The Reported War
The Civil War proved to be an important era for print media in the United States. Thanks to the advent of the electric telegraph, newspapers were able to receive reports from great distances quickly. Because of this, newspapers in both the North and South were able to provide the public with important updates on the war’s political issues, battle results, large-scale troop movements, and casualty reports. Perhaps more importantly, newspapers were responsible for editorializing the war. They were the propaganda machines of the day. Though not universally true, many newspapers published biased accounts of events, “factual” testimonials of enemy atrocities, articles proselytizing for specific political and military goals, and emotionally charged letters from citizens affected by the conflict. A quiet war for public support was waged both in the North and the South with the newspapers serving on the front lines. Issues like conscription, use of slaves as soldiers, and the validity of total war were hotly debated in the papers. The newspapers controlled the ebb and flow of public opinion and a particularly popular circulation could determine the outcomes of city or state politics.1
The disparity between reports of the war in the North and South were, in some cases, quite striking. Some newspapers were known to falsely report casualty rates or results of battle to bolster public morale. Desertion was a particularly galling problem for both the Union and Confederate armies throughout the war and newspapers often printed editorials encouraging loyalty and shaming deserters and those who aided them.2 Late in the war, Confederate troops received much of their news through the papers because commanders refused to relay reports of Union victories.
The Civil War catapulted the newspaper industry to new heights in the United States. Newspapers had given the public near-constant access to news and events from all corners of the new American empire. In return, newspapers had secured the ability to affect public opinion. In a democracy, this power translated to the ability to affect politics, finance, and popular culture at its most basic level. Over the course of the next century, the newspaper industry would grow exponentially and assume a place of tremendous power in American society.