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The Telegraph, Censorship, and Politics at the Outset of the Civil War Richard B. Kielbowicz A century before satellites flashed televised news reports to the nation, the telegraph offered many of the same possibilities—and posed many of the same problems—associated with instantaneous communication. When used by an aggressive metropolitan daily in the 1860s, the telegraph could put reports in readers' hands just hours after a correspondent had gleaned the information at a faraway site. More than journalism, however, was affected by this quickened pace of news transmission; institutions whose activities responded to news coverage—notably government and business— synchronized their practices and rhythms to accord with electrified journalism.1 During the Civil War, the telegraph made censorship both necessary and feasible. The speed at which stories moved over the wires could compromise wartime decision making and activities, while the telegraph was a convenient pressure point for constricting the flow of news. Reports of military preparations presented obvious problems because Northern papers quickly found their way into the hands of Confederate generals. But what about news of civil affairs? The unprecedented administrative tasks imposed on government by the Civil War, and the attendant political stresses, yielded a bonanza of news stories for the Washington press corps. Should correspondents file stories about sensitive matters—dissension in the cabinet, secret diplomatic negotiations, forthcoming presidential messages, and the like— knowing that such news could precipitate swings in already volatile public opinion, encourage business speculation, and perhaps imperil policies under The author would like to thank the Smithsonian Institution for a postdoctoral fellowship that helped launch this study and Indiana University's Institute for Advanced Study for providing a stimulating environment in which to complete it. 1 For an excellent overview of the profound changes wrought by the telegraph, see James W. Carey, "Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph," Prospects 8 (1983): 303-25. Civil War History, Vol. XL, No. 2, © 1994 by The Kent State University Press 96CIVIL WAR HISTORY consideration? And should decisions about what to transmit be left to the reporter 's judgment or subject to government review and censorship? At the outset of the Civil War—and for the first time in American history —the federal government created an apparatus to censor news stories.2 For the first ten months of the war, responsibility for the Washington censorship shifted among cabinet officials. Given this arrangement, the censorship imposed on correspondents during the crucial early phase of the conflict was as much political as military. In December 1861 , the House of Representatives authorized the Judiciary Committee "to inquire if a telegraphic censorship of the press has been established in this city; if so, by whose authority, and by whom is it now controlled ." The committee held hearings during January and February before submitting its fourteen-page report to the House in March 1862. Although some historians have summarized the report, the unpublished hearing record—eight hundred handwritten pages—has escaped notice. Its detailed testimony affords an unparalleled opportunity to view the process of censorship from three perspectives—that of the correspondents, the censor, and public officials. The hearings, moreover, yield rich insights into the changing nature of press-government relations in the mid- 1 800s as well as the particular problems ofgovernance and prosecuting a war in an age of instantaneous communication.3 With no precedents to guide them, several parties—the telegraph companies , the press, some military leaders, and at least a few federal officials— 1 Although there was no apparatus for censoring specific news items in the years between the Revolution and Civil War, the federal government meddled with the press in a variety of ways: Federalists used the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress leading Jeffersonian Republican newspapers; and the federal government countenanced postmasters' interference with antislavery publications. See Harold L. Nelson, ed.. Freedom of the Press from Hamilton to the Warren Court (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 1-220; Donna Lee Dickerson, The Course of Tolerance : Freedom of the Press in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Greenwood, 1990), 1-139. ' Congressional Globe. 37th Cong., 2d sess., 1861, vol. 32:19. The hearing transcript is in the Judiciary Committee papers, file 37A-E9.8, Records...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 95-118
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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