Monday, December 24, 2007
Reporting the Civil War
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston's distinguished man of letters, followed the war news with interest. Holmes wrote; "We must have something to eat, and papers to read. Everything else we can do without...Only bread and newspapers we must have."
To satisfy the public appetite for news a small army of Northern correspondents was organized. So thorough was their coverage that opposing generals sometimes learned more from enemy newspapers than from intelligence reports. General William T. Sherman, carrying on his own private war with the newspapers, grew apoplectic on the subject. "Reporters print their limited and tainted observations as the history of events they neither see nor comprehend," he wrote in agitated fury.
The Civil War also saw the dawn of pictorial journalism. Vivid eyewitness sketches by Alfred and William Wand, Henri Lovie, Winslow Homer and Edwin Forbes turned up in Harper's and Leslie's, bring the experiences of war vicariously to thousands who would never see a battlefield.
The best known photographers, Mathew Brady and Alexander Garner and others were recording the tragic scenes of the great conflict as well. Hundreds upon hundreds of period photographs survive and can be found in the collection held by the Library of Congress. Most of the scenes, of necessity, were taken of battlefields after the battle was fought.
Horace Greeley, the incomparable eccentric, was a leading figure in his own right. Across the nation Greeley's Tribune was the family news source. Horace was not above advising the President if he deemed it necessary. Lincoln often invited reporters to the White House, in fact. "I am always seeking information," he explained, "and you newspapermen are so often behind the scenes at thew front I am frequently able to get ideas from you which no one else will give."
The South had few, if any, professional reporters in the field. Most small Southern newspapers relied on soldiers sending letters for the war news. The newspaper Editors would recruit soldiers from hometown units to periodically send back letters reporting on the movements of a particular regiment or graphically detailing the events of a battle they had participated in. But whether amateur or professional, reporters reported and the news was printed. The citizens hungered for news of the war, both North and South and relished reading any scrap of information on the events of the war.
All photographs shown above, courtesy of the Library of Congress
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