National Press Club

Partisanship reigned in Civil War coverage

April 12, 2011 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver |

Harold Holzer discusses his book at an April 11, 2011 Book & Author event.

Harold Holzer discusses his book at an April 11, 2011 Book & Author event.

Photo/Image: Aileen Roberta Schlef

Imagine someone serving as the chairman of a national political party, the chairman of the committee to reelect the president and also the editor of the New York Times. This is not fiction but history, Harold Holzer told a National Press Club audience April 11.

Holzer is the editor of The Complete New York Times Civil War 1861-1865, which was released late last year, and Lincoln on War: Our Greatest Commander in Chief Speaks on War that went on sale April 12 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle at Fort Sumter, S.C.

Holzer’s appearance at the Club was a joint event sponsored by the Book & Author Committee and the History & Heritage Committee and coincided with a new display of Civil War front pages in the Club’s lobby.

In 1864, Henry Raymond, editor of the New York Times, was so reliably Republican that he served as both chairman of the National Republican Committee and chairman to reelect President Abraham Lincoln.

Raymond’s triple duty was not considered unusual since at that time all newspapers were partisan, Holzer said. “Every city had a Republican paper and a Democratic paper,” he said, noting that partisanship was evident not only on the editorial pages but also on the news pages.

Newspapers in the south were no less biased. Editors of southern newspapers that were against secession or held a moderate view toward the Union were replaced, Holzer said.

There were hundreds of reporters on the battlefield, with at least 200 covering the war for northern newspapers, Holzer said. Archives of the southern papers are not as preserved as those from the north, so it is hard to know how many Confederate reporters covered the battles -- most of which occurred in the south, he said.

The reporters were not liked by the generals since the generals believed the reporters were “spies and character assassins,” Holzer said, but the generals read them. Gen. Robert E. Lee is known to have read the Philadelphia Inquirer as he prepared for the battle at Gettysburg.

Gen. George Gordon Meade expelled the Philadelphia Inquirer reporter when he found out that Lee was reading his dispatches. The Inquirer in turn “decided to never give Meade credit for anything ever again. George Meade disappears from history after Gettysburg," Holzer said.

This dislike and distrust of the journalists combined with the partisanship meant that censorship was rampant on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Many newspapers were shut down.

The Christian Observer of Philadelphia was closed for being pro-slavery and for writing about atrocities committed by Union troops in Virginia, Holzer said. Both President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis believed they were leading crisis administrations, so it was ok to censor the press, he said.

Censorship didn’t stop the newspapers from publishing their various points of view, Holzer said.

“There was a remarkable amount of dissent in the newspapers,” he said.