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The 'Blue & Gray in Black & White'

Kansas historian describes roots of Civil War newspapers

Kansas historian describes roots of Civil War newspapers

April 22, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY-If it weren't for the Civil War, this newspaper story might be anonymous.

The "byline," as newspaper authorship is known, was a legacy of Civil War coverage, historian Brayton Harris said Saturday.

Joseph Hooker, a Union general, made reporters "sign" their stories because of concerns about sensitive military information being printed, Harris said.

Harris, a retired U.S. Navy captain living in Kansas, spoke at the Antietam National Battlefield visitors' center on Saturday in conjunction with an exhibit on Civil War coverage in Hagerstown newspapers.

The exhibit was tied to the Washington County Free Library's completion of the Civil War-era portion of a newspaper indexing project.

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In 1820, newspapers as we know them today did not exist, said Harris, who wrote a book called "Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War."

The country's 25 dailies and 400 weeklies were more political journals than chronicles of truth.

But through the invention of the telegraph, a high literacy rate among white people, the development of shorthand and other advances, interest in "news" grew, Harris said.

For the Mexican War of the 1840s, a team of newspapers gathered and reported information, angering the War Department.

The position of special war correspondent evolved and grew during the Civil War, Harris said. Some joined military units to do their reporting from the battlefield.

George W. Smalley, a New York Tribune correspondent, is thought to have produced one of the best accounts on the Battle of Antietam, Harris said.

After the Sept. 17, 1862, battle, Smalley wrote about 5,000 words of flawless prose while riding on a train back to New York.

The lead - "Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field." - was part of an early portion Smalley sent to his newspaper by telegraph from Frederick, Md.

The War Department intercepted that portion and showed it to President Lincoln, giving him his first real news of the battle, Harris said.

Hagerstown had three main newspapers at the time of the Civil War - the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, the Hagerstown Mail and The Maryland Free Press, according to the library exhibit. Each had its own political slant.

Civil War reporting turned journalism into a profession, Harris said.

Harris - who, with the military, coordinated media activities in Vietnam during the war there - said "an unfettered journalist" is "a burden to the military, an anathema to the government and vital to a democratic society."

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