Abraham Lincoln and Journalists

Abraham Lincoln and Journalists


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(New York: Longman Publishers, 2003 )
One day in April 1864, President Abraham Lincoln walked across the hall to the office of aide John Hay. Mr. Lincoln “picked up a paper and read the Richmond Examiners recent attack on Jeff Davis,” wrote Hay in his diary. “It amused him. ‘Why’ said he ‘the Examiner seems about, as fond of Jeff as the New York World is of me.” 1 Although the New York World was a Democratic newspaper partly owned by Democratic National Chairman August Belmont, there were many Republican newspapers who also bedeviled the President during the Civil War. President Lincoln tried not to pay too much attention to his press critics but he was kept abreast of what the newspapers were saying. As President, according to journalist Noah Brooks, “Lincoln found time to read the newspapers, or, as he sometimes expressed it, ‘to skirmish’ with them. From their ephemeral pages he rescued many a choice bit of verse, which he carried with him until he was quite familiar with it.”2 Historian Gabor Boritt noted that “a chief means of his listening was the press as digested by his assistants, and it was through the press that he could shape public opinion.” 3

The press found much to criticize and the President found much to ignore. Assistant Secretary John Hay had been commissioned a major in the army before he undertook a mission for the President in Florida in 1864. The press abused the President for trying to set up a reconstruction program in Florida that supposedly would give him extra delegates at the upcoming Republican National Convention. It abused Hay for his military commission. Hay wrote: “the original lie in the [New York] Herald was dirty enough and the subsequent commentaries were more than usually nasty. But the Tycoon never minded it in the least and as for me, at my age, the more abuse I get in newspaper the better for me.” 4 Mrs. Lincoln was less forgiving. British newspapers were particularly brutal on the Lincolns, especially Charles Mackay of the Times of London. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard reported that Mackay “went to the White House at Saturday’s reception, seemingly forgetting all he had said and written for the English public concerning the lady of that house. I doubt if he will make many more calls there.”5

The situation in Washington was much different from that in Illinois where Mr. Lincoln had strong relations with almost all the editors of Whig and later Republican newspapers. Mr. Lincoln’s relationship with the Chicago Tribune is illustrated by a June 1859 letter he enclosed with payment for his subscription: “Herewith is a little draft to pay for your Daily another year from to-day. I suppose I shall take the Press and Tribune so long as it, and I both live, unless I become unable to pay for it. In it’s devotion to our cause always, and to me personally last year I owe it a debt of gratitude, which I shall never be able to pay.6

Mr. Lincoln’s relationship with the Illinois State Journal in Springfield was particularly close, especially with its first editor, Simeon Francis. Copley newspapers executive A. W. Shipton wrote: “As far as Lincoln was concerned, the retirement of the Francis brothers from the Journal did not place the paper in the hands of strangers. Edward L. Baker, the new editor, though twenty years his junior, was a son of a lawyer whom Lincoln had met in many courts. He was also a man of fine education, having graduated from Shurtleff and Harvard, and was a member of the bar himself. Under the new management, Lincoln continued to frequent the office of the Journal as he had for many years in the past. “He was a frequent visitor at the Journal Office,’ wrote J.D. Roper, who later became one of the publishers of the paper, ‘always greeting everyone with a pleasant word. Sometimes he had with him his two small boys, who would often slip out into the work room, just back of the editorial room; when Mr. Lincoln would find that the boys had gone, he would go and find them, leading them back by the hands; this would occur two or three times at each visit when the boys were with him. Most of these visits would occupy an hour or more, talking with Mr. Baker, editor, and reading the New York Tribune and other eastern papers.'”7

Abraham Lincoln “never overlooked a newspaper man who could say a good or bad word about him.” 8 Lincoln had ample access to newspapers from the time he served as New Salem’s postmaster in the 1830s and was able to read them as a fringe benefit of his job. By the time he was nominated for President in 1860, his access had broadened. In June 1860, a New York journalist “asked Mr. Lincoln if he saw much of the Democratic papers. He said some of his friends were kind enough to let him see the most abusive of them. He should judge the line of tactics which they intended to pursue was that of personal ridicule.”9

Mr. Lincoln understood the importance of the newspapers’ written reports. At the Freeport debate in August 1858, one of the proprietors of the Chicago Press and Tribune yelled out as Mr. Lincoln was about to begin his presentation: “Hold on Lincoln. You can’t speak yet. Hitt ain’t here, and there is no use of your speaking unless the Press and Tribune has a report.” The proprietor, William Bross, reportedly took notes until Robert R. Hitt could get into position. 10 After his defeat 1858, Mr. Lincoln wrote Charles H. Ray, co-owner of the Chicago Press & Tribune whose stenographer had transcribed the Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I wish to preserve a Set of the late debates (if they may be called so) between Douglas and myself. To enable me to do so, please get two copies of each number of your paper containing the whole, and send them to me by Express; and I will pay you for the papers and for your trouble. I wish the two sets, in order to lay one away in the raw, and to put the other in a Scrap-book. Remember, if part of any debate is on both sides of one sheet, it will take two sets to make one scrap-book.” He added: I believe, according to a letter of yours to Hatch you are ‘feeling like hell yet.’ Quit that. You will soon feel better. Another ‘blow-up’ is coming; and we shall have fun again. Douglas managed to be supported both as the best instrument to put down and to uphold the slave power; but no ingenuity can long keep these antagonisms in harmony.”11 Illinois newspaper editors helped create the political fun that came in 1860. Beginning with Jeriah Bonham of the Illinois Gazette, they wrote editorials proposing or promoting Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy for President. Although some like the Press & Tribune’s Joseph Medill initially supported other candidates, most claim to believe they should promote the Lincoln candidacy — even if they did not think it would succeed.

As President-elect facing the secession crisis, Lincoln got much of his information from the newspapers. Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote that of President-elect Lincoln: “Hungry for information, he himself assiduously read the newspapers and daunting torrent of mail that pour in, much of it proffering conflicting advice. ‘He reads letters constantly — at home — in the street — among his friends. I believe he is sorely tempted in church’, reported the youthful John Hay.”12 Although he was previously an omnivorous newspaper consumer, as President Lincoln declined to read them. Perhaps because Lincoln’s early political training had prepared him for the sometimes vicious rhetoric of frontier politics, Lincoln was better prepared to deal with much harsher criticism during the Civil War. One Wisconsin newspaper editor described the President as a blockhead, flatboat tyrant, despot, fanatic, fool, imbecile, moron, orphan-maker and widow-maker.”13

President Lincoln came to the conclusion that he knew more about public affairs than did his newspaper critics. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard wrote: “For newspaper public opinion he cared little. At one time in 1861 he directed me to make a regular synopsis, every morning, of what I might deem the most important utterances of the leading public journals. I kept it up for a fortnight, and gave it up in utter despair of securing his attention to the result of my labors. He knew the people so much better than the editors did, that he could not bring himself to listen with any patience to the tissue of insane contradictions which then made up the staple of the public press.”14 Historian Richard J. Carwardine noted that “Lincoln had a healthily skeptical attitude to press criticism, which rarely moved him to anger and which he commonly dismissed as ‘noise’ and ‘gas’ generated by ignorance and editorial self-importance. On the biggest of issues, emancipation, he said ‘he had studied the matter so long that he knew more about it than they the editors did’.” 15 Yet, observed Carwardine: “From editors and political leaders Lincoln learnt that military events had achieved what the clamor of radical Republicans had signally failed to do: secure unusual political convergence around a policy of military emancipation, since slavery was now increasingly regarded as ‘the lever power of the rebellion’.”16

President Lincoln’s handling of the Emancipation Proclamation illustrated both his dexterity in using the press and the way he was abused by newspapers. Lincoln scholar Robert S. Harper wrote in Lincoln and the Press: “In the interval between the preliminary announcement and the actual Proclamation, President was subjected to a barrage of criticism that was unusual even for his administration. The Democratic press grew still more hostile, and even those newspapers of that party which supported the war regretted the change in policy. Under the heading, ‘The President and His Critics,’ the Springfield (Mass.) Republican published this story from its Washington correspondent:

“Some one sent Mr. Lincoln a batch of newspaper criticism upon him and his conduct of the war last week. In speaking about it to a friend, Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Having an hour to spare on Sunday I read this batch of editorials and when I was through reading I asked myself , ‘Abraham Lincoln, are you a man or a dog?’ The best part of the story was Mr. Lincoln’s inimitable manner of telling it. His good nature is equal to every emergency. The editorials in question were very able, and yet Mr. Lincoln smiled very pleasantly as he spoke of them, though it was evident that they made a decided impression upon his mind.”17

Journalism historian Edwin Emery wrote: “Few presidents suffered more from editorial abuse than Lincoln. Opposition editors and disappointed favor-seekers accused him in print of vicious deeds, which the patient President usually ignored. He was falsely accused of drawing his salary in gold bars, while his soldiers were paid in deflated greenbacks. He was charged with drunkenness while making crucial decisions with granting pardons to secure votes, and with needless butchering of armies as the result of his lust for victories. Once he was accused of outright treason. Typical of his press detractors was the La Crosse Democrat, a Wisconsin weekly, which said of the draft: ‘Lincoln has called for 50,000 more victims.'”18 Historian Fawn M. Brodie wrote: “Even Lincoln was called Robespierre by irresponsible copperhead journalists and Confederate editors, but most newspapers correctly styled the President a Conservative Republican, and never placed him in the Radical camp.” 19 Edwin Emery wrote: “The leniency and patience of Lincoln, often mistaken for weakness, kept the press reasonably free through the terrible war period. He made full use of the press as a sounding board of public opinion, and he respected the institution.”20

Although many journalists were supporters of the Union effort, some inadvertently undermined that effort. Writer and poet James Russell Lowell observed: “The pedlers of rumor in the North were the most active allies of the rebellion. A nation can be liable to no more insidious treachery than that of the telegraph, sending hourly its electric thrill of panic along the remotest nerves of the community, till the exited imagination makes every read danger loom heightened with its unreal double.”21

Artist Francis B. Carpenter wrote: “Violent criticism, attacks, and denunciations, coming either from radicals or conservatives, rarely ruffled the President, if they reached his ears. It must have been in connection with something of this kind, that he once told me this story. ‘Some years ago,’ said he, ‘a couple of ’emigrants,’ fresh from the Emerald Isle,’ seeking labor, were making their way toward the West. Coming suddenly, one evening, upon a pond of water, they were greeted with a grand chorus of bull-frogs, — a kind of music they had never before heard. ‘Ba-u-m!’, ‘B-a-u-m!’ Overcome with terror, they clutched their ‘shillelahs,’ and crept cautiously forward, straining their eyes in every direction, to catch a glimpse of the enemy; but he was not to be found! At last a happy idea seized the foremost one, he sprang to his companion and exclaimed, ‘And sure, Jamie! It is my opinion it’s nothing but a “noise!” Carpenter also recalled that on one “occasion, the President was induced by a committee of gentlemen to examine a newly invented ‘repeating’ gun; the peculiarity of which was, that it prevented the escape of gas. After due inspection, he said: ‘Well, I believe this really does what is represented to do. Now have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of ‘gas’ from newspaper establishments.”22

Some of the criticism got to Mr. Lincoln. Carpenter wrote: “During the brief period that the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was editor-in-chief of the ‘Independent,’ in the second year of the war, he felt called upon to pass some severe strictures upon the course of the administration. For several weeks the successive leaders of the editorial page were like bugle-blasts waking the echoes throughout the country. Somebody cut these editorials out of the different numbers of the paper, and mailed them all to the President under one envelop. One rainy Sunday he took them from his drawer, and read them through to the very last word. One or two of the articles were in Mr. Beecher’s strongest style, and criticized the President in no measured terms. As Mr. Lincoln finished reading them, his face flushed up with indignation. Dashing the package to the floor, he exclaimed, ‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?'”23

Some press criticism of the President was almost pure spite. When the newspapers lampooned the President for sharing his ideas about the performance of Shakespeare’s plays with actor James H. Hackett, Lincoln wrote Hackett: “I have not been much shocked by the newspaper comments upon it. Those comments constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.'”24

To the annoyance of his Cabinet, President Lincoln cultivated some of the important reporters who covered Washington — such as former Illinois resident Noah Brooks. Historian Richard Carwardine wrote: “Like Simon P. Hanscom, the anti-slavery Bostonian who edited Lincoln’s favorite paper, the Washington National Republican, and also became a frequent caller, Brooks acted as a sounding-board and source of political gossip.”25 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles complained in his diary: “It is an infirmity of the President that he permits the little newsmongers to come around him and be intimate, and in this he is encouraged by Seward, who does the same, and even courts the corrupt and the vicious, which the President does not. He has great inquisitiveness. Likes to hear all the political gossip as much as Seward. But the President is honest, sincere, and confiding,–traits which are not so prominent in some by whom he is surrounded.”26

Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln worried about the expectations which newspapers created for the war telling one journalists that newspapers were often ahead of the hounds. He declined to give an advance copy to the Associated Press of this letter to James Conkling to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois on September 3, 1863. According to journalist Noah Brooks, “On the day before its delivery he had refused an advance copy to the Washington agent of the Associated Press, saying that, though solemn promises not to publish had repeatedly been given, he had found the practice of furnishing advance copies to newspaper to be a source of endless mischief. That night the New York Evening Post published the letter, and it was telegraphed back to Washington before it was read at the Springfield Convention.”27

The Lincoln Administration used the press just as the press abused the Lincoln Administration. “Even before 1861, the New York Associated Press (NYAP) was playing a central role in transforming American journalism. But the Civil War generally, and telegraph censorship in particular, enhanced the NYAP’s importance to the nation’s press.” wrote communications scholar Richard B. Kielbowicz. “The NYAP’s Washington bureau chief was Lawrence A. Gobright, a twenty-eight-year veteran of capital reporting who had joined the wire service in 1855.”28 A New York Tribune reporter complained that the Lincoln Administration made “use of him for the public diffusion of intelligence of the war and the policy of the administration. He has become almost as much the agent of the Govt as the agent of the newspapers.” 29 By distributing material to Gobright, the Lincoln Administration was assured of its wide distribution and his dispatches were generally free of the telegraph censorship accorded other newspaper transmissions.

Lincoln scholar Robert S. Harper wrote: “President Lincoln tried to remain aloof from squabbles between correspondents and heads of departments. Irate reporters sometimes appealed to him, but he would tell them he did not know much about censorship and coax them into good humor with one of his anecdotes. But the stories the reporters wrote out of Washington were not always passed over so lightly by the Chief Executive. One day he entered the office of L. E. Chittenden, Treasurer of the United States, visibly angry and waving a newspaper clipping. A New York newspaper, making a personal attack on him, said he took his pay in gold while Union soldiers were paid in greenbacks worth only fifty cents on the dollar. As a further insult to Lincoln, the story said Jefferson Davis drew his twenty-five thousand dollars per year in Confederate money, then worth about one-fourth its face value. The story was a lie from start to finish. Lincoln told Chittenden he hoped the scoundrel who wrote the story would ‘boil hereafter.'”30

But Mr. Lincoln wasn’t above encouraging more favorable treatment. Historian Gabor Boritt noted: “The list of his beneficiaries among newspaper people is long, and the aid and comfort Lincoln received in return often matched the gifts he gave. Notwithstanding the establishment fo the Government Printing Office, he bestowed printing contracts, and also advertising, government jobs, military commissions, and good words when needed.” 31 Mr. Lincoln was required to interact with the nation’s editors in many ways — from heir correspondence, the editors involvement in politics and office holding, their coveting of the office of postmaster. His interactions with working journalists were more casual. “The White House, while Mr. Lincoln occupied it, was a fertile field for news, which he was always ready to give those correspondents in whom he had confidence,” wrote journalist Benjamin Perley Poore. When news was censored, reporters would sometimes bring their complaints to President Lincoln who “would endeavor to mollify their wrath by telling them a story.” Poore said: “Often when Mr. Lincoln was engaged, correspondents would send in their cards, bearing requests for some desired item of news, or for the verification of some rumor. He would either come out and give the coveted information, or he would write it on the back of the card, and send it to the owner.”32

Mr. Lincoln understood the mutual interdependence of the press and the presidency. In 1864 wanted to promote his reelection to the presidency so he called in Joseph H. Barrett, editor of the Cincinnati Gazette and Commissioner of Pensions, to write a campaign biography of him as Barrett had in 1860. It was an interesting choice since Barrett was also close to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who had also been angling for the Republican nomination. Barrett rushed the biography to completion. Historian Joseph R. Nightingale concluded that “there is little doubt that President Lincoln reviewed Barrett’s work, though he would avoid the appearance of a direct connection to it; manners still required the illusion of a candidate being dragged into office by a clamoring public.”33 Another campaign biography, History of the Administration of President Lincoln, was written by Henry J. Raymond, the editor of the New York Times and chairman of the national Republican organization.

One of Mr. Lincoln’s favorite editors was a pugnacious former Democrat, John W. Forney, who had opened a Washington newspaper during the Civil War as a sister publication to his Philadelphia periodical. Robert S. Harper wrote: “One of the features carried by The Press was a column of political gossip out of Washington, signed ‘Occasional.’ This column was usually written by Forney, closely watched by the Republican and Democratic press as a news pipe line from the White House. Lincoln tried his hand at writing this column in at least one instance. On August 16, 1861, Forney sent a clipping of the President’s article to Simon Cameron, then Secretary of War, so he would be sure to see it.” 34 Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted that President Lincoln “departed from the conventional presidential practice of designating one Washington newspaper as a house organ, and instead played for broad press coverage by doling out tidbits of critical information to eager newspapermen like John W. Forney of the Washington Chronicle and Simon Hanscom of the Washington National Republican. To both Hanscom and Forney, Lincoln would deliberately leak hints, news, and trial balloons, allowing Hanscom to open up an ‘official Intelligence’ column in the Republican and encouraging Forney to expand the Chronicle from a weekly into a daily. But by denying either of them official status, he also kept them subservient. Much as Forney thought Lincoln ‘the most truly progressive man of the age,’ he was exasperated by the number of times he had waited on Lincoln, hoping to pick up some publishable scoop, only to be asked, ‘What is the latest joke I have heard.'”35

Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Lincoln himself composed a few articles specifically for the newspapers and gave careful thought to where his public letters should first appear before they were copied Union-wide. He controlled the press’s access to his private meetings, allocated lucrative government printing contracts to selected Republican papers, and rewarded loyal editors and correspondents with well-paid jobs at home and abroad. Unsurprisingly, loyal correspondents made up the presidential trainload to Gettysburg in November 1863, their place on the platform assured; hundreds of local papers subsequently printed and celebrated Lincoln’s speech, in repudiation of Democratic ridicule of a ”silly, flat and dish-watery utterance’. Probably most important of all, Lincoln, though not dependably accessible to reporters, made sure his door was open when it needed to be.”36

President Lincoln often relied on journalists for information — especially from the war front. After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Villard evaded Union troops attempting to prevent word of the disaster from leaking out. He managed to hook a ride on a ship heading up the Potomac to Washington. Villard sent his dispatch by train to the New York Tribune where editors softened its harsh conclusions about the crushing defeat and the ineptitude of Union leadership. Massachusetts Senator Henry meanwhile encountered the bedraggled Villard in the dining room of Villard’s hotel. Wilson brought Villard to the White House at the President’s request. The President closely questioned Villard, whom he had known for several years, about the battle. Villard bluntly described the precarious position of General Ambrose Burnside’s army. When Villard described the possibility of Union success as “impossible,” Mr. Lincoln responded: “I hope it is not so bad as all that.” 37 Villard’s observations were confirmed by an Ohio correspondent who also made it back to Washington. “Newspaperman Murat Halstead returned to Washington on December 14 and promptly informed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase what was happening in Fredericksburg. Halstead frightened Chase with gory details of defeat, and later reiterated his observations to the president,” according to Civil War writer Francis Augustin O’Reilly: “Nearly a year and a half later, New York Tribune journalist Henry E. Wing struggled through Union lines to report the Union defeat at the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864. Union troops held him at Union Mills, until a telegram arrived that asked Wing to tell President Lincoln where General Grant was now located. Wing offered to report everything he knew in return for permission to file a 100-word report on the battle: “He accepted my terms without hesitation, only suggesting that my statement to my paper be so full as to disclose to the public the general situation.”38 In When Lincoln Kissed Me, Wing wrote what subsequently transpired:

“A locomotive was sent down for me, and about two o’clock in the morning I reached the White House, where the President had gathered his official family to meet me. As I stepped into the room where they were seated my glance caught a quick gleam of surprise and apprehension in Mr. Lincoln’s eyes, and I was awakened to a sense of my disreputable appearance. My hair was disheveled, my shabby old coat was dusty and wrinkled, my pantaloons, much too long, were folded back at the bottom and gathered about my ankles with pieces of cotton twine, and my coarse shoes were coated three or four layers thick with ‘sacred soil.’ I had met, perhaps, every one of this company at public functions or in private interviews, but not one of them recognized me in this garb. As my glance swept around the group it rested on the genial countenance of a particular friend, Mr. Gideon Welles, of Hartford, Connecticut, the Honorable Secretary of the Navy. As I advanced and accosted him he identified me by my voice. He then presented me, with much embarrassing formality, to the others.”
“A half hour or more was spent in description of the movements of the troops, and in explanation, from a large map on the wall, of the situation at the time when I left. Then, as the company was dispersing, I turned to Mr. Lincoln, and said: Mr. President, I have a personal word for you.”
“The others withdrew and he closed the door and advanced toward me. As he stood there I realized as never before how tall he was. I looked up into his impassive face, ready to deliver Grant’s message. He took a short, quick step toward me, and, stooping to bring his eyes level with mine, whispered, in tones of intense, impatient interest, ‘What is it?'”
“I was so moved that I could hardly stammer: General Grant told me to tell you, from him, that, whatever happens, there is to be no turning back.”
“The vision that opened through those wonderful eyes from a great soul glowing with a newly kindled hope is the likeness of Mr. Lincoln that I still hold in my memory, and ever shall. And that hope was never to be extinguished. Others had ‘turned back.’ Every other one had. But there had come an end of that fatal folly.”
“Mr. Lincoln put his great, strong arms about me and, carried away in the exuberance of his gladness, imprinted a kiss upon my forehead. We sat down again; and then I disclosed to him, as I could not do except in the light of that pledge of the great commander, all the disheartening details of that dreadful day in the wilderness. But I could assure him that the Army of the Potomac, in all its history, was never in such hopeful spirit as when they discovered, as the close of a day of disappointment, that they were not to ‘turn back.'”39

The Lincoln Administration’s policy of press censorship of stories filed on the telegraph grated on Washington reporters. Journalism expert Harper wrote: “Censorship of news dispatches filed in Washington began during the dark days of April in 1861 when the government assumed control of the telegraph wires leading from the city. It became a football, kicked around among the departments, a new and baffling problem for Federal officials. Control of censorship was first placed under the Treasury Department, then transferred to the War Department, then to the State Department and then back to the War Department, under whose authority it lodged on February 25, 1862.” 40

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was a control freak — especially in control of military telegraph and the news it carried. Journalist Ben Perley Poore complained his memoirs: “The Washington press was despotically governed during the war. The established censorship was under the direction of men wholly unqualified, and on several occasions the printed editions of influential journals, Republican or Democratic were seized by Secretary Stanton for having published intelligence which he thought should have been suppressed. Bulletins were issued by the War Department, but they were often incorrect. It was known that the Washington papers, full of military information, were forwarded through the lines daily, yet the censors would not permit paragraphs clipped from those papers to be telegraphed to Boston or Chicago, where they could not appear sooner than they did in the Richmond papers. The declaration, ‘I am a newspaper correspondent,’ which had in former years carried with it the imposing force of the famous, ‘I am a Roman citizen,’ no longer entitled one to the same proud prerogatives, and journalists were regarded as spies and sneaks.”41

Communications scholar Richard B. Kielbowicz wrote: “During the Civil War, the telegraph made censorship both necessary and feasible. The speed at which stories moved over the wires could compromise wartime decision making and activities, while the telegraph was a convenient pressure point for constricting the flow of news. Reports of military preparations presented obvious problems because Northern papers quickly found their way into hands of Confederate generals.”42 Because dispatches could easily be sent by mail or train, news could effectively only be censored for a day or two.

Mr. Lincoln tried to pursue a middle course on censorship. When Missouri Radicals complained about Gen. John M. Schofield “muzzling the press in a White House visit in September 1863, Mr Lincoln replied: “I think when an office in any department finds that a newspaper is pursuing a course calculated to embarrass his operations and stir up sedition and tumult, he has the right to lay hands upon it and suppress it, but in no other case.”43 Historian James G. Randall wrote: “While Lincoln found that it was best for him to avoid influencing the press by any of the coarser methods such as dictating editorial policy or imposing censorship, he could not ignore the effect of newspaper publicity.” 44 Historian David Donald wrote about the downside of President Lincoln’s press policy: “The President’s negative attitude discouraged support from the press. Although he gave a number of informal interviews, Lincoln held no press conference; reporters were still not considered quite respectable, certainly not worthy of private audience with the President. Newspapermen go where there is news. When a Washington correspondent found the White House well dry, he turned naturally to those running streams of gossip and complaint and criticism and intrigue, the Congressmen, whose anti-Lincoln pronouncements all too often agreed with the prejudices of his editor. Most of the leading American newspapers were anti-Lincoln in 1860, and they remained anti-Lincoln till April 15, 1865, when they suddenly discovered that President had been the greatest man in the world.”45

But rumors evaded censorship. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote in July 1862: “Do not be deceived by rumors of changes in the Cabinet: they have been incessant from the very commencement of this Administration, and are as well grounded as the others. When such a change comes, it will be ‘like a thief in the night’ — suddenly, and no blanket daily will be allowed to canvass its why and wherefore for days and weeks beforehand. The day has gone by when the reporters could sit in the president’s ante-room, and claim a report of the Cabinet meetings as a prescriptive right of their position.”46 The imposition of censorship by the War Department on reports of troop movements caused journalists to pursue even less reliable sources, wrote Stoddard in the New York Examiner in 1861: “This clear and decided action of the Government has been a terrible blow to the legion of daily newspaper reporters and correspondents, who have heretofore infested every avenue of information. Cut off from their accustomed supplies, they roam the streets and camps, ‘seeking rest, and finding none,’ and pouncing, with hawk-like avidity, upon every poor little stray item which, in their palmier days, they would have scorned to notice.”47

More drastic measures were sometimes taken. During the Civil War, there were repeated civil and military actions to shut down newspapers for supposedly seditious behavior. This was particularly true early in the war in the border states of Maryland and Missouri. But occasionally, actions were taken in big northern cities like Chicago and New York. Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. wrote: “Freedom of the press survived the Civil War, as the two-party system survived it — more or less in spite of itself. Vigilante mobs, unthinking generals, and politicians threatened press freedom in the North here and there and from time to time, but their actions were often egged on and in the end usually excused and artfully explained by influential newspapermen. The government did not systematically and as a matter of policy threaten to stop the presses except in border states, and the judiciary almost never did so. But the press itself was a constant threat. Its partisan nature made journalists themselves serious enemies of freedom of the press in wartime.”48

Such shutdowns were headaches for President Lincoln. He acted to reverse such suppression on occasion. One such incident was the suppression of the Chicago Times by General Ambrose Burnside on June 2, 1863 — after the paper. The Times, under editor Roger Storey, had become progressively more anti-war and harshly criticized Burnside’s arrest of former Congressman Clement Vallandigham the previous month. Popular opinion in Chicago was inflamed – both for and against Burnside’s action. Fearing street violence, a group of Chicago civic leaders sent a petition to the White House. Congressman Isaac Arnold alienated much of his German-American constituency by joining Senator Lyman Trumbull in asking that President Lincoln to reverse Burnside’s action — which the President did on June 4. Roger Waite wrote that President “Lincoln swiftly decided to act in the situation. Having received the petition from Chicago, being endorsed by two prominent politicians, Lincoln telegraphed orders suggesting that the order be lifted, to which Burnside followed with an order to revoke General Order 84 on June 4, 1863. However, soon, Lincoln also wrote stating: ‘I have received additional dispatches which…induce me to believe we should revoke or suspend the order suspending the Chicago Times. However, as Burnside had already issued the revocation, he let it stand.”49

Lincoln’s generals had a decidedly rocky relationship with journalists whom they saw as irritatingly insubordinate. Lincoln’s orders to allow a New York Herald reporter access to the Union front — after General William Sherman had expelled him infuriated Sherman. General Sherman wrote his brother in April 1863: “Mr. Lincoln is President of the U.S. and can command me to go to certain death, and knows I will obey him — he knows that New York Herald reporter Thomas W. Knox slandered me & that my tongue was tied by a true allegiance to him, and yet tis said he Mr. Lincoln has given Knox permission to come to this army & report anew his falsehoods. I don’t believe this. It may be so however, but I will tell Mr. Lincoln to his face that even he shall not insult me.”50

Although Washington Chronicle editor Forney usually carried Mr. Lincoln’s political message to the press, he occasionally carried the press’s message to Mr. Lincoln. James M. Perry noted the consternation that orders from General William T. Sherman handling of reporters caused among Union journalists. “If the editors weren’t intimidated, reporters in the field surely were.” According to Perry: “When word of the verdict reached Washington, a number of reporters, acting individually and led by ‘Colonel’ John W. Forney, absentee owner of the Philadelphia Press and secretary of the Senate, signed a memorial to President Lincoln calling on him to set the verdict aside.” 51

Sherman disdained journalists and the controversy over Knox’s expulsion from the Union front continued. A few days later, Sherman wrote General Ulysses S. Grant: “Mr. Lincoln of course fears to incur the enmity of the Herald, but he must rule the Herald, or the Herald will rule him, he can take his choice. 52 The same day, Sherman wrote a prominent Ohio journalist: “When a court Martial banishes him, the President of the United States upon the personal application of this man fortified by ‘respected persons’ sends him back, subject to a condition, not dependant on em. Does Knox exhibit any sign of appreciating the real issue? He regrets the unhappy difference between a portion of the Army and himself (the whole ‘Press’) and the sheet, which he represents, will appreciate the fact of my humbling myself to its agent, to my tamely submitting to its insults.” 53 Sherman continued to complain about journalists in a letter to his wife two days later: “Of course the newspaper Correspondents, encouraged by the Political Generals and even President Lincoln, having full swing in this and all camps, report all news secret or otherwise, indeed with a gossiping world a secret is worth more than common news.” 54 Sherman wrote his brother: “If Knox comes into my Camp he will never leave it again at liberty. I have soldiers who will obey my orders, and Knox shall go down the Mississippi, floating on a log if he can find one, but he shall not come into my Camp with impunity again.”55

Sherman wrote of Cincinnati Commercial editor Murat Halstead: “When a court Martial banishes him, the President of the United States upon the persona application of this man fortified by ‘respected persons’ sends him back, subject to a condition, not dependant on me. Does Knox exhibit any sign of appreciating the real issue? He regrets the unhappy difference between a portion of the Army and himself (the whole ‘Press’) and the sheet, which he represents, will appreciate the fact of my humbling myself to its agent, to my tamely submitting to its insults.”56 Sherman wrote his wife: “Of course the newspaper Correspondents, encourage by the Political Generals and even President Lincoln, having full swing in this and all camps, report all news secret or otherwise, indeed with a Gossiping word a secret is worth more than common news.”57

Generals and journalists alike were baffled by the President. Journalist John Russell Young recalled: “The atmosphere about the White House in those Lincoln days was unnatural. It is hard for those of us who are accustomed to ways of peace to understand the Washington of the war times. Mr. Lincoln did not impress the Capital as a welcome personal force. Living in an element of detraction, he was not a popular man. It would be hard to recall his friends or favorite. I presume Forney was as near to Lincoln as any one of those in politics or journalism. He edited the leading Republican newspaper in the Capital, as well as in Philadelphia, was a brilliant writer, an eloquent speaker, and an earnest, intrepid friend. Yet I can never recall in my observation of Forney, any other feeling but that of doubt as to what the President might or might not do. This was the tone which pervaded many of the political circles which surrounded Forney. It was not a coterie of the opposition, but, on the contrary, very much a coterie of the President’s friends. Simon Cameron was there every day, and yet when Mr. Cameron resigned the War Office and Mr. Stanton was nominated there was no one more surprised than Forney. The President did it alone.”58

President Lincoln was careful to cultivate northern editors as he approached reelection in 1864. He had appointed many journalists to federal office including John Bigelow, New York Evening Post, as diplomat in Paris; Thomas McElrath, New York Tribune, as appraiser, New York customhouse; D.P. Holloway, Richmond Palladium, as commissioner of patents; John L. Scripps, postmaster in Chicago; James Watson Webb of the New York Courier and Enquirer as minister to Brazil; and John D. Defrees, Indianapolis Atlas, as superintendent of public printing. In the fall of 1864, President Lincoln indirectly dangled the possibility of other appointments before key editors, including the postmaster general for Horace Greeley and Minister to France for James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. The presidential offer boosted Bennett’s editorial ego, wrote historian James L. Crouthamel: “Certainly Bennett craved the recognition and respectability the offer of the French mission brought him. Turning down the reward gratified him even more. He had been offered a higher political post than Horace Greeley, James Watson Webb, Henry J. Raymond, or William Cullen Bryant, but he told the president he could be of more service to the country in his present position. The offer had much to commend it. Bennett spoke French fluently and visited France many times; the Herald’s major European bureau was in Paris, and his family lived there much of the time.”59

President Lincoln understood New York editor and political boss Thurlow Weed’s importance to his reelection. Mr. Lincoln told Judge David Davis “that he has the highest esteem for you, knows that you are patriotic, and that it hurts him when he cannot do what you think advisable.” 60 Historian William Frank Zornow wrote: “In the capital Weed spent countless hours closeted with the President, and they were joined by Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, John Forney, and other ‘wire pulling politicians.’ Probably as a result of some promise concerning more patronage, Lincoln induced Weed ‘to roll up his sleeves and to go to work making his combinations.’ It is interesting to note that shortly after this quadrumvirate began holding their meetings. Weed’s Albany Evening Journal, Cameron’s Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and Forney’s three papers declared for Lincoln. Chase was completely dumbfounded by these unexpected developments.”61

New York Tribune managing editor Charles A. Dana had been converted from an editorial critic of the administration to a top-ranking War Department official. Dana was not always an admirer of Mr. Lincoln Leonard Swett recalled visited President Lincoln in August 1862 and being shown “a dozen or more letters from Dana of the Tribune to the general effect that the President and all the men in the Administration were a sett [sic] of ‘wooden heads’ who were doing nothing and letting the country go to the dogs.”62

Mr. Lincoln also met with key editors and used them as outlets for his political thinking. He addressed such a letter to Kentucky editor Albert D. Hodges in April 1864: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to be the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government, that nation of which that constitution was the organic law.”63

Journalism became a big business during the Civil War. “As the Union and Confederate armies called for recruits to fill their ranks, newspapers on both sides of the conflict sent their own small army of reporters, artists and photographers into the field to cover the war. Altogether, Northern publications field more than 340 reporters, while Southern papers managed to keep fewer than 100 newsmen at the front,” wrote Norman Rourke.64 “From 1861 to 1865,” wrote Rourke, “The New York Herald alone spent more than $500,000 to cover the war from the front.”65 In Washington, journalists operated from Newspaper Row on 14thth Street. Many correspondents represented more than one newspaper and had hefty incomes from jobs in both journalism and politics, often in Congress. That was the position occupied by Noah Brooks, a favorite Lincoln journalist who also had a position with a congressional committee. When President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Brooks was slated to become his top aide in his second term at a considerable cut in salary.


  1. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 188 (April 24, 1864).
  2. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 261.
  3. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 58.
  4. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 188 (Letter from John Hay to Charles Halpine, April 13, 1864).
  5. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 139 (February 19, 1865).
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 385 (Letter to the Chicago Press and Tribune Company, June 15, 1859).
  7. A. W. Shipton, Lincoln’s Association with the Journal, p. 5.
  8. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 416.
  9. Charles M. Segal, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 34 (Utica Morning Herald, June 27, 1860)
  10. Saul Sigelschaffer, The American Conscience: The Drama of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, pp. 239-240.
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, pp. 341-342 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Charles H. Ray, November. 20, 1858).
  12. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, pp. 136-137.
  13. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 36.
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 148.
  15. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 195.
  16. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 205.
  17. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 173.
  18. Edwin Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretative History of the Mass Media, p. 237.
  19. Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, p. 187.
  20. Edwin Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretative History of the Mass Media, p. 239.
  21. James Russell Lowell, Political Essays, p. 222.
  22. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, pp. 154-155.
  23. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 230.
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James H. Hackett), November 2, 1863, Volume VI, p. 559.
  25. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 196.
  26. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 131 (August 31, 1864).
  27. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed; Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 66 (October 2, 1863).
  28. Richard B. Kielbowicz, “The Telegraph, Censorship and Politics at the Outset of the Civil War,” Civil War History, Spring 1994, p. 108.
  29. Richard B. Kielbowicz, “The Telegraph, Censorship and Politics at the Outset of the Civil War,” Civil War History, Spring 1994, p. 108.
  30. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p.133.
  31. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 60.
  32. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time,(Benjamin Perley Poore), pp. 226-227.
  33. Joseph R. Nightingale, “Lincoln’s Friend and Biographer: Joseph Hartwell Barrett,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2003, p. 214.
  34. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, pp. 110-111.
  35. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 365.
  36. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 264.
  37. James M. Perry, A Boheman Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, pp. 200-202 (See also Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen, Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan, pp. 215-216).
  38. Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, p. 435.
  39. Henry E. Wing, When Lincoln Kissed Me, pp. 36-39.
  40. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 129.
  41. Ben Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, Volume II, p. 127.
  42. Richard B. Kielbowicz, “The Telegraph, Censorship and Politics at the Outset of the Civil War,” Civil War History, Spring 1994, p. 95.
  43. Walter B. Stevens, edited by Michael Burlingame, A Reporter’s Lincoln, (John Hay and William O. Stoddard), September 30, 1863, p. 239.
  44. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure, p. 40.
  45. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 60.
  46. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddardpp. 91-92 (July 28, 1862).
  47. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, September 3, 1861, p. 23.
  48. Mark E. Nelly, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 80.
  49. Roger Waite, “Civil War Censorship and the Suppression of the Chicago Times,” For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2003, p. 5.
  50. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 438 (Letter of William T. Sherman to John Sherman, April 3, 1863).
  51. James M. Perry, A Bohemian Brigade, p. 153.
  52. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 441 (Letter of William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, April 8 1863).
  53. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, (Letter of William T. Sherman to Murat Halstead, April 8, 1863), 1860-1865, p. 442.
  54. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 445 (Letter of William T. Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, April 10 1863).
  55. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 438 (Letter from William T. Sherman to John Sherman, April 3, 1863).
  56. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 442. (Letter from William T. Sherman to Murat Halstead, April 8, 1863).
  57. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman,1860-1865, p. 445.(Letter from William T. Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, April 10, 1863).
  58. John Russell Young, Men and Memories: Personal Reminiscences, pp. 53-54.
  59. James L. Crouthamel, Bennett’s New York Herald and the Rise of the Popular Press, pp. 148-149.
  60. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 132 (Letter from David Davis to Thurlow Weed, March 21, 1864).
  61. William Frank Zornow, Lincoln & the Party Divided, pp. 41-42.
  62. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 58 (Conversation with Leonard Swett, March 14, 1878).
  63. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume VII, pp. 281-282 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864).
  64. Norman Rourke, “The Newsmen,” Civil War Times , December 2001, p. 63-64.
  65. Norman Rourke, “The Newsmen,” Civil War Times, December 2001, p. 64.