Augh, nothing’s worse than being a two-star major general about to lead a campaign into Vicksburg, only to have some pesky news reporter expose your location and foil your plans.
The Civil War was the first major war to take place in the era of the free press. Early newspapers were expensive to print and required political sponsors, making them little more than partisan outlets delivering messages from wealthy politicians.
The invention of the steam-powered printing press in the 1830s changed that business model. Low production costs meant that journalists could write content for the working class, who cared less about Congressional proceedings and more about gossip. Wider circulation made advertising an attractive source of revenue, so papers focused more on what the people wanted to read and less on what stories politicians wanted to tell.
People were especially interested in Civil War gossip because many had family members on the battlefield. Thanks to the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line and the railroad boom, reporters could head to the front lines and relay information back to local publishers, who would circulate new developments within hours.
This was bad for military commanders, who wanted to protect their operations from enemy intelligence. Senior officers knew that victories on the battlefield could lead to a position as commander-in-chief, especially if the media enhanced their reputation. If commanders denied reporters access to coverage, the press could retaliate by destroying their political careers.
General William T. Sherman was one of the top Union generals, but he forbade reporters from accompanying his troops. The newspapers responded by portraying him as a hallucinating lunatic. Major General George Meade led the Union victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, but after he evicted a reporter on a mule, several journalists got mad and formed an embargo. From then on, all of Meade’s successes were credited to Ulysses S. Grant, while any setbacks were attributed to Meade. General Meade goes down in history as a goggle-eyed snapping turtle.
After the war, the most press-friendly generals became the next four elected presidents: Ulysses S. Grant (twice), Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield. The latter two were far less instrumental to the war than Generals Meade and Sherman, but they were really good at establishing relations with the press.
Stronger government controls weren’t enacted until the 1917 Espionage Act, shortly after US entry into World War I. President Woodrow Wilson insisted, “Authority to exercise censorship over the press is absolutely necessary to the public safety.”
It’s been a long time since the US fought any war that had anything to do with the safety of the country, but Vietnam taught us that the best military strategy is to limit the flow of information to the public. Lyndon B. Johnson’s biggest mistake was to claim that the Vietnam War was not a war, which meant that censorship controls were unnecessary. Free-roaming journalists brought footage of all sorts of death and dismemberment into American living rooms, which made people unhappy.
Pictures of body bags are bad, civilian death counts are bad, even footage of coffins is bad. Today we have embedded journalism, where carefully screened reporters are attached to military units and release staged photos and pro-war propaganda. No one in the media has a clue what’s going on, so unnamed government officials helpfully fill them in. Mainstream media have returned to being lightly edited press outlets for government agencies, just as they were two centuries ago. Is it any wonder no one reads their nonsense anymore?
Randy Ferryman. The Unresolved Tension between Warriors and Journalistsduring the Civil War. Studies in Intelligence Vol 58, No. 3 (September 2014)