The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 was a watershed period in the history of journalism. Numerous innovations, including permanent press bureaus and journalistic photography, first appeared during the Civil War. Other historic trends, such as media bias, newspaper endorsement of political positions and choosing a side in the conflict, continued throughout the period.
Visual Depictions of War
Illustrations provided graphic visual depictions of the Civil War in a way unlike previous conflicts. Photography first emerged during the war, and some famous photographers included Mathew Brady, sometimes called the father of photojournalism, and Alexander Gardner. Photographs, however, were difficult for newspapers to publish. Newspapers instead relied on hand-drawn illustrations. Many of these depictions of combat were highly stylized and romanticized. Soldiers often criticized the drawings of leading illustrators such as Winslow Homer and Alfred Waud as unrealistic, though readers enjoyed seeing visualizations of faraway battles.
Permanent Press and Correspondents
Because the Civil War required constant coverage of regularly changing events, newspapers established permanent press bureaus in critical areas such as the nation's capital. Newspapers across the country congregated in the 14th Street Northwest region of Washington, D.C., which became known as "Newspaper Row." During the Civil War, this permanent press bureau sometimes became dangerously close with the politicians journalists interviewed. The Associated Press' senior correspondent, Lawrence "Pops" Gobright, sometimes accompanied President Lincoln in his travels. Horace White of the "Chicago Tribune" shared living quarters with the congressmen he covered, which today would be considered a violation of journalistic ethics. Other journalists, such as George Alfred Townsend, served as correspondents directly in battle, and later dedicated a monument in Maryland to the service of war correspondents.
Bias in the News
Northern and Southern newspaper writers regularly "spun" the news to suit their section's regional interests. In the South, for example, Confederate newspapers overstated victories at Shiloh and Sharpsburg as massive Confederate gains. Union papers also biased their news to the Union's favor, with James Gordon Bennett of "The New York Herald" gaining a special reputation for wildly speculative reporting. Some of these opinions, however, were informed by deeply personal experiences, such as when Sam Wilkeson of "The New York Times" wrote about the Battle of Gettysburg while sitting next to the body of his son, a slain Union lieutenant.
Journalists in the Civil War often expressed political opinions, and some news editors suffered consequences for their opinions. One Massachusetts editor with Southern sympathies was tarred and feathered, while the editor of the "Knoxville Whig" was arrested for writing against secession. Others, like Henry Adams, grandson of President John Quincy Adams, gave a strong Republican slant to his journalism. The partisan affiliations of newspapers such as "The New York Herald" and the "Chicago Tribune," were split among Democratic and Republican slants, and readers chose their newspaper of choice accordingly.
- Futurity: How the US Civil War Changed Journalism
- PBS: The Press and Army Morale
- The Washington Post: How the Civil War Gave Birth to Modern Journalism in the Nation's Capital
- Penn Live: Civil War Reporters Were On the Front Lines
- Maryland Department of Natural Resources: Gathland State Park History
- Civil War Trust: Mathew Brady
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images