- War with Mexico! America’s Reporters Cover the Battlefront
Before journalism professor and historian Tom Reilly passed away in 2002, he let it be known that he wished to have his manuscript on news coverage of the United States’ war with Mexico published. His student and friend Manley Witten took up the cause in 2004. Witten notes that Reilly spent more than thirty years compiling, researching, and identifying several significant changes in journalism and news coverage that originated in the U.S.-Mexican War. The war coverage “produced the first identifiable war correspondents and was the first time American reporters covered a foreign conflict” (x). It was the first American war covered by mass circulation newspapers, contributing to the rise of the American press. Reporting the war brought about news-gathering cooperation. The Associated Press began in 1848, the year the war ended.
Reilly’s “main thrust” was how reporters witnessed the war’s battles and major events and passed on their accounts to their papers. Thus the “efforts, lifestyles, achievements, and failures” of reporters and to a lesser extent the “journalistic system in which they functioned” was the scope of Reilly’s study (4–5). Reporters are therefore Reilly’s subjects and actors, some fourteen in all, including at least one woman, along with “occasional correspondents”—former reporters or printers serving in the army—and “letter writers,” who were typically army or navy officers who wrote to the political press. Most of Reilly’s correspondents worked for the new “penny papers” or “neutral press,” meaning papers that were not established to further the ends of one party, faction, or individual. This did not mean they remained silent, however. Reilly tracks the political position of thirty-five papers, finding that twenty supported the war (mainly the “neutral press”), thirteen opposed it (primarily the Whig political papers), and two remained neutral.
But it is the New Orleans press that dominates Reilly’s account. New Orleans was the American commercial entrepôt of the day, the fourth largest city in the nation, and lay athwart the lines of communication with Mexico from its strategic position near the mouth of the Mississippi River. There were over thirty papers in New Orleans at various times during the war in French, Spanish, German, and English. Ultimately, nine of the eleven principal correspondents covering the U.S.-Mexican War wrote for New Orleans’s papers, six of those nine for the New Orleans Picayune.
Reilly structures his account by what the correspondents wrote and how the newspapers reported the war beginning with the Battle of Palo Alto to the final peace treaty and disengagement at the end. Reporters were heavily involved in all these incidents; James L. Freaner of the New Orleans Delta delivered the war-ending Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Secretary of State James Buchanan. But it is here the work bogs down into a multiplicity of reporters, correspondents, and papers. In his attempt to honor Reilly’s exhaustive research, Witten may have simply included too much. This is not to say that Reilly’s and Witten’s efforts are not worthy. The role of the press in the United States, at least until the widespread adoption of television, was in many ways rooted in the journalistic practices of the [End Page 217] Mexican War. Given the importance of the press in U.S. history, Reilly and Witten give us a good point from which to understand the beginnings.