Tuesday, June 16, 2015


If Union Army General William T. Sherman ever ran across the phrase “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” he would have thumbed his nose at the saying.

No one knows its exact origin of the expression, but it was first used in the late 19th century and meant as an admonition against arguing with the press because of its power to shape and manipulate public opinion.

Newspapers, of course, don't use ink these days. And, they don't wield as much weight as they once did. 

During America’s Civil War, newspapers and reporters were convenient targets of angry criticism--some of it more than justified. Reporters often got the facts wrong. Others purposely lied. Some even made up stories about battles they never saw. In fact, newspapers often played an unwitting role in the conflict.

Military commanders from the North and the South discovered nuggets of reliable sources of intelligence in many newspaper articles. For that reason, reporters and the military often found themselves in a confrontational relationship.

Sherman wanted reporters treated like spies.

Sherman had nothing but contempt for the press because he believed reports of various battles and identifying Union locations  revealed information he thought harmful to the Union cause. 

He despised reporters and labeled them as “buzzards of the press.” As far as he was concerned, reporters should be treated as spies. In fact, Sherman didn’t give a tinker's damn about the concept of freedom of the press. He once remarked, "Napoleon himself would have been defeated by a free press.”

Sherman once had a reporter for the New York Tribune arrested as a spy because the man filed a story violating a censorship provision. The general would have had the man shot but President Lincoln intervened. 

Union General A. E. Burnside took drastic steps to control the flow of news when he issued orders to close the Chicago Tribute and halt distribution of the New York World throughout the Midwest. But, Lincoln, as before, got involved and rescinded Burnside's actions.  

"If I had my choice," Sherman once said, " I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell  before breakfast."

On another occasion, he remarked, "I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are." 

When journalist and poet Florus B. Plimpton visited Kentucky in September 1861 to interview Sherman for the Cincinnati Commercial, Sherman showed him the door. Plimpton countered that he only wanted to pursue the truth. 

"Truth, eh?" said Sherman. No sir ... We do not want the enemy any better informed about what is going on here than he is."  

Despite the loathing, however, he was shrewd enough to recognize the value of published information. Sherman conceded he was able to determine the Confederacy’s intentions for the Western Theater in 1864 by reading published accounts of speeches given by President Jefferson Davis. According to Sherman, President Davis “… thus gave us the full key to his future designs … To be forewarned was to be forearmed, and I think we took full advantage of the occasion.”

Commanders on both sides often acted on clues contained in news stories.

The Civil War marked the first conflict where the news media played a major role. News organizations went head-to-head trying in an effort to scoop each other, attempting to publish exclusive stories about the war, battlefield outcomes, and military strategy in general.

Even the military realized the value of such published information.Both Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee made it a habit to read the enemy’s newspapers on a daily basis. They used the information to either make, modify, or manage strategic plans based on what they learned in the dispatches.

Grant made sure news summaries were created and distributed to his staff.

Grant had newspapers from Richmond delivered direct to his headquarters during the latter part of the war. He not only read them, he instructed his staff to condense news dispatches and telegraphed and distributed them to key strategists in Washington. 


His counterpart, Lee, picked out specific news stories that he believed contained indications of enemy movements and plans and had them forwarded to President Davis. Lee also used the information to initiate specific assignments, and to strengthen certain military units.

Operatives also played a role by planting false information that appeared in news stories.

For the most part, Southern newspapers exercised more discretion than their Northern counterparts. But, despite the distribution of so much valuable information through the press, neither side succeeded in developing an effective system of censorship or voluntary self-regulation.

The situation, however, also worked in reverse. Government agents, and others, figured out they could counter the distribution of valuable facts and figures by planting false intelligence to throw the enemy off balance. And, the ploy was often successful.

This battle to convey both valuable information and calculated misinformation wasn’t played out across just the news pages. The “Personals” section of newspapers were packed with intelligence data in the form of key words, dates, and coded names.

The telegraph helped newspapers assume more influence.

The telegraph gave the press the ability to receive reports from great distances and update the public on battle results, troop movements, casualty reports, and the political issues involved in the war.

Newspapers, in fact, were used by both the North and the South in an emotional war for public support--mostly through editorializing and by printing emotional on-the-scene reaction from those citizens directly affected by the conflict. 

Reporting, in many instances, was clearly biased. In an effort to bolster public morale, some newspapers falsely reported battle results and casualty rates.
The Civil War pushed the newspaper industry to new heights, primarily because of its ability to affect public opinion. During the next century--thanks to improved technology and the shift of population from rural to urban areas--the newspaper industry grew to assume a place of unequaled influence in American society throughout the next century.

Visit Tom Rizzo's blog where he writes tall tales mostly about characters and events of the mid- to late-19th century, from the Civil War to Frontier America.


  1. As usual, a great article, Tom. Shows how times really haven't changed; and how technology can be both a curse and a blessing.

    1. Thanks, Kit. You're right, of course, Not much space between then and now.

  2. Freedom of the press is great. Trusting and believing what is written by various reporters is something else. Bias for political reasons or editor approval apparently still plays a part.
    It doesn't look like things have changed that much after all this time.
    Thanks for presenting.

    1. Oh yes, bias plays a big part, esepcially in political reporting. And especially by TV news. I cringe when I see these self-important anchor types sharing their own personal take on a particular storty rather than simply "reporting" from a fresh perspectivre. As you suggested, there's certainlly a parallel to the rabble rousing rags on the frontier.

  3. Written as only the great Journalist Tom Rizzo could write!