I’ve been looking for an adequate answer to this question for awhile and never found it before reading Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press. What role did newspapers and government intervention into newspapers play in the role of the Confederacy? In contrast to the rambunctious, contentious Northern press, which produced viewpoints of all kinds, why was the Confederate press so limited and controlled?
Holzer’s book isn’t just about Lincoln and the press but about the development of newspapers in the United States from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. Yes, Holzer looks at Lincoln’s deep involvement in the world of newspapers over the whole of his life and political career, but the book is more broadly about the connection between newspapers and politics in American life during the years leading up to the Civil War. Holzer shows not so much how changes in American newspapers affected the ways people saw the war, but how newspaper men actively intervened in and shaped and sometimes controlled Northern response, often including official response, to the war.
One of Holzer’s basic points is that far from creating comments that came from outside the world of U.S. politics, the U.S. newspaper industry was directly connected to the U.S. political industry, with many people going back and forth between roles at newspapers and official government roles as politicians. As his key opening example of this interconnection, Holzer gives details regarding the fact that in 1859, Abraham Lincoln purchased and subsequently ran a German-language newspaper operating out of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, although very few people even then knew about it. Lincoln’s investment (financial as well as political) in the world of newspapers was one of his most key and successful political practices.
Holzer’s 566-page book devotes only five of its pages to the history of Confederate newspapers. What’s surprising is that those few pages are all that’s really needed to answer the question of what the Confederate press was and what became of it.
Why did the Confederate press not keep its citizens as widely informed as the Northern press? Why was there so little information, why was it so controlled, and why did the Confederate press play such a very small role in the life of people in the South, offering them poor information, late information, and often enough no information at all?
For context, it’s important to understand that during the Civil War, in the North there was in no simple sense freedom of the press, although there was equally no simple censorship. Instead there were newspapers presenting all perspectives, including pro-slavery and pro-southern ones, and including newspapers whose owners and editors were accused of being, and sometimes were, traitors secretly supporting Confederate armies. It was often forbidden to report on the specific movements of troops, reports which might reach Confederate armies. The question of what ideas might be forbidden, under a national government that officially supported freedom of the press, depended on who you asked.
Who might do the forbidding was also a key issue, and the answer was different in different cases. Censorship was sometimes enacted on specific newspapers, editors, or reporters by Union army generals and other military and political representatives stationed in the local environments of the press in question. It was just often enacted unofficially by citizens who would attack press buildings or the operatives of those presses, including reporters, when those presses or reporters were seen as pro-Confederacy. If censorship was never a broad and clear political policy in the North, it was never absent either.
Lincoln’s response to all of this was, as Holzer shows, yet another example of Lincoln’s political savvy.
Lincoln said very little publicly on the subject beyond supporting general concepts of freedom of the press and denying that one had the right to tacitly or explicitly be a traitor. In practice he often said nothing when local officials shut down or destroyed an anti-Union press, although he sometimes chastised generals for going too far (especially if they weren’t generals who had won important battles). He also helped some Democratic presses and journalists (that is, those that might be pro-slavery and anti-war but not traitorous) return to production, although only after stern warnings. So Lincoln never said a lot publicly in favor of censorship while being willing to see it happen, encouraging or discouraging it in some cases.
So what was the Confederate Press like during the Civil War and why does it get only four pages in Holzer’s extremely detailed book? The answer turns out to be both simple and startling.
During the Civil War, in the South, Holzer writes, “a once robust two-party political culture vanished” (457). There was increasingly over the years of the Civil War no Confederate press at all.
Holzer lists a couple of key reasons why the Confederate Press vanished. One of them is not a lack of readers. People living in and under the Confederacy were often desperate for news, and just as often they couldn’t get it.
The first reason Holzer gives for the vanishing of the Confederate press was “near-universal white conscription.” Nearly all white males roughly ages 16-65 were required to join the Confederate army and fight, which left very few white men able to run a press or be a reporter. How the men who were exceptions came to be exceptions is something that Holzer’s book doesn’t discuss.
Another key element is that what Southern presses did remain were shut down quickly by the Union Army whenever a city was successfully invaded. The Union knew very well the role that Southern newspapers had played, often through false and outrageous stories, in creating the war in the first place, and so the army shut them down and also helped pro-Union papers in the South get started. As early as 1862, there were pro-Union papers in parts of the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia.
Lastly, and this reason was the most surprising to me: as the Civil War went on, the Confederacy and its supporters increasingly had little or no paper. And so, obviously, they had nothing to create a newspaper on. As Holzer points out, “The South boasted only a fraction of the nation’s paper mills before the war began, and fewer still once Union forces began occupying significant portions of its territory” (458). Given this extreme shortage of paper, newspapers had to cut back publication and increasingly just ceased. In some cases, they continued for a while publishing small, often even one-page editions. During the siege of Vicksburg, an extreme case obviously, the one remaining newspaper in town published a few small editions on the backs of former bits of wallpaper from (I’m guessing here) buildings abandoned in Vicksburg when the citizens left their homes during the bombardment to live in caves.
A few Confederate newspapers, like the Charleston Courier, held on longer than others, and surprisingly a few new periodicals Confederate periodicals opened (temporarily), but editions were small both in terms of numbers of pages and sizes of print runs and they could reach no more than a few people. Obviously, such papers had only limited information to offer and presented only pro-Confederacy perspectives.
A few years ago, a friend of mine said when I was talking with him about differences in the news and newspaper cultures of the North and South that he had probably assumed, without thinking about it, that news in the North and the South operated on relatively similar principles. As it turns out, not only was what could and couldn’t be said very different (not to mention what was and wasn’t said), what was even more different was the material and social conditions under which newspapers could say anything at all.
In the North, wildly energetic press activity tried to present a huge range of perspectives, including those of not just pro-slavery and pro-war voices but of acting traitors to the Union cause. It ran up against equally loose and fractious censorship activity, sometimes military and government, sometimes unofficial groups of angry citizens, activity that for the most part Lincoln quietly supported or condemned from a distance.
In the South, the one-party Confederacy had, over time, fewer and fewer newspapers to publish its perspectives, fewer reporters to write them, and ultimately no paper on which those perspectives could be written.
I’ll conclude this essay with one final thought: in the days of the Internet, any individual or group no longer needs paper to produce large scale editions of their perspectives that can be distributed widely. A post-paper, Internet news future is one in which the mechanics of reaching people has profoundly changed. It’s a change that will affect the future of war, rebellion, and revolution in ways we are only now beginning to see.