|An example of a Woodcut of Thomas Nast's Political Cartoons.|
Reporting the War:
Reenacting as a Civil War Correspondent
An important and often overlooked area of Civil War research and study is the role journalists played in reporting - and recording - the great events which shaped our nation in the 1860s. Many Civil War readers, while perhaps unaware of the story of the correspondents, would undoubtedly recognize an Alfred Waud combat sketch, a Sylvanus Cadwallader narrative, or a Mathew Brady photograph. The work of these and other renowned civilian correspondents has been featured in some of the most famous accounts of the war, including the books of Bruce Catton and the Civil War series published by Time Life. The impression of civilian war correspondent is also finding a growing and enthusiastic cadre of reenactors who have taken on the task of bringing such characters to the battlefields of events across the nation. These brave members of what later became known as the “Bohemian Brigade” risked life and limb to bring news of the war to an anxious and distant public.
Technology played a large part in augmenting the role journalists were to play in what the North called the Rebellion and what the South called the War for Southern Independence. In 1835, James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald, one of the first periodicals to find a truly national audience. In that same year, carrier pigeons made their first successful flights from London to Paris, and Samuel Morse patented his famous code of dots and dashes. Two years later, shorthand was invented, making it possible to transmit breaking news in record time. In 1841, Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune, which would serve as a vehicle for advancing the political agenda of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln; and three years later, the telegraph made its appearance on the national stage. The Associated Press was organized in 1849, bringing major newspapers together in cooperative effort and in a signed agreement with the Western Union telegraph. The New York Times was founded by Henry Raymond in 1851, followed by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855 and Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization in 1857. By 1860, the United States could boast more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire and over 2,500 newspapers, most of which were still published in the popular four-page spread format.
All these developments set the stage for an active role on the part of journalists in the coming War Between the States. The Mexican War was the first national conflict covered in detail in the press, by George Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune. America in 1860 was a highly literate nation, with a vast ocean of inquisitive readers eager to track the progress of the growing Republic. When secession came following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, bringing the looming clouds of war, all the various major publications in the United States jumped at the opportunity to bring the latest and most sensational accounts of the coming conflict to their own - and, with any luck, each other’s - readers and subscribers.
Most modern historians estimate the number of journalists sent into the field between 1861 and 1865 at around 500, with approximately two thirds of those reporting for Northern papers and the remaining third reporting for the South. Correspondents were usually paid by the story, unless their reputation and work had earned them a position as a regular staffer, in which case their wages approximated those of a Union Army captain (between $25 and $30 a week). Freelance writers were paid by the column, at a rate of anywhere between five and ten dollars. Civil War journalists printed close to 100 million words over the course of the war, or nearly 50,000 words a day on average. In addition to vivid (and often more sensational than accurate) accounts of life on the march, in camp, and in battle, the “Bohemians” would forward army movements, casualty lists, and biographical portraits back home for publication. The role of these writers in shaping the public’s understanding of the war on both sides cannot be underestimated.
Some of the more well-known correspondents were the combat artists, known as the “specials,” including such names as Alfred R. Waud and his brother William, Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast, Frank Vizetelly, Alexander Simplot, and Edwin Forbes. The sketches of these brave men, often drawn quickly while under fire, provided the best firsthand visual accounts of the sights and sounds of battle and camp life in both armies. The “specials” were usually paid by the sketch, until they established a name for themselves, after which they were given a regular salary and field allowance (Winslow Homer was eventually paid $60 a page for his sketches). The artists would send their sketches back to their respective publishers, either in person or by courier, where they were redone into etchings and published for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the readers. After the war, many of these artists continued their work to become household names, recording subsequent key events in American history for posterity.
Journalists did not always receive a warm welcome by the military commanders in the field. In 1864, Thomas W. Knox of the Herald was actually court-martialed for “espionage” by General William T. Sherman, and Edward Crapsey of the Philadelphia Inquirer was accused of libel by General George Meade and drummed out of camp to the humiliating strains of “The Rogue’s March.” Others were arrested or pursued as spies, captured and sent to prison camps, harassed by guerrillas, lost in forests and swamps, or their telegraph dispatches sabotaged by marauding cavalry. There were even a few instances of correspondents being wounded or killed in action. By the end of the war, however, no one in America could dispute the inestimable part they had played in the conflict, and an impressive monument was later erected near the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland with the names of 157 members of the “Bohemian Brigade.”
After six years of portraying a Union Army private of Meagher’s Irish Brigade, I began to develop my journalist impression in October 2000, portraying a fictitious “special” artist/correspondent for Harper’s Weekly named James Allen Davis (the name of one of my Civil War era ancestors). The correspondent impression requires an ensemble not unlike that of any Victorian gentleman, with the emphasis on field clothing rather than parlor or formal wear. I wear woolen trousers and a vest, with black silk cravat and straw slouch hat, and in the last few months I added a linen duster, black leather shoes, and a small pair of field glasses to the impression. I also carry a cotton haversack, canteen, sketch pad and pencils, scratch paper, a penknife, and reproduction copies of period papers. The few colleagues whom I have managed to locate across the country have similar ensembles, with some wearing boots instead of shoes, and felt slouches instead of straw. Some carry Colt revolvers, which was true in the case of Alfred Waud and others, but the correspondents were officially considered civilian noncombatants and neither expected nor required to carry firearms. Reenactors who have a flair with words may consider portraying a standard correspondent, and those with artistic talent may be drawn more to the “special” impression.
Reenacting as a correspondent has many advantages. First, generally speaking, you can choose your position on the battlefield. After obtaining the proper clearance from military authorities, the battles can be viewed from any number of vantage points, rather than being limited to the specific area of the battlefield experienced by the soldier. Second, the unusual nature of the correspondent impression provides unique educational opportunities. I have been approached by spectators far more often in my three years as a reporter than I ever was in six years as a soldier. And finally, with proper permission, correspondents may travel more freely between the lines and the ranks than military roles. Of course, you run the risk of being arrested as a spy or a “meddling civilian,” but if you are able to explain yourself adequately, most military officers are more than willing to get their name in the paper. I invite you to learn more about this fascinating aspect of both Civil War history and reenacting, and hope to see you somewhere in 1863.
Antebellum Journalism Timeline
and List of Civil War Correspondents
Torin R. Finney is a history teacher and reenactor in Bakersfield, California, and a member of the Fort Tejon Historical Association. He is the author of Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon (Paulist Press, 1989), winner of the 1990 Pax Christi USA Book Award. Portraying artist/correspondent James Allen Davis of Harper’s Weekly, he and a small but dedicated group of other civilian reeenactors of the “Bohemian Brigade” will be covering the action as an impromptu “Civil War Press Corps” at the 140 th Anniversary Gettysburg Event in Pennsylvania this summer. He can be contacted at email@example.com