Author: Kasandra Fager, senior in the History major
Editor: Brittany Von Kamp, second year student in the M.A. in History
This is a public presentation written as part of HIST4001, Professional Practices in History and HIST3265, Civil War.
In a great national crisis like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable, almost indispensable, and yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable, unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority.“President’s Message,” Cincinnati Daily Commercial, page 1, 1864
This quote above, one that could come from any moment of our own lives, is found sprawled across the black and white pages of the Cincinnati Daily Commercial between December 1864 and May 1865. Our lives are guided by the voice of the people, our foundations, and the freedom of the press. Our thoughts and opinions of the events around us are guided by the internet, journalists, and academics. Voices, unifying nationalism, and loyalty flow in and out of our political discord as conversations test the boundaries of time. Wars and uprising have all been turning points for the media as their role in society changes. We all know that reputable sources, editorial pieces, and first-hand information are all important for any news source, but have you ever considered how a newspaper’s organizational structure affects what we learn or the conclusions we draw? This article argues that newspaper coverage at the end of the Civil War constructed a narrative that the Union was winning the war because they have better leadership, a stronger military, and more merciful citizens.
At the end of 1864, the Cincinnati newspaper portrayed the Confederacy as a place in disarray. The editorials shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4 tried to persuade readers that the people of the Confederacy had lost their faith in their government (“Lee to be Presented to the Confederacy as a Commander in Chief or Dictator,” 1865). The Cincinnati Daily Commercial emphasized the compassion and grit of Northerners and Southerners alike; yet it also portrayed the leadership of each side in a very different light. The Commercial published a speech by Judge William M. Dickson on April 15, 1865 about the “trials, humble origins, and loyalty of Lincoln” (“A Speech by Judge William M. Dickson,” 1865). Lincoln was the Union’s “Moses” and Davis was their “Benedict Arnold” (“A Speech by Dickson,” 1865). By placing Lincoln on a pedestal of strength, loyalty, and religious significance, the editors created a type of worship.
Going beyond this comparison in character, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial berated the confederacy’s economic record as the cotton fields were more important than harvesting corn and the Confederacy money was worthless compared to the Federal money (“The Rebel Panic,” 1865). By using clippings from a southern newspaper, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial created a negative image of Davis. The newspaper claimed Davis used the papers to protect his image because his command wanted him dead, and he lost all authority and loyalty when Richmond fell. Amongst the pages, there was only article that humanized Davis’s character. He was seen as a loyal and devout worshipper, and Davis was humbled by the death of his son (“An Anglo-Rebel Statement,” 1865). The newspaper failed to say more about his character and instead turns towards Lincoln to protect the Union President from his flaws. In the many articles, Lincoln was seen as trustworthy, compassionate, and yet stern enough to do the job, while Davis was weak, an imbecile, and a “rotten stick” (“Jeff Davis,” 1865). The public thought Davis failed when he did not arm the slaves to be soldiers and he intentionally legalized robbery as the army ransacked the countryside for food (“An Official Confession of the Failure of the Rebellion,” 1865). With few railroads and telegram lines left behind in Sherman’s path across the South, the leadership and the military capacity of both sides are shown.
Facing a difficult and often biased comparison of Lincoln and an overall lack of supplies, the newspaper decides to push a vision of mercy among its citizens to show there is still good in the world. Giving away food and aid, eventually supporting emancipation, and treating rebel prisoners well reinforced Lincoln’s message of unity as he desired one country instead of two. Figures 5 and 6 demonstrate that the newspapers considered religion, proper treatment, and respect as the proper values when they talked about the civilian efforts of the war.
Figures 5 and 6 also captured the feeling of duty, superiority, and religious guidance felt by the people. Caring for the people and listening to the pleas of the distressed, the women and families left behind found a way to serve. But is this duty or opportunism? The New York prisons gave blankets to rebel prisoners in exchange for cotton, merchants still traded along the Mississippi, and rebel officers and solders took oaths of allegiance instead of being arrested (“Letter from Savannah,” 1865). Both northern and southern newspapers protected nationalism and pride by encouraging an alliance between soldiers and civilians to advance the war effort. The Commercial failed to include the kindness of the south unless they were seen celebrating the arrival of Union troops (“Reviews in Savannah,” 1865). According to this newspaper, the South was vengeful, saddened, distraught, and brutal, while the North was welcoming, worthy, and defensive.
The mercy and societal goodwill used to foster Union loyalty in the South is crucial to the ending the war, but so is the Pro-Union newspaper’s perception of the military and various technologies. The North had an inexhaustible amount of labor and resources, a navy large enough to block the southern ports, and had the guarantee from Europe to not interfere (“Letter from Memphis,” 1865). The articles pictured in figures 7 and 8 pushed an agenda that the United States is fighting a war hidden within the technological and trade prosperity of the Union.
As Sherman marched across the country and destroyed communication lines and took prisoners, chaos reigned in the articles the Cincinnati Daily Commercial reproduced from rebel newspapers. Editors took pieces from several newspapers to show the failure of the Southern government to provide food, raise troops, inspire patriotism, and push cooperation between plantation owners and the new government causes problems on the front lines (“The Duty of the Confederacy,” 1865). It is important to note that all the coverage of the stated problems are presented in the south and few occurred in the north. The editors argued the Union was organized, informed, and efficient, and the Confederacy was the opposite.
This article looked at the formation of public opinion through the examination of the civil war coverage in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial from December 1864 to May 1865. Pride and nationalism are woven into the military culture of the war and a fractured Union is preserved under a notion of loyalty. By protecting the image of Lincoln and dismissing Davis, the citizens’ view of the view is heavily influenced. Desertion, a lack of supplies, and a shortage of railroads and telegraphs only occur in the south. Navigating through the bias and manufactured representation of the war takes effort, but it is beneficial to saving this “tired” and over-published topic. The voice of the people is hidden within the lines of the newspaper and leads me to believe that we can take this newfound knowledge and apply it to our own lives. Despite the bias and nationalism, how can we continue this conversation about loyalty, compassion, and political leadership in today’s news, 150 years later?
Cincinnati Daily Commercial, (Cincinnati, OH), December 7, 1864 to May 30, 1865. Accessed March 30, 2020 to April 25, 2020. https://newspaperarchive.com/browse/us/oh/cincinnati/cincinnati-daily-commercial/