By Hayden McDonald ’25
The Impossibility of Raising Another Rebel Army (gale.com) : New York Herald (New York City, NY) July 10, 1863
The Battle of Gettysburg (gale.com) : Camden Confederate (Camden, SC) July 17, 1863
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.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, commanders, soldiers, and civilians alike struggled to make sense of what really happened on the field. Often, even soldiers fighting on the same side and on the same field walked away with curiously different perceptions of the battle they had just endured. Additionally, in an age without instantaneous communications, the line between fact and fiction could be obscured, and rumors quickly turned into to “reality.” As first a trickle, and then a flood of first-and second-hand reports of the fighting at Gettysburg made their way back to the home front, both local and national newspaper publishers found themselves with a plethora of differing and contradicting information. Many newspapers, having no way of determining the cold hard facts, published stories that turned out to be less than true. However, other publishers, aware of the influence their pens wielded, capitalized on the confusion surrounding Gettysburg and its aftermath to bolster their respective war efforts, regardless of factuality. Two such articles, one published by the Northern New York Herald and the other by the Southern Camden Confederate, provide a glimpse into how the outcome of Gettysburg was construed or altered to serve ulterior motives in print.
Although these two articles stemmed from opposite sides of the conflict, they both overstate the gains of their respective nations, while understating the achievements of the enemy. Such reporting methodology was by no means unusual during the Civil War, but the extent to which each paper misconstrues events to paint its respective army in the best light possible ventures into the realm of the conscious spread of disinformation. The first article, published by the popular Northern paper, the New York Herald, paints the Union’s victory at Gettysburg as absolute. It opens with the direct statement that “the rebels staked their all upon the invasion of the North, and in losing the battle of Gettysburg have lost it all.” This characterization of the fighting leaves no room for misinterpretation: The Union utterly and completely defeated the Confederate army at Gettysburg. In fact, the paper goes on to claim, the victory was so complete that “a few skirmishes and guerilla fights will end the war, and our armies, as they advance, will occupy the rebel cities without opposition.” These are bold words from the Herald, and words which would not prove to be true.
Unfortunately for the North, the war would drag on for another year and a half, with the fate of its final outcome hanging desperately in the balance even as late as the summer of 1864. The solemn fact that, despite the hard-won victory at Gettysburg, the war was far from over is exactly why the Herald utilizes such uncompromising language: The war must go on after Gettysburg, and so the North must capitalize on the victory to combat war-weariness and continue to increase support for the conflict that had been lagging in the months leading up to the battle. This article, published on the 10th of July, 1863, appeared before the public eye only three days before the outbreak of the deadly draft riots in New York City. Many Northerners were tired of fighting and the Peace Democrats were gaining traction; thus the Herald understood that it must bend the facts a little if it was to improve public opinion of the conflict and maximize the influence of the battlefield victory on home front morale.
The other piece, published by the Camden Confederate, offers an exact opposite interpretation of what happened at Gettysburg. While the Herald’s language is a tad fanciful, it is still based on the plausible reasoning that if Lee’s army were truly destroyed, the war could not, in fact, continue for much longer. The Camden Confederate, however, actively spreads misinformation about the outcome of Gettysburg. Though the extent of the Union’s victory at Gettysburg may be up for debate, the reality of the Confederacy’s battlefield defeat is not disputable. Much in the same vein as the article from the Herald, this piece presents a complete and ultimate Southern victory at Gettysburg. “He [Lee] has been engaged with the whole force of the United States and has broken its backbone.” Any possibility of construing Lee’s withdrawal as a mere retreat is explained away by the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia is simply overburdened with wounded and prisoners that it must remove to safety, and that, after all, “Hagerstown is nearer to Washington than Gettysburg.”
While the propagandistic usefulness of this type of reporting is clearly evident in bolstering Southern support for the war, it is also worthwhile to note that the publishers of the Camden Confederate may not actually believe that the information they are reporting is inaccurate. The publishers note that they are receiving their information about the battle and its aftermath from the Richmond Examiner, a prominent Confederate newspaper based in Richmond, Virginia. The scarcity of accurate reporting in the South, especially in a place as far away from the action as Camden, South Carolina, means that Richmond was typically the determining agent in what was fact or fiction. If the Camden Confederate’s article proves to be untrue, individuals have nowhere else to turn to with blame than to the Richmond papers themselves.
The dichotomous narratives created by these two drastically different (content-wise), yet similar (methodology-wise), articles offer a further glimpse into the nature of reporting during the Civil War. As is true of much of today’s journalism, reporting did not always contain true, raw, evidence-backed facts, as both ulterior political motives and the difficulty of procuring reliable information in places so far from where the fighting occurred and in such a short span of time often blurred, if not totally obscured, the line between fact and fiction. Gettysburg may not have been the absolute victory that the Herald or the Confederate speak of, but due in large part to the written words of both battle participants and period newspapers such as these, how the public has perceived its outcomes and aftermath has been ever shifting, whether it be a week after the battle, or a century-and-a-half.