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

A Sweet Serving of History

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.

Imagine a small-town ice cream shop– a local place on the main drive through town. It’s small and welcoming, with brightly painted walls and today’s special flavors exhibited on a chalkboard out front. It’s a spot to stop in and enjoy some quality ice cream with the family, somewhere to get out of the sun and enjoy some sweets, a place to relax and enjoy your vacation.

 It’s a place like Cone Sweet Cone, situated on Baltimore Street, in historic Gettysburg. However, like many other places in Gettysburg, this ice cream shop serves up its sweet treats with a side of history. When you walk through the doors, on your right you’ll see a glass display case with photos and memorabilia relating to aviation during the Second World War–some for sale, others for decoration only. A table stands across from this display, just a few feet from the ice cream bar. On this table lie a plethora of unassuming wooden pieces, each one stamped with the name of an historic location within Gettysburg. The way the shop is situated, your eye is inevitably drawn to them as you wait in line for your ice cream. Your stop for a sweet treat now is imbued with a distinctly historic association—an association authenticated by a slip of paper lying next to the wood fragments that explain the significance of the objects, their historic credence, and why they are for sale in this shop.

The fragments are from a tree that witnessed President Abraham Lincoln’s procession down the same street that the ice cream shop stands upon on November 19, 1863, while en route to the newly created Soldiers National Cemetery to deliver his famed Gettysburg Address. Clearly, these are no ordinary bits of wood; rather, they are tangible pieces of the past—hand-held witnesses to some of the most important events in Gettysburg’s, and the nation’s, history. Surely you must take one home with you!

These pieces of wood, like much of historic Gettysburg, offer an “authentic” and tangible connection with the town’s history which, when held in one’s palm, seem to offer an immediate transplant to the past–an avenue of escape from the modern, commercialized present into the dramatic historic events that transformed the town into a national icon.  People who are standing in line waiting for ice cream will suddenly find themselves thinking not about what flavor to get, but about the trees which stood just opposite where they are now, and what great events they bore witness to. The casual visitor who might think they had “left the past behind” when exiting Gettysburg National Military Park is now reminded that, in fact, the battle’s history surrounds them wherever they go in the town itself.  Suddenly, their carefree ice cream purchase has taken on an entirely new and specialized meaning, which they can remember and share with others through the purchase of one of the storied wood fragments; in turn, their unexpected encounter here with history is thus associated with the enjoyable sensory experience of ice cream eating at Cone Sweet Cone in particular—the historical and the commercial thus reinforcing each other.  

The store’s blending of an offer of historic authenticity with the light-hearted consumerism inherent in visiting an ice cream shop is brilliant. The majority of people who stop by this ice cream shop will be tourists, and many will, in their travels throughout the town, be looking to take home something with them to remember their trip and their encounter with one of the nation’s most cherished historic sites. What better commemorative item to purchase, then, than a piece of a real witness tree?! In a town filled with t-shirts, mugs, and snow globes, the authenticity of this historic piece of wood is all the more enticing and thrilling.  Furthermore, with so many different historic stampings to choose from on the various wood fragments, why not collect them all?  You may walk into this shop hoping for ice cream, but you might just walk out with a piece—or two or three–of Gettysburg’s history in your pocket.

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