News in the American Civil War

During the Civil War newspaper reporting dramatically came of age.  As the fight spread across the United States, so did masses of reporters and journalists. All of the major daily newspapers of the time were spreading rapidly throughout the North and the South leading to an all-time high in reporting. One of the major daily papers at the time, The New York Harold, had over forty reporters on the battlefield. Risk became a huge factor during civil war reporting. Some of these reporters would be located right near the front lines in order to get a more accurate representation of the events. These men were ready to give their lives for the sake of news.

Photo of George Smalley riding his horse among the men in the Front Lines

The bloodiest and most important battles of the Civil War, Antietam, became one of the biggest news events of an already momentous war. A reporter from the New York Tribune, George Smalley, insisted on getting the story of this battle onto his newspaper. Smalley was so close to the front lines of Antietam that his horse was killed by stray bullets. Smalley had to walk almost 30 miles to a telegraph office, only to find out that it was closed. Smalley then sat on a log all night and wrote his story of the battle. When morning struck, he turned his story into the telegraph operator and got it published in an extra edition. This is one story among the many reporters that reflects how committed they were to getting the news.

 

Drawing of Peter Wellington Alexander

While Smalley was able to get the news of the union victory, another reporter, Peter Wellington Alexander of the Savannah Republican, was aware that the perspective of the losers in this battle would also greatly interest the public. Alexander greatly represents the plight of the Confederate troops in his article, “A fifth of the troops are barefooted; half of them are in rags; and the whole of them insufficiently supplied with food” he wrote. “Since we crossed into Maryland, and even before they frequently had to march all day and far into night for three and four days together, without food of any kind, except such apples and green corn as they could obtain along the way.”(Savannah Republican, October 1, 1862).

 

The risks that Smalley and Alexander were willing to take in order to present accurate news to the public is extremely admirable. They were able to show how much journalism had changed over 30 years. Newspaper editors were previously content with letting the news arrive at their doorstep, whereas in this new generation of news, reporters aggressively emersed themselves into a story in order to deliver worthwhile news to their readers.

The reporters were the primary part of making a good story, however, these journalists were not the only people covering the war. Credit has to go out to the talented artists and photographers who were also putting themselves out there as well. This was the first time where artists and photographers had extensively been a part of reporting a war. To be honest, the job of these men was probably the most difficult. Government and military officials put their foot down when it came to the visual aspects of reporting because they didn’t want to reveal any military tactics or information. So, drawings had to be censored to things like one man firing a cannon, or a shot from a musket.

Examples of drawings shown in Newspaper's due to military restrictions
Examples of drawings shown in Newspaper’s due to military restrictions

At the end of the day, the American Civil War was one of the most important events in the history of news due to the impact and positive changes it had on the news as a whole.

 

Sources to learn more

G W Smalley of the New York Tribune covered the American Civil War

https://www.americanantiquarian.org/earlyamericannewsmedia/exhibits/show/news-and-the-civil-war/civil-war-reporting-and-report

https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/civil-war-journalism.html

 

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