'Newspapers are the last frontier of Civil War research...'
Americans are addicted to news.
Our appetite is insatiable. We crave it. We demand it. We spend hours absorbing it. It crawls across our televisions. It streams into our computers. It alerts us on our smart phones. Tablets tantalize us with blogs.
It blasts on Talk Radio. It’s 24/7 on cable. The feel and smell and ink of the newspaper delight those who remember a tablet only as a pill.
Anywhere, anytime, the news is there for us. Instantaneous news is today’s norm. The 21st century has conquered delays in delivering all forms of communications. We need not seek the news. It comes to us.
And if we like the news, we share it. Nearly one-seventh of the earth’s population shares news via Facebook. So many people move news through social media —confined only by the speed limit of how fast you text or how well you type — that revolutions have occurred in places where people thought revolution impossible.
I remember one day when I was isolated from everyday news. It was September 11, 2001.
As an associate producer for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals, we purposely selected filming sites removed from modern civilization — especially without cell towers. Director Ron Maxwell wanted to “feel” the 19th century on set; and for the 3,000 reenactors that I managed, we wanted them to “live” in the 19th century.
On September 11, I left our period Civil War encampment and drove to a rural post office (producers were permitted to have cars) somewhere on a back road in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
I had no idea what was happening in “this” world, as I spent most of my waking hours in 1861, 1862, or 1863 (we moved from year to year, from film day to film day, depending upon which actors were scheduled that day). It was about 8:50 a.m. I turned on my car radio. No music. Only news on every channel. Something had just happened in New York.
I entered the post office to buy a thousand stamps, making the day for the post mistress. The radio was on in the background, and I listened to the news reporters describing the scene at the World Trade Center, as I aimlessly put stamps on reenactor notices.
The announcers thought it an obvious accident; tragic, indeed, but an accident.
Then I heard it —the fiery crash into the second tower. I didn’t see it, but I could visualize it through the graphic words and near hysteric voice of the announcer. I’ll never forget those seconds. It was my “Pearl Harbor” moment.
I rushed back to the movie’s base camp. On my car radio, I heard about the plane slamming into the Pentagon. I didn’t know details, but I knew we were under attack.
Because of the movie’s complete isolation, no one knew what had happened. At that moment, I became the equivalent of Wolf Blitzer. Everyone wanted to know the little bit that I knew.
We immediately stopped film production, and huddled around the few car radios we could find. Reception was miserable. We were far from FM stations, and the AM stations kept fading in and out. I didn’t actually see the horrifying spectacle until near midnight, when I returned to my hotel room to watch it on television.
Imagine yourself being isolated from news on the day that changed our modern world.
Americans loved news during the 19th century, too. But it didn’t travel fast. Unless you were a telegraph operator (the 19th century form of texting), nothing was instantaneous. And telegraph wires don’t move the news as quickly as wireless networks. The newspaper was the only form of news. It appeared daily in the big cities, though many did not publish at all on Sundays, out of respect for “the day of rest.” Local communities boasted their weekly paper, sometimes with more than one paper serving a community. Population didn’t drive the need for competing papers. Politics did.
During the Civil War era, newspapers tied themselves to political parties — serving as the party trumpeters to the masses, much like MSNBC versus Fox News (although today’s news channels claim no political affiliation). And, as today, editors weren’t afraid to express their opinions. They used stronger and more colorful language in the days when a duel — rather than a lawyer — settled a defamation case.
Newspapers are the last frontier of Civil War research. Tens of thousands of books have been written on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, but newspapers usually are not cited as sources.
One reason has been inaccessibility. Most newspapers are in curators’ collections, and very difficult to locate. Even if you happened to discover a period paper, the original is so brittle, no curator worth the title will let you handle it. The fragile nature of newsprint is another problem for historians. Many of the newspapers are gone, withered away by sunlight, moisture, fire, or bugs. Newspapers, unlike the stone tablets of antiquity, are not designed for eternity.
Then there’s the microfilm or microfiche machine. What’s that? Now it’s in the Smithsonian, but it used to be a roll of photograph negatives that you passed under a magnifier. You stuck your head into a hood to view an image projected onto a black and white mini screen. What person of sound mind would subject oneself to such torture? Most historians, of sound mind, did not.
Then came the invention of digitization, the home computer, and the worldwide web. Curators and librarians figured out how to place their papers on the internet so that historians could utilize them. A research revolution was born.
I like Civil War newspapers. They offer a plethora of new discoveries, fresh perspectives, and frank expressions. Newspapers were the first social media. Their stories represented their societies.
Their pages included personalized accounts of women and men; blacks and whites; new immigrants and generational immigrants; slaves and freemen; wealthy and impoverished; laborers and capitalists; mechanics and inventors; farmers and teachers; rural inhabitants and urban dwellers; leaders and followers. Newspapers had their slants, but they were inclusive. Each newspaper freezes each day in time. They offer, for the historian, the best and most comprehensive glimpse into the day-to-day lives of average Americans.
Even better, they often copied articles from one other — especially if the editor disagreed. They never plagiarized, always gave credit; but the wonder is you can often read numerous newspapers by only reading one. My favorite example is the Philadelphia Inquirer. Politically neutral by the standards of the day, it consistently copied accounts from a myriad of city and local newspapers— North and South — often with its own accompanying commentary.
This saved me hundreds of hours of researching different perspectives. The 1862 Inquirer editor consolidated the perspectives for me.
You feel history when you read an historic newspaper. It takes you there. It becomes your time machine. You’re living the moment with them, and you experience their drama, their trauma, and their triumphs.
History is people — not dates, not facts, not memorized texts. We must remember that history does not create itself, but people create history. Newspapers bring us closer to people, and allow us to be there when they make their history. I just shared my philosophy in writing this book. I chose suspense as part of my title because when you read their papers of
September 1862, Americans were paralyzed with suspense. Every day, their futures could change, perhaps spectacularly. Drama pervades this volume, because drama invaded their lives. Everyone felt the tension. We were at war with each other. No one knew the outcome, but the newspapers recorded the drama, diligently and intelligently, day by day.
These newspapers, along with diary entries and daily correspondence, tell the story as it’s happening. That was my goal: share their story as it occurs. What did they know at that moment?
How did they react to their moment? What were their options? Why did they choose this decision?
Through the use of daily contemporary sources, you not only feel with them, but you begin to think along with them. You become part of their existence — at least momentarily. The best way to achieve this connection is through use of their own words. Let them tell you their story. They are marvelous story-tellers.
My job in September Suspense has been to discover their stories. I’ll string their stories together, but then get out of the way. Let them speak for themselves.
Civil War historians have a tendency to define a “primary resource” as a person who experienced the action or event that made history. No argument from me. My peeve is with primary sources that chronicled their participation long after the event had occurred.
My good friend Ed Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service, once illustrated this point for me. Ed served as a marine during World War II, and was badly wounded in the South Pacific during the Battle of New Britain. I once asked him if he attended his unit’s reunion. “Yes,” Bearss growled, “but I stopped going.” Why? I asked. “Because every year more and more became a bunch of damned liars!”
Memory has its ways of distorting history. Civil War veterans created their own distortions, some through fading recollections, but others through intention. Good historians work hard to discriminate between good and bad sources, but in the field of Civil War scholarship, too often we have accepted the “primary resource” as truth, without careful examination.
One of my favorite examples illustrating this problem was at the Antietam Battlefield. For several decades, a small exhibit welcomed you at Bloody Lane, under the bold quotation, “The End of the Confederacy was in Sight.” The premise was that the U.S. commander could have ended the Civil War right there, and the quote came from a primary source: Edward Porter Alexander, a Confederate ordnance officer, who wrote a terrific personal narrative nearly 30 years after the war.
How much do you remember from 30 years ago? While once conducting some research on nearby Harpers Ferry, I made a startling discovery: Alexander was not at Antietam during the battle. How could he know if the end of the Confederacy was in sight? To the credit of my NPS colleagues at Antietam, that questionable source of interpretation no longer exists.
So I’ve attempted to avoid “primary sources” of accounts written years after the fact. I’ve even tried to brush away accounts written months afterwards. Too much reflection time can change the historical record, and alter the story significantly.
No historian can attain absolute truth. Even the people who write the very day about their moment in time insert their own prejudices, stereotypes, and interpretations into their memoir. It’s natural — we’re human. We are immediate filters of the historical record, persuaded by our own backgrounds and beliefs.
In September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril, we will share history’s imperfections together. But we’ll come as close to their reality as we can.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 September Suspense 7
CHAPTER 2 Abraham’s Abyss 19
CHAPTER 3 Slavery’s Shackles 37
CHAPTER 4 Patriots’ Passion 53
CHAPTER 5 Political Poison 65
CHAPTER 6 Nominal Neutrality 77
CHAPTER 7 Divorce Decree 91
CHAPTER 8 Rebel Roulette 105
CHAPTER 9 Five Fronts 121
CHAPTER 10 Invader Intrigue 139
CHAPTER 11 Quakers Quaking 155
CHAPTER 12 Fortune Found 169
CHAPTER 13 Sabbath Surprise 187
CHAPTER 14 Mars’s Moment 201
CHAPTER 15 Sunrise Slaughter 213
CHAPTER 16 Suspense Sustained 221
APPENDIX 1 The Terms of Peace 231
APPENDIX 2 General Lee’s Proclamation
to the People of Maryland 235
APPENDIX 3 Counting Confederates 237