Civilians in the Spotlight: Civil War Newspaper Propaganda Beyond the Battlefield

By Emily Jumba ’24

Pairing: The Bedford Gazette, July 10, 1863, Image 2 (“The First Onset—Death of Reynolds”) and The Western Democrat, July 21, 1863, Image 2 (“Another Account”)

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 Bedford Gazette’s “The First Onset—Death of Reynolds” and The Western Democrat’s “Another Account” both discuss not only the fighting of the battle of Gettysburg, but also the experiences of civilians throughout the battle. Both papers were from small towns, although they supported opposing sides of the war.  The Bedford Gazette operated out of Bedford, Pennsylvania and had a population of 1,328 people in 1860.  Charlotte, North Carolina (the home of The Western Democrat) was closer to the size of Gettysburg, with 2,265 people in 1860.  Although both newspapers came from similarly sized towns, the focus of their descriptions of the battle differed significantly.  Surprisingly, The Bedford Gazette delves into far greater detail on the specifics of the fighting and the people involved in it compared to its southern counterpart, despite the former’s article having been written sooner after the battle, when fewer battle details may have been confirmed.  In addition, the articles portray the experiences and character of the civilians whose homes were caught in the crossfire in vastly different way, perhaps as an additional means of war propaganda.

The Bedford Gazette was based in rural southern Pennsylvania, about ninety miles west of Gettysburg.  Immigrants (particularly Germans) predominately settled the area during the latter half of the eighteenth century.  The article “The First Onset—Death of Reynolds,” was originally published in Baltimore, although, curiously, the name of the Baltimore paper was not cited by The Bedford Gazette.  The article may have been borrowed from the unnamed Baltimore newspaper for two reasons: It has a heavy focus on the struggle of the Eleventh Corps (unlike many other post-battle articles that attempted to describe the first day’s fighting and often focused on the actions of the First Corps), and it painted the Pennsylvanian civilians in an overall positive light.  Residents of Bedford possibly felt ties to the Eleventh Corps because a significant number of immigrants (many of them German) filled its ranks. Many of the original European settlers of the Bedford area were German immigrants; thus, while local regiments did not fight with the Eleventh Corps, an ethnic connection existed between the two.  In the socio-economic hierarchy of the nineteenth century United States, German and Irish immigrants fell towards the bottom, and therefore were not generally portrayed in a very positive light.  This article, to the contrary, does portray people of German ethnicity as courageous soldiers who fought well, which likely appealed to the descendants of German settlers in Bedford. 

In addition, the article may have been chosen for re-printing in Bedford because it also portrays the civilians of Gettysburg in such a positive light, braving the bullets flying through the streets to aid Union soldiers in need: “They appeared elevated by noble impulses above the sentiment of fear,” the article gushed.[1]  As fellow Pennsylvanians living not far from the battlefield, Bedford residents would be eager  to consume news about the brave actions of their fellow civilians caught in the fighting.  Additionally, the paper’s glowing portrayal of Gettysburg’s largely German and Pennsylvania-Dutch community also would have struck a chord with the heavily German community of Bedford, particularly because so many newspaper reports of the time were rife with derogatory commentary about the supposed coarseness, selfishness, rudeness, and unattractiveness of Pennsylvania’s German settlements. The editor of the paper also likely hoped that this segment would serve as propaganda for supporting the war effort because it showcased the deep devotion to the war effort that even non-combatant civilians held in their hearts. This article stands out not only for mentioning the civilians at all, but also for highlighting their contributions to the war that defied typical nineteenth-century gender roles; instead of merely hiding out in their basements or fleeing the town altogether as passive and helpless victims, the women of Gettysburg were lauded for venturing out into the danger of battle to bring refreshments to the soldiers. In addition to praising and showcasing the supposed strength of Union morale among the northern citizenry and their unwavering devotion to the war effort, the paper also seems to imply that if the women of Gettysburg can risk their lives in patriotic service to the Union, then certainly so can their men on future battlefields.

“Another Account” in The Western Democrat is far less unit-specific in its description of the battle and portrays the civilians living in Pennsylvania as timid people who quickly fled town before the battle.  Rather than just focusing on July 1, 1863, this article describes all three days of the battle and describes the general movements of the Confederate troops on each day.  The units discussed are typically the usual names that appear in many newspapers regarding each part of the battle, rather than those in the northern article that focused on many 11th Corps troops.  Similar to its counterpart though, this paper describes its own soldiers’ fighting as valiant and heroic.  For example, when describing General Archer’s surrender, the “Another Account” article notes that his troops held out as long as possible while being greatly outnumbered to lessen the shame of surrendering: “[They were] taken prisoners…while obstinately refusing to yield a point that they were attempting to hold against overpowering numbers.”[2]   This article also takes a dramatically different approach to describing the northern civilians. It claims they fearfully abandoned their homes prior to the battle, which were full of food that the Confederates stole and items that they destroyed. In addition, it claims that the invasion shattered supposed  northern illusions of the southern army, stating, “The people were terrified, and wondered greatly that the poor, starving and weak Confederate army could be of such gigantic proportions.”[3]  Not only does the article show the Pennsylvanians  as cowardly and not being willing to stand up to defend their property, but it also tries to argue that the Confederate troops got the best of the northerners, whose land had thus far avoided most of the ravages of war.  The foodstuffs and other acquisitions that the Confederates made off with was a comparatively small  victory, but the editor was clearly scrambling to use that victory as propaganda to help put a positive spin on the otherwise disastrous Confederate defeat  which, he likely feared, would sink public morale.

Both “The First Onset—Death of Reynolds” and “Another Account” describe the battle of Gettysburg and the way civilians reacted to it, yet they include different details that could be used as propaganda to boost the morale of readers (particularly regarding their portrayals  of civilians).  Both attempted to accurately relay the facts of what happened during the battle; indeed, even the differing portrayals of the civilians contained varying elements of truth.  Each person experienced the battle differently, and while some people did flee the battle, others did attempt to provide refreshments for soldiers or help the wounded.  The large discrepancies between the articles mostly stem from the decision over which stories the editors wanted to tell and in what light, rather than whether specific actions actually happened or not.  In both cases, they chose civilian stories that would appeal to their audience and portray the Gettysburgians in a specific manner that benefitted their respective side, showcasing how even the common citizen could be weaponized as a propaganda tool in both the northern and southern press.

Works Referenced

“Bedford, PA Population.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

“Charlotte, NC Population.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. The XI Corps, German Immigrants, and the Battle of Gettysburg, 2017.

“German-Americans and the Eleventh Corps Historical Marker.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

“Gettysburg, PA Population.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

“History of Bedford.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

The Battle of Gettysburg. “11th Corps Organization at Gettysburg.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

The Battle of Gettysburg. “Monument to the 11th Corps at Gettysburg, Photograph and Map Location.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

The Bedford Gazette. “The First Onset—Death of Reynolds.” July 10, 1863, sec. Image 2.

The Western Democrat. “Another Account.” July 21, 1863, sec. Image 2.

[1] The Bedford Gazette. “The First Onset—Death of Reynolds.” July 10, 1863, sec. Image 2.

[2] The Western Democrat. “Another Account.” July 21, 1863, sec. Image 2.

[3] The Western Democrat. “Another Account.” July 21, 1863, sec. Image 2.

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