How the Civil War gave birth to modern journalism in the nation’s capital

NATIONAL ARCHIVES - "Newspaper Row, Washington, D.C." Engraving from "Harper's New Monthly Magazine," Jan. 1874.

The life of a newspaper correspondent in pre-Civil War Washington was marked by insultingly low wages, uncertain job security and frequent charges of inaccurate or biased reporting.

So, in a way, not much has changed in 150 years.

(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/ ) - James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795-1872), founder and publisher of the New York Herald newspaper, seen here circa 1851-2. Photo from Mathew Brady's studio.
  • (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/ ) - James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795-1872), founder and publisher of the New York Herald newspaper, seen here circa 1851-2. Photo from Mathew Brady's studio.
  • (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Brady-Handy Collection/ ) - Lawrence A. Gobright of the Associated Press, circa 1865-1880.
  • (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/ ) - Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), French journalist and statesman.
  • (WASHINGTON POST FILES/ ) - Henry Adams (1838-1918), journalist and novelist.

(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/ ) - James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795-1872), founder and publisher of the New York Herald newspaper, seen here circa 1851-2. Photo from Mathew Brady's studio.

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But the onset of the conflict in 1861 acted like a spike of adrenaline for the city’s journalists. The hostilities generated a flood of news and rumor in a city suddenly bursting with wartime energy. With Union newspapers hungry for any information about the unfolding catastrophe, newspapermen, and a few newspaperwomen, flocked to the capital.

The new arrivals — many of them young, most quite inexperienced — set up shop in one- and two-man news bureaus between the Capitol and the White House, selling their dispatches to whoever would buy in the north and west. So thick were the scribes clustered around 14th Street NW near the Willard and long-gone Ebbitt hotels that the stretch became known as “Newspaper Row.”

Reporters were nothing new in Washington in the 1860s, but the Civil War influx of newcomers established the hazy outlines of the permanent reporter-political-industrial complex that we know today. Many of the new correspondents stayed to establish permanent news bureaus. European correspondents, fascinated by the war’s massive scale, settled in, too; among them was a young French journalist named Georges Clemenceau, destined to become France’s prime minister during another great conflict — World War I.

The journalistic epicenter, around 14th and F streets NW, later became the site of the National Press Building, home to numerous national and international bureaus. An inebriated politicians-and-correspondents party for a new speaker of the House of Representatives in 1864 may have been the model for Gridiron and White House Correspondents dinners to come.

The city was the logical place for a war correspondent.

Most of the major battles of the eastern campaign were fought within a day’s ride of the capital and some were literally within earshot of it. Congress and the burgeoning federal bureaucracy were here, as was the commander in chief. A surprisingly accommodating President Abraham Lincoln regularly chatted up the newspapermen in informal, off-the-record meetings; the Associated Press’s senior man, Lawrence “Pops” Gobright, occasionally accompanied Lincoln when he went from the White House to the War Department to read communiques from the battlefields.

The reporters were an educated group — schoolteachers, lawyers, small-town editors and, later, wounded war veterans, said Donald A. Ritchie, Senate historian and author of “Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents.” Some of the journalism of the day holds up, he says.

“There’s a lot of good shoe-leather work involved,” Ritchie says. “The job hasn’t changed much. You get the facts and you tell people about them.”

But the wartime city buzzed with rumor and gossip, and sensation often appeared as news. The New York Herald, under its storied editor and proprietor James Gordon Bennett, gained a reputation for wildly speculative stories; just before the war’s outbreak, the newspaper reported that armed gangs in Maryland and Virginia were preparing to descend on Washington to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration.

“They printed almost every rumor you can imagine,” says Mark J. Stegmaier, a historian at Cameron University in Oklahoma.

By the beginning of the war, the Washington press corps had become a partisan bunch, “openly rooting for a Union victory, as were their newspapers,” Ritchie says. Southern correspondents had “seceded” from the city, along with their state delegations.

The reporters established close — and by contemporary standards, corrupt — relationships with the people they covered. They courted and wrote flattering accounts of political players. Horace White, the Chicago Tribune’s man in town, actually shared a boardinghouse with the congressmen he covered, Ritchie says.

The cozy connections between the press and the politicians enhanced the newsmen’s chances of gaining not only news leads but also insider investment tips, and of winning “patronage” jobs. Thanks to their friends in office, correspondents for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and other leading papers secured jobs as clerks on House and Senate committees, earning paychecks from the government and their newspapers simultaneously. The reporters, naturally, repaid their sponsors with favorable coverage, leading one senator, James Doolittle of Wisconsin, to complain that “great men and heroes are manufactured here” by blatant press bribery.

A few reporters, such as the Inquirer’s Uriah Painter, grew wealthy by trading on the inside information they gleaned from their work as journalists. By the end of the war, the profits from Horace White’s wartime speculation enabled him to buy a controlling stake in the Tribune. He immediately booted the paper’s legendary editor, Joseph Medill, and installed himself as editor in chief. (Medill returned to the job in 1874.)

Lincoln did his part to keep the press happy. One newspaper, the Washington Sunday Chronicle, lived off government printing contracts and bulk sales to the Army of the Potomac, and it “became as close to an official organ as the Lincoln administration would have,” according to “Press Gallery.” The president also spread printing contracts and advertising among other pro-Republican papers and handed out diplomatic and postal jobs to their correspondents. After two New York papers, the World and Journal of Commerce, unknowingly printed a fallacious story planted by conspirators to manipulate gold prices in 1864, Lincoln ordered the papers’ owners arrested and the papers closed. The proprietors were released, however, when detectives tracked down the actual perpetrators.

All told, modern readers might be a bit skeptical of how the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin characterized early war reporting from Washington in 1861:

“We are living history in these exciting times, and the historians are the newspaper writers, reporters and correspondents. To be sure, some of them make mistakes at times, and each day’s paper is not always an exactly accurate record of each day’s events. But the future historian will be able to winnow the solid grains of fact from the chaff of fancy and rumor, and the very sheet which we print today, may at a future time be closely scanned by some patient student, in his search for the actual facts concerning the mad attempt at revolution got up by some of the Southern States of the American Union in the year 1861.”

Among those who came to town in that bustling era was 22-year-old Henry Adams, the grandson of a president (John Quincy Adams), and great-grandson of a Founding Father (John Adams). The young Adams served as an unpaid, unsigned correspondent for the Boston Daily Advertiser, the largest newspaper in that city at the time, according to Stegmaier, whose forthcoming book, “Henry Adams in the Secession Crisis,” dissects Adams’s previously uncollected “letters” from Washington.

Adams, who would later distinguish himself as a leading intellectual and historian (“The Education of Henry Adams”), had some good contacts, too. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman from Massachusetts and a moderate Republican who led a faction that maneuvered to keep border states such as Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia and Maryland from seceding in the months before the war. Henry Adams — whose newspaper pieces mirrored his father’s political positions — served as his father’s private secretary in Congress while he did his newspaper work.

News reporting had been revolutionized more than a decade before the war by the advent of the telegraph. The technology loomed even larger as the war spread. It also became a convenient means to control the boisterous Washington correspondents.

Since daily dispatches from Washington had to pass through telegraphs operated by war censors, the Union government found it easy to suppress stories unfavorable to the North’s cause. As a result, the day after the first battle of Bull Run in Manassas in July 1861, some Northern newspapers got the story wrong. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “A Great Union Victory” in its first edition. Reports of Union successes in the morning made it onto the wire, but not news of the arrival of Confederate reinforcements in the afternoon.

Journalists employed by Republican newspapers were more fortunate than those employed by Democrats; the latter often saw their work land at the bottom of a government wastebasket. The AP’s Gobright, whose wire service served Republican and Democratic papers alike, had no such trouble. “My despatches [sic] are merely dry matters of fact and detail,” he said of his success in beating the censors.

Ritchie calls Gobright one of the earliest “objective” journalists — impartial, unbiased, apparently untainted by fear or favor. In a city boiling with war, and frenzied news about it, the seeds of modern journalism had begun to sprout.

 
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