Small Town Civil War Journalism: Factual Reporting and Local Pride

By Emily Jumba ’24

Pairing: Raftsman’s Journal, July 15, 1863, Image 2 (“The Victory at Gettysburg”) AND Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle, July 7, 1863, Image 1 (“Union Victory! The Gettysburg Battles”)

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 Clearfield Raftsman’s Journal and Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle both published accounts of the battle of Gettysburg within two weeks of the fight’s conclusion.  Published in two different, small, central-Pennsylvanian towns, Clearfield was comprised of fewer than one thousand people, while Lewisburg boasted just a slightly higher population than Gettysburg (2400) in 1860.[1]  Unlike the larger papers rooted in urban hubs such as New York City, Philadelphia, or Richmond, small-town newspapers such as these likely experienced less pressure to include fanciful political propaganda about the war effort than did the major papers that both served as the political organs of those larger cities and sought to reach a national audience.  Thus, while both articles from these small-town papers focus on celebrating the Union triumph at Gettysburg, they both do so through surprisingly up-front and level-headed reporting, despite varying in their overall area of focus and tone.

The Raftsman’s Journal’s “The Victory at Gettysburg” is the more exuberant of the two articles, with it boasting of the various ways that the Confederate army and citizens would be demoralized after the battle of Gettysburg.  It begins with a broad overview of the battle, accounting for which side led after each day’s fighting, and then quickly shifts to a discussion of the battle’s various disheartening influences upon the Confederates that surely hung heavily upon them as they retreated south.  Influenced not just by a sense of national, but also state-wide pride, the author of the article describes the “unsurpassed in the world” abundance the Confederates found when they invaded Pennsylvania, from the flourishing crops to the plentiful reserves of young men who had not yet enlisted.[2]  The author claims that the Confederates would return South and tell their loved ones of the Northern bounty to the effect of “demoraliz[ing] public opinion in Rebeldom,” shattering the falsehoods that the Confederate government fed to them about the supposedly devastating impacts of the war on the Union.[3] On the contrary, the scenes greeting the rebel army were hardly the picture of a war-weary people, or of a land ravaged by war and on the desperate verge of surrender.  Although the tone of the piece is somewhat boastful, the article is unique for its insightfulness not only on the impact of the battle itself on the now-weakened Confederate army, but also on the accurate depiction of how personal observances of the enemy’s heretofore unblighted landscape and untouched resources did indeed cause Confederate soldiers—as well as the communities to whom they wrote home—to rethink prior notions of whole-hearted northern desperation and physical weakness.

“Union Victory! The Gettysburg Battles,” published in the Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle, takes a more no-nonsense approach to reporting on the battle and spends most of the article describing how various generals fared in the fight.  Rather than focusing on a defeated and demoralized Confederate army, the author informs the paper’s readers about the experiences and battle performances of several Union generals and lists those who were wounded or killed.  Out of these generals, the most time is spent on General John Reynolds and the ramifications of his death on July 1st.  It is clear that the author’s main task was merely reporting the news to the people of Lewisburg, a relatively small Pennsylvania town located northeast of Gettysburg, rather than projecting a sensationalized story to a national audience in competition with the political propaganda of other big-name papers. The difference in audience and reach thus likely allowed the author to focus more on a mere reporting of the facts (as they had heard them thus far, only a couple of days removed from the battle) to the paper’s readers.  Like the Raftsman’s Journal article, the article conveys a sense of uniquely local pride as it mentions, in particular, the noble fighting of a few companies from the surrounding area while glorifying the fallen members of those companies for sacrificing themselves on behalf of “the Gigantic struggle of the Age between Liberty and Despotism”.[4]

While these two articles take different approaches to their descriptions of the battle of Gettysburg, their reports are far less sensationalized than many of the articles published in the major newspapers that followed the war.  Free from the pressure of having to win over an audience from competing papers and divested of the responsibility to sway a nation’s heart and mind as to the promise and righteousness of the Union war effort, these rural, small-town papers dwelled more on delivering factual narratives and celebrating their “home-town” heroes.    Of course, the papers still contain some bias (i.e, the claims to the utter demoralization of the Confederate nation, the emphasis on local hometown companies as the best-performing troops of all, and the claims to the state’s boundless war-time prosperity), but they also spend a significant amount of time trying to unpack the facts of battle and what their constituents could reliably take away as the major outcomes of the fight.  Both articles use the term “victory” in their titles, yet they have vastly different tones, with the Clearfield article glowing triumphantly and the Lewisburg paper walking readers through the factual occurrences of the battle narrative. These articles demonstrate some of the more localized perspectives and agendas (or lack thereof!) of small-town Northern newspapers on the battle of Gettysburg and the war effort as a whole that often are overlooked in favor of the large-scale, sensationalized and hyper-politicized reports from the leading urban newspapers on each side. Nevertheless, like their larger counterparts, these papers, with their different angles and reporting tone, still remind us of the myriad of different ways that Civil War newspapers could interpret “victory”.

[1] “Clearfield, PA Population,” accessed November 4, 2022.

“Gettysburg, PA Population,” accessed November 4, 2022.

“Lewisburg, PA Population,” accessed November 4, 2022.

[2] “The Victory at Gettysburg,” Raftsman’s Journal, July 15, 1863, sec. Image 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Union Victory! The Gettysburg Battles”, Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle, July 15, 1863, sec. Image 1.

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