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. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/data/batches/ncu_lumber_ver01/data/sn84026536/00295879117/1863071601/0114.pdf.
The Wilmington Journal. “The Bane and Antidote.” July 9, 1863, sec. Image 2. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/data/batches/ncu_lumber_ver01/data/sn84026536/00295879117/1863070901/0111.pdf.

The Battle Beyond the Bullets: Differing Perspectives of Northern Newspapers in July, 1863

By Lauren Letizia ’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.

Although originating from the same victorious North—and originally, the same exact newspaper—two accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg from the New York Times and the Delaware Gazette demonstrate remarkably different narrative tones, in addition to dramatic differences in factual reporting. Variances in publication date, unfolding access to battle facts, the evolving political agendas of each article, and the different types of correspondents who contributed to each article likely are responsible for these differences.

Printed on July 6, 1863, the New York Times “The Great Battles” portrays the Union victory in overwhelmingly glowing terms, with fiercely proud (though false) claims that the Union army had taken the lives of several key Confederate generals and soundly beaten the enemy at every turn, though at great loss to the Army of the Potomac as well.  Because correspondence networks and telegraph lines were still in their infancy, more prominent news outlets such as the Times had greater access to recent, if sometimes inaccurate, information than local papers and were all too eager to print it if it boosted their political agenda. As such, the July 6th Times article zealously declared “the death[s] of [James] Longstreet and [A.P.] Hill” while also proclaiming that every rebel “charge was repulsed with great slaughter.” The New York Times most likely printed this incorrect announcement for two reasons. First, they wanted to be the first paper to report this potentially war-altering information to the country. Such a laurel would give the paper fame and clout. Second, the deaths of Generals Longstreet and Hill would have not only crippled the Confederate high command and southern morale but also would significantly bolster the sagging spirits of the Northern home front far more than merely trumpeting a general victory over a faceless enemy. 

The July 6 Times article tries to assert its claims of truthful reporting of the facts by utilizing the actual dispatches of Union General Meade to Secretary of War Henry Halleck and a message from President Lincoln to the nation’s citizens. Because Lincoln urged Americans to revere the battle-worn troops and the Union victory, the succeeding reports would have wanted to echo this message throughout their chronology. At a time when Northern support for the war effort had been waning, emphasis on the glorified heroics of the Federals during a three-day slaughter was of paramount political importance. 

The Times’s actual battle accounts are written by “special correspondents” present during the fight. One such reporter, Samuel Wilkinson (known at the time for his unusually authentic and trustworthy journalism), wrote on July 3, “At the headquarters at which I write, sixteen of the horses of General Meade were killed by a shell. The house was completely riddled…… While I write the ground about me is covered thick with rebel dead, mingled with our own.” This eyewitness report has a more somber tone than the initial headlines and subheadings of the front-page articles.  Fitting within the overarching tone of the article, Wilkinson does applaud the heroics of the Union soldiers. However, he also includes stories of woundings and deaths, along with descriptions of the corpses. His more sobering perspective could be attributed to his position as a news reporter versus a member of the high command delivering an official military report or correspondence: Unlike Meade or Lincoln, politics did not demand that he hide the graphic nature of the battle’s human destruction, thus allowing him to report in a more holistic “view from the trenches” style.  

Wilkinson’s section of this article likely also differs even from those of other fellow field correspondents due to his witnessing his own son’s graphic wounding and death during the battle. Wilkinson was not only a first-hand witness to the great battle but a personal victim of its tragic perils. Certainly, when comparing Wilkinson’s account with that of any non-eyewitness journalist’s reporting, Wilkinson’s writing stands out for its unique ability to accurately capture the full physical and emotional scope of the soldier’s experience under fire than could that of any journalist writing from the safely of their offices in New York. Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s section of the article is but one within an overall glorious retelling of the resoundingly victorious Union army.

In comparison, the Delaware Gazette’s July 17, 1863 article, “The Gettysburg Battle” adopts a much more somber tone, depicting the battle, and particularly Pickett’s Charge, as anything but an inevitable Union victory, but rather a desperate and closely contested action in which both sides lost dearly. The two articles do share some similarities: The latter article does indeed make sure to glorify as enshrined “in the imperishable annals of the brilliant in history” for both the enormous destruction it inflicted on the enemy and the bravery of Union troops under extreme fire, and of course, the former article indeed includes first-hand, sobering accounts of battlefield woundings and deaths.  However, the latter article in the Delaware Gazette delves much more deeply into the moments of uncertainty that the northern troops faced, the ebb and flow of battle, and the battle’s unparalleled destruction than does the earlier, more celebratory piece. 

The Delaware Gazette begins its report by stating that the Battle of Gettysburg was “the most hotly contested and destructive engagement of the great rebellion.” Later in the account, the reporter recognizes the significant struggles of the Union Army. He does not hide that the soldiers had to fight mightily to defeat the Confederates. He describes the Federals’ reaction to Pickett’s Charge: “Our men looking with astonishment while fighting with great vigor; their line was dangerously weak; the defenses were not formidable. A few men gave way; our advance, in some instances slightly faltered.” Although the writer is still promoting the heroism of the Union men, he does not deny their setbacks during the Confederate attack and the very real moments of peril, panic, and doubt that many Union defenders felt when a wave of Confederates temporarily broke through their line at the Angle.

What is interesting is that, although re-published in the Delaware Gazette, this latter account was originally pulled from none other than the New York Times. This was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as small newspapers often took their facts and reporting cues from national news outlets. Given that both articles stemmed originally from the Times, it makes a comparative analysis of the tone and content all that more interesting. These two Northern newspaper sources demonstrate the complexities and difficulties of reporting news in the 19th century, specifically on noteworthy news of the ongoing war. Often, biases or agendas, incomplete information, and unpredictable acquisition of new facts muddied the waters for reporters seeking to inform the public, and invariably, the unique perspective of each and every contributor to each article shaped the tone and content of individual pieces in significant ways. These two competing narratives of the facts and human impact of the Battle of Gettysburg provide just one example of the murky contours of journalism during the Civil War.

“The Gettysburg Battle,” Delaware Gazette, Delaware, OH, July 17, 1863.

“The Great Battles,” New York Times, New York, NY, July 6, 1863

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

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