Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Technologies developed during the decades preceding the Civil War allowed news and information to be transmitted more rapidly and efficiently. The telegraph enabled reporters to send stories to their home offices almost immediately. The steam printing press increased production and lowered costs, and throughout the nation newspaper circulation rose dramatically. New transportation systems, especially railroads, permitted the speedy distribution of newspapers and mail over wide areas. These remarkable changes posed unprecedented challenges for military and civilian leaders in the North and the South at the outbreak of the Civil War in April, 1861. The easy transmission of information raised fears that military secrets could intentionally or inadvertently be made available to the enemy.

The Civil War proved that public communications could provide vital information to the enemy; policies developed during the war served as precedents for future censorship policies.

Technologies developed during the decades preceding the Civil War allowed news and information to be transmitted more rapidly and efficiently. The telegraph enabled reporters to send stories to their home offices almost immediately. The steam printing press increased production and lowered costs, and throughout the nation newspaper circulation rose dramatically. New transportation systems, especially railroads, permitted the speedy distribution of newspapers and mail over wide areas. These remarkable changes posed unprecedented challenges for military and civilian leaders in the North and the South at the outbreak of the Civil War in April, 1861. The easy transmission of information raised fears that military secrets could intentionally or inadvertently be made available to the enemy.

Early Censorship

Lacking clearly established precedents for censorship, the Union government’s early policies were conducted in a haphazard fashion. Authorities were uncertain as to which government department was responsible for creating and implementing censorship policies. The Post Office waited for days after war had been declared before it refused to send mail into enemy territory. Although the State Department began censoring telegraph communications from Washington, D.C., in April, 1861, transmissions between the North and South continued for more than a month until Union officials seized thousands of telegrams that implicated Northerners in Southern plots.

Field reporters for the New York Herald. (National Archives)

In July, 1861, the commander of the Union Army, General Winfield Scott, issued a censorship order that banned telegraph companies from transmitting any military information without his approval. Scott changed the order a few days later, permitting reporters to send reports concerning battles in progress that did not include information about troop movements. Less than two weeks later, during the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, Scott again changed his order and imposed full censorship on reporters. Unaware of the battle’s true outcome, newspapers in New York and Washington reported a fantastic Union victory. The confusion that resulted in the Northern press and populace as a result of Scott’s censorship orders indicated the need for a more coherent policy.

In August, 1861, several prominent Northern reporters met with Union general George B. McClellan and agreed not to report any information that would assist the enemy. In return for their voluntary self-censorship, the reporters would receive full government cooperation in obtaining and reporting all other news. McClellan could not ensure government cooperation, however, because the official censor, H. E. Thayer, was under the authority of the State Department. When Secretary of State William H. Seward ordered Thayer to ban all telegraph communications from Washington, D.C., concerning military and civil operations, the press argued that the government had violated the agreement and the voluntary censorship plan was abandoned.

Press complaints about Seward’s order prompted a congressional investigation in December, 1861. Released four months later in March, 1862, the investigating committee’s final report cited the numerous failures of the censorship policy, including inefficiency, favoritism toward certain reporters, and the censoring of material that violated no military secrets. The report concluded that Seward’s censorship order was far too broad and that censorship should be limited to military information that would be useful to the enemy.

By the time the committee released its report important policy changes had already occurred. Congress had already clarified the issue of departmental authority in January, 1862, when it granted the president the power to regulate the use of telegraph transmissions. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requested that President Abraham Lincoln transfer responsibility for controlling the telegraph lines from the State Department to the War Department, a request that Lincoln approved that same day. Stanton immediately acted to articulate and enforce a new censorship policy.

Constructing telegraph lines in early 1864. While the introduction of telegraphy greatly increased the speed and efficiency of military communications, it also made it easier for enemies to communicate information, so the Union government imposed strict regulations on telegraphic communications. (National Archives)

Stanton and Censorship

On February 25, 1862, Stanton issued a new censorship order that required all telegraph communications regarding military operations to receive official military approval before they were transmitted. Stanton appointed a military supervisor to manage all telegraph messages and a military superintendent to manage the telegraph lines and offices throughout the United States. Stanton also threatened to punish any newspaper that published unauthorized military news by prohibiting that paper from using the telegraph or the railroads. This threat raised such an outcry from the press that Stanton quickly modified that order to ban only the publication of military news that had occurred that same day.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. (National Archives)

Stanton hoped that his strict censorship order would eliminate sensitive military information from news reports, but the order proved difficult to enforce. Censors did a poor job, newsmen looked for alternative methods for sending stories to their editors, and officers could be convinced to release a questionable story in return for a positive mention in the press. The main achievement of Stanton’s order was the establishment of a precedent of a formal censorship policy and the clarification of lines of authority for that policy.

Generals in the field proved the most effective enforcers of censorship. Many generals hated reporters, whom they believed put the military’s plans and its men at risk when they wrote their stories. Weary of press criticism, General Henry W. Halleck banned all noncombatants from his army. While Halleck justified the order as a security measure aimed at Southern spies, press correspondents claimed that the general intended to silence the press. Union general William T. Sherman nursed a special contempt for the press. He had little patience for reporters, accusing them of informing the enemy and of sowing dissension in the Union ranks. In return reporters constantly attacked Sherman—a story published early in the war claimed that he was insane. Angered by a New York Herald story, Sherman had the reporter, Thomas Knox, arrested on charges of spying. Sherman knew that Knox was not a spy, but hoped to set an example. Knox was later acquitted of the spying charge, but he was banned from the army. By banning most reporters from the field, Halleck, Sherman, and other generals censored the press and prevented the passage of information to the enemy and to the American public.

Although military leaders often scorned newspaper reporting, attempts at total censorship of military information proved disastrous to the war effort. In late 1862 General Halleck ordered a complete news blackout on information concerning the Army of Virginia, which was responsible for protecting Washington, D.C. In the absence of any reliable news, rumors spread through the city that the army had been defeated and the Confederates were preparing to invade. Confusion and a sense of crisis seized the populace, and confidence in the government waned. The blackout ended and government leaders learned that the public required reliable news in order to support the war. Selectivity, not a complete gag on the press, was required for censorship to be effective.

Military news was not the only information subject to censorship in the North. Opposition to the war, especially from Northern Democrats known as Copperheads, resulted in harsh criticism of the government and the military. President Lincoln was a frequent target. Northern officials had to determine at what point the expression of opposition became detrimental to the conduct of the war, or perhaps even treasonous.

In April, 1863, Union general Ambrose E. Burnside issued General Orders Number Thirty-eight, which declared that anyone expressing sympathy for the enemy would be arrested and face possible execution if found guilty of violating the order. Former Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, a vocal opponent of the war who detested Lincoln, responded to the order by giving two speeches in which he fiercely attacked the president. Burnside had Vallandigham arrested three days later. Convicted of violating the order, Vallandigham was sentenced to prison. Lincoln ordered Vallandigham transported to Confederate lines and banished from the Union. While Lincoln and his cabinet supported Burnside during the Vallandigham episode, Lincoln later decided that the government had exceeded its authority in the incident.

Press stories and criticism also brought official reaction. In May, 1864, two New York newspapers printed a forged presidential document ordering the drafting of 400,000 men. The printing of the false document could have caused bloody draft riots similar to those that racked the city in 1863. Military censors leaped at the chance to suppress the papers, both of which had been critical of the war. The papers were closed, and their editors were imprisoned for two days. In the Midwest, Wilbur F. Storey, owner and publisher of the Chicago Times, published a series of editorials condemning abolition and the conduct of the war. In late May, 1864, the paper printed a story that maligned General Burnside, Republican leaders, and the president, whom the article implied had become mentally unbalanced. Two days later Burnside ordered the paper closed for three days. While Lincoln sympathized with Burnside’s reaction, he deemed his response as too extreme and politically imprudent. The order was rescinded. Lincoln’s cautious attitude toward the Vallandigham and Storey cases reveals that the president believed that speech and press censorship were politically sensitive issues in a democracy. Requiring public support to continue the war, the president could not alienate potential allies who might be offended by a strict censorship policy. Lincoln ably balanced the needs of a nation at war with the tradition of a free press in America.

Southern Censorship

Lacking adequate resources to cover the war, several Southern publishers met in 1862 and formed a pool for sharing correspondents and information. Headed by J. S. Thrasher, the Press Association of the Confederate States of America fought military censorship of news dispatches. Thrasher met with Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard in 1863 to protest censorship policies. He maintained that Southern newspapers held to the highest standards and would never publish sensitive information. Impressed by Thrasher’s arguments, Beauregard ordered military commanders to assist reporters in transmitting their dispatches. Compliance was spotty, however, and throughout the war obstinate Confederate officers refused to aid reporters.

Although Southern military commanders often attempted to prevent the press from using telegraph lines to send messages, the most significant problems that Southern publishers faced stemmed from popular attitudes and material conditions. Always ready to criticize the government and the military for their failures, the Southern press nonetheless supported the Confederate cause. Any editor unwise enough to condemn the ultimate aims of the South faced the public’s wrath and indignation. Southern publishers who might hold unpopular attitudes toward slavery or the Confederacy imposed a degree of voluntary censorship on their editorial policy out of self-interest. As the war progressed, manpower and paper shortages limited the effectiveness of the Southern press far more than any government censorship policy.

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