Civil War History 52.1 (2006) 41-65
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Killing the Serpent Speedily: Governor Morton, General Hascall, and the Suppression of the Democratic Press in Indiana, 1863
Stephen E. Towne
Discussions of the phenomenon of federal government suppression of the press during the Civil War constitute a substantial body of literature. Historians have recognized that the unique stresses and strains on civil government induced by war resulted in extraordinary measures taken by government leaders to limit the speech of individuals and groups that openly criticized the ways in which the war was being waged. Some of these measures stretched legal and constitutional boundaries; others broke them outright. Historians have focused their attention on the thoughts and actions of President Abraham Lincoln in analyzing the phenomenon. In the course of the war, Lincoln took steps to crack down on speech critical of his administration and his handling of the war effort. However, while doing so, he attempted to reassure his critics that the measures taken were merely temporary, meant only to carry the nation through the emergency. "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserted," he famously asked, "while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?"1 A few historians have taken him to task, pointing to his ignoring the First Amendment or his attempts to trump it with new powers granted by Congress. Lincoln created dangerous precedents for subsequent executives to follow. But most historians have been assuaged by [End Page 41] Lincoln's words and looked beyond the deeds of his administration. They have argued that in the North under Lincoln's leadership, no concerted, official policy of governmental interference with the press existed.2
In making their arguments, historians have turned to certain well-known examples of press suppression. Most commonly noted are the shutting down of the Chicago Times in June 1863 and the closures of the New York World and New York Journal of Commerce in May 1864. One historian has deemed them the "most famous cases of newspaper suppression" during the war. Another historian has described the Chicago Times incident as the "most dramatic" such episode during the rebellion. Both statements are probably true. Both cases involved big-city newspapers with large circulations. The newspapers involved boasted some regional and national influence. The efforts to shut them down drew widespread attention.3
Frequently overshadowed in these discussions of the suppression of the press is the attempt by Brig. Gen. Milo S. Hascall to muzzle the Democratic newspapers of Indiana in the spring of 1863. Hascall's efforts are not unknown to historians; many have alluded to the case.4 Nonetheless, these accounts, [End Page 42] usually based on the small handful of documents published in the official War Department War of the Rebellion series relating to the episode, paint cursory, incomplete pictures of the Indiana events, omit important details, obscure important facts, and overlook the scale of the Union general's assault on the Democratic press. Perhaps the fact that no big city newspapers of large circulation were directly involved has convinced historians that the episode does not warrant additional attention. Indeed, all the directly affected Indiana newspapers were small-town papers with small circulations. But new research into federal and state archives, private manuscripts, and other overlooked sources shows important elements in play. First, the scale of Hascall's effort was larger than previously understood, being more widespread and affecting more newspapers than previously known. Furthermore, this new research points to understanding Hascall's effort to be a systematic assault on opposition voices, a policy meant to control antigovernment speech in Indiana. These elements of scale and impact may alter our current notion that federal authority failed to achieve significant control over the opposition press at any time during the war.
More significantly, the episode allows an examination of two generally overlooked dynamics, those of federal-state relations and relations between state government and U.S. Army leadership during the war. Regarding the former, William...