-summer, 1863 articles in the Boston Daily Advertiser and New York Herald embody this sort of opinionative reporting.

Granted, these two articles voice two very different opinions. One is very much interested in a surface-level understanding of the key players who took part in the battle. It is the very definition of popular reporting, valuing the men at the head of the Army of the Potomac based upon their celebrity, and more specifically, on their political affiliations. The Boston Daily Advertiser, run by Nathan Hale until his death in early 1863, was a Republican paper before the war. Its Republican biases undergird key portions of this article, such as when the author censures Chief of Artillery, General Henry Hunt for “a lingering fondness of slavery.” Interestingly, despite its own, transparent political biases, the paper disapproves of political sectionalism within the army. Given the constant rotation in command of the Army of the Potomac in the months before Gettysburg, the author predicts that, lamentably, it will be only a matter of time until General Meade is replaced due to politically motivated gripings about his military performance. While the paper presents many possibilities for his replacement, and has much good to say about a certain General Winfield S. Hancock, it is also critical of Hancock’s political aspirations, stating that since his ascension in the army, he “has since ever been ready to acquiesce in the policy of the Government.” It is worth noting that Hancock was a Democrat, which might explain some of the Advertiser’s skepticism.

The other article depicts the exact reverse interpretation of politics in the army. In fact, its explicit impartiality and calls for politically unbiased evaluations of army commanders makes it stand out in a period where political sectionalism in newspapers was all the rage. In a comparison of decisions made respectively by Generals McClellan and Meade after the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg that reads as if it could have been written today for its keen application of hindsight, comprehensive analysis of battle facts and situation-specific contextualization of military decision-making in and after each fight, and reporting from a bird’s eye view, the writer for the New York Herald points out much of the hypocrisy behind popular opinions of army commanders. As the article notes, both Meade and McClellan failed to pursue the Confederate Army into Virginia during their respective retreats from Gettysburg and Antietam, yet Meade was often applauded and McClellan was chastised. Instead of taking a political standing like the Boston Daily Advertiser, this author decides to take an unbiased view of things. “If, then,” the author writes, “there is little cause to find fault with Meade for not immediately following up the fruits of his victory, there is assuredly less for censuring McClellan for acting on the same prudential considerations.”  It would be easy, as many had done before, to look at McClellan’s political aspirations and use them to explain his failings as a military commander, or to hint at the efficacy of having only generals representing one of the political parties at the helm; employing such partisan rhetoric and politically motivated arguments to the assessment of generals’ military performance would be much more in line with what the Advertiser does. However, such is not the point of this publication. As the author himself states in the article’s final sentence, “Its [the article’s] object is simply to have the same even handed measure of justice dealt out to all, whatever may be their supposed political tendencies.”

Civil War was a time rife with extreme political bias that dramatically shaped how battles and leaders were discussed by the press and evaluated, both in print and by government officials in charge of promotions and replacements. Articles such as these played a critical role in shaping the debates about the role of politics in military assessment, occasionally urging fairness and politically unbiased analysis in popular evaluations of battlefield performance, and yet often unable to free themselves from the highly political lenses through which they represented the war and its leaders to the American public.

“Gossip About Generals,” Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, MA) August 14, 1863

“A Military Parallel—Antietam and Gettysburg,” New York Herald (New York City, NY) July 23, 1863

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