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The “Unfettered Press” The Unresolved Tension between Warriors and Journalists during the Civil War

The “Unfettered Press”
The Unresolved Tension between Warriors and Journalists during the Civil War

Randy D. Ferryman

By 18 February 1863, Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was fed up with unauthorized press disclosures of his operations, writing in a letter to his brother, US Senator John Sherman, that “with the press, unfettered as now, we are defeated until the end of time.” General Sherman wanted enforcement of federal instructions to newspapers not to disclose sensitive military information, which the press firmly believed was in its interest and the nation’s to print. From the beginning of the war until its conclusion, the US government and the northern press were unable to resolve several disputes over press disclosures and news controls. At stake was the definition of the right balance between the competing constitutional principles of protecting lives while safeguarding individual liberty.

From the outset, the booming American newspaper industry expansively covered Civil War political, societal, and military developments, in the process providing a sweeping and unprecedented survey of a nation at war. With unparalled capabilities, the press dispatched more correspondents to the field than during any other American war. Utilizing the largest railroad system in the world and 50,000 miles of telegraph lines, newspapers would cast a wide net for war-related news, wherever it was emerging, and quickly circulate it across the country, often within just hours after an event unfolded. Even during the war, broadsheets were commonly exchanged across north-south boundaries, and contraband or intelligence delivery networks were used if normal channels were closed.

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Posted: Oct 06, 2014 11:01 AM
Last Updated: Oct 06, 2014 11:01 AM