Event explores Civil War journalism

Index of local newspaper items from that era online

Index of local newspaper items from that era online

April 15, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

ANTIETAM NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD - When the Hagerstown newspaper Herald of Freedom and Torch Light published its first issue following the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 24, 1862, stories about the battle were relegated to page 2.

On the front page was a lengthy love story, advertisements, a legal notice and three war-related stories - none of which mentioned the battle.

That's because the front page was dated Sept. 10, 1862 - seven days before one of the most historic battles in American history.

When Confederate troops arrived in Washington County, the editors of this particular weekly local paper, which was pro-Union, fled to Chambersburg, Pa., suspending publication for two weeks.


Type-setting for the front page had begun before the editors fled, according to Western Maryland's Historical Library online at

Page 2 bore the publication date of Sept. 24 with news of the Battle of Antietam, the surrender of Union forces at Harpers Ferry, Va., and the battle on Catoctin Mountain, better known now as the Battle of South Mountain.

It was not uncommon during the Civil War for newspapers to take sides in the war and editors to flee or find themselves endangered due to their political views, said Brayton Harris, author of "Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War."

Harris will speak Saturday afternoon at Antietam National Battlefield's Visitors Center about Civil War journalism. His speech marks the opening day for a special temporary exhibit at the visitors center, "Reporting the Civil War in the Hagerstown Newspapers."

The exhibit is tied to the completion of an indexing project for Hagerstown newspapers during the Civil War years, 1860 to 1865, said Carol Appenzellar, project manager for the historic newspaper indexing project at Washington County Free Library. (See sidebar, below.)

The exhibit will describe the indexing project, how the index provides access to details about the Civil War, and news reporting of the Civil War in Hagerstown newspapers.

The index includes items from two pro-Union papers -Herald of Freedom and Torch Light and the Herald and Torch Light - and pro-Southern papers Hagerstown Mail and Maryland Free Press.

Pro-Southern newspapers were not necessarily pro-slavery, said Harris, a retired U.S. Navy captain who lives in Kansas.

"Before the war, newspapers were politically partisan. ... Certain newspapers continued their partisanship somewhat at their peril during the war," Harris said.

Some Yankee papers in the South had their presses destroyed, Harris said.

The New York Herald sympathized with the South for some time, switching its allegiance once the war started. "Maybe they were afraid of going out of business or smart enough to support 'their side,' so to speak," Harris said.

In addition to the partisanship in news stories, there are other very noticeable differences between newspapers then and now.

Civil War-era newspapers usually didn't feature illustrations. The typical paper of the time was four pages and contained a lot of political news, local crop news and no big headlines, he said.

There was little content from outside the immediate area because small local newspapers didn't have reporters in the field. They often relied on subscribers, and on soldiers during wartime, to send them news.

Small papers reported news from outside their area as part of a "word of honor exchange" in which they ran stories from other newspapers, giving them credit. This small network of papers was similar to the contemporary wire service The Associated Press, Harris said.

Special correspondents during the Civil War were professional journalists embedded with the armed forces, sometimes having stolen an Army uniform to pretend to be a soldier because reporters were banned from battlefields, Harris said.

The best reporter of the Battle of Antietam was George Smalley for the New York Tribune.

Smalley carried orders from Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker out to batteries in the middle of the fight, Harris said.

On occasion, newspapers that traveled via train could give the other side tips on planned troop movements, Harris said.

At least once, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had a false story planted in the Richmond, Va., newspapers because he knew Union Gen. George B. McClellan read those papers, Harris said.

The tactic failed because McClellan didn't take advantage of the tip, Harris said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Opening of a special exhibit, "Reporting the Civil War in the Hagerstown Newspapers"

WHEN: Opens 8 a.m. Saturday, April 21. The exhibit will be up at least through the weekend. Visitors Center hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

WHERE: Visitors Center, Antietam National Battlefield, off Sharpsburg Pike near Sharpsburg.

COST: The park entrance fee, with a three-day pass costing $4 per person or $6 per family.

MORE: At 2 p.m. Saturday, April 21, author Brayton Harris will speak about Civil War journalism with special emphasis on the Battle of Antietam

The Herald-Mail Articles