The War for Public Opinion: The Cunning Journalism of Civil War Newspapers

By Emily Jumba ’24

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.

The Wilmington Journal published both “The Bane and Antidote” and “Latest from the North,” just a week apart from each other, shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Both articles are aimed at reassuring the Confederate readers of the paper of a positive outcome for the South, yet they accomplish this goal very differently.  One article presents the battle as a clear-cut Confederate victory, while the other is included in the Wilmington Journal to demonstrate the supposedly desperately low state of home front morale in the North that had manifested in brazenly false publications of war propaganda, as well as the possible dangers of that Union propaganda to the Confederate cause, should it not be called out and condemned before the Southern reading public. 

The first article, “The Bane and Antidote,” which was published July 9, 1863, promotes the battle as a massive Confederate victory, comparing General Robert E. Lee to Napoleon Bonaparte, and repeatedly (though erroneously) stating that 40,000 Union troops surrendered to him.  Unlike many other post-battle articles that dwell on specific details of the fighting and the number of deaths and woundings, this piece focuses on prisoners of war.  Such an emphasis is important as the article goes on to suggest that those 40,000 soldiers surrendered because they were tired of fighting, simultaneously making Northern soldiers seem incapable of continuing much longer, while emphasizing the Confederate determination to keep fighting (as they reportedly did not surrender at all).  The article refers to Lee’s army as “never-defeated veterans,” compared to Meade’s “tired” army.  Such a statement is clearly Confederate propaganda to twenty-first-century eyes, but not so to many of the readers of this paper. Juxtaposed with General Joseph Johnston’s July 4 capitulation at Vicksburg (the title’s “bane”), this article is intended to lift Southern spirits with the positive news of the Gettysburg “antidote,” despite the piece’s authors not actually knowing the battle’s results for sure or even how many days of fighting had just taken place at Gettysburg!

The editors of the newspaper reprinted the “Latest from the North” from the July 6, 1863, evening edition of The Baltimore American in the July 16, 1863, edition of the Wilmington Journal.  This article includes many more specific details from the battle and argues that the battle of Gettysburg was a major Union victory that sent Lee into a disorganized and hasty retreat.  This marked change in reporting was not due to any new knowledge acquired by the Journal’s editors, however. Rather, the editors included the article clipped from The Baltimore American merely to demonstrate to their readers the type of war “propaganda” constantly being disseminated throughout the North, which starkly contrasted with the victorious tone and supposed “facts” in their own articles. Such propaganda was supposedly both illustrative of the North’s sagging support for the war effort, as it demonstrated a desperate need for such a  “fanciful” morale booster, and a pernicious attempt not only to falsely raise the hopes of the Northern public but also strike a blow to Southern morale.  In an introduction that the editors added to the clipped article, they state that they still do not know the specific details of the battle, but DO know about The Baltimore American, which they describe as, “the vilest Lincoln sheet in all the North, and has lied more on behalf of the Lincoln dynasty, than even the New York Times, or Forney’s Philadelphia Press”.  The editors made the concession that they received the article from a generous “friend,” yet still went forth in insulting The Baltimore American because they distrusted it so much.  Even the behind-the-scene connections of supposed “friendship” were not enough to prevent the Wilmington Journal editors from showing their disdain for the enemy paper and its reporting, as they portrayed it as pernicious “propaganda”.

While the two articles approach the battle differently (and were each originally written for newspapers supporting different sides of the war), they were both written to reassure their constituencies that their respective armies were winning the war, and it was only a matter of time before the conflict would end.  However, most interestingly, despite their vastly contrasting arguments, both articles also became key propaganda tools for the South: The Wilmington Journal brought both its own factually unfounded and wildly exaggerated reporting (pitched as truthful journalism) as well as The Baltimore American’s (actually impressively factual) article to the table as “proof positive” that the Confederacy had achieved not only a significant military victory at Gettysburg, but had sent partisan Northern newspapers into a flurry of panic and manipulative false reporting in an attempt to compensate for such a “disastrous defeat.” The Journal’s clever ability to weaponize both its own journalism and that of the enemy into morale-boosting tools to rally the fighting spirit of its Southern readers in the wake of two great battles— the outcome of one of which the editors truly did not even know—showcases the enormous power, influence, and cunning of Civil War-era journalism.

The Wilmington Journal. “Latest from the North.” July 16, 1863, sec. Image 1.
The Wilmington Journal. “The Bane and Antidote.” July 9, 1863, sec. Image 2.

Leave a Reply