Monday, June 28, 2010

General Sherman handles the press. Lessons for today?

This article from American Heritage, 1987 describes a very fascinating find; a cache of Uncle Billy's wartime letters. They show he had, to understate things, an ambivalent relationship with the press during the Civil war. This is not news, but can serve as a good source of perspective for 21st century readers.

Reading these letters leads one to an inescapable conclusion; the wartime press of Sherman's day was far more irresponsible, than the press of today, and entirely too loose with information that was much more compromising than is the information that the press has seen fit to publish during our most recent conflicts.

Sherman's hostility toward the press, documented to some extent in his memoirs, is much more prominent in these letters, expressed in his inimitably blunt yet gentlemanly voice, typical of the 19th century, something of a lost 'art' today.

In reading Sherman one cannot help but ask: how would he have dealt with Hippy Lettuce Stone's request to have a stringer tag along with his staff for a week or two or three? To ask that question is to answer it. Sherman would not have seriously entertained the request, and would have relished writing the refusal.

Another question: How would Uncle Billy interface with a blogging community? One suspects far more deftly than do many generals today. In fact, one has to ask if Billy himself would have blogged if he had the benefit of the technology. The answer is clearly 'yes.' He wrote voluminously all through the war, on a daily basis. Makes you wonder what W.T. Sherman's facebook page would hold doesn't it? And, would he have commented on the New York Herald's or Time's facebook page? Oh yes, if he felt it necessary. And, no doubt he would feel it necessary over and over again! And, give the General access to the 'blogger' platform?

It would have been gold. Pure gold. As Ben Bradley states: "Generals who write always make me nervous" General Sherman would no doubt have controlled the narrative, and the press would have as a result been more circumspect, if not humbled. Public outrage at the loose practices would have been created.

Reading the letters presented in this article, and the brief perspective piece by Civil War historian Shelby Foote, as well as appended reflections by then (1987) editor of the Washington Post, Mr. Bradlee, one is struck by the fact that General Sherman dealt with press problems that hold no parallel today.

So, you think think the press today sometimes shows an alarming lack of judgment in publishing information that essentially becomes intelligence gold for the enemy? That failing as evinced by today's "scribblers" pales, yes pales in comparison to the carelessness of the Civil War era newspapers.

Sherman was quite rightly incensed by stories that gave detailed intelligence to the Confederacy, and quite rightly accused the press of his day, on more than one occasion, of having directly contributed to higher casualty rates than would otherwise have been if they had not published key information on troop movements and other logistical matters. Sherman was not the only person to complain. As is well known, Lincoln and Grant voiced similar criticisms. Sherman even brought up a correspondent on charges. That story is detailed in the American Heritage piece. Here are various excerpts that show the extent of the problem:

The cause of Sherman’s enmity toward the press is simple: Northern newspapers repeatedly and in great detail alerted the South that an attack was imminent. The telegraph, the railroad, and the daily press had made it possible to disseminate information at a rate and in quantities undreamed of a generation before, but the newspapermen still saw their job in the old, simple terms: get out the story. That the story could now be gotten out with a speed that put its subjects’ lives at hazard was not immediately apparent. Sherman was among the first—and was certainly the most vocal—of the military men who had to cope with the fact that the Industrial Revolution had overtaken the Bill of Rights. The dimensions of the problem became clear to him even before he went into battle.

On July 17, 1861, The New York Times reported: “The army in Virginia today took up the line of march for Richmond, via Fairfax and Manassas. The force starting today was fully fifty thousand strong … about three thousand Regular Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery, and fifty thousand Volunteers. …” On the same day, the Washington Star provided a detailed order of battle: “The column on the extreme right is commanded by Gen. Tyler. That consists of the following excellent troops, viz: the Maine Second, the First, Second and Third Connecticut regiments; the New York Second, the First and Second Ohio. …”

The First Battle of Bull Run ended catastrophically for the North, and whether or not the newspapermen were to blame, the indiscretion of the press before the battle still burned in Sherman’s mind two years later when he wrote his foster father: “Now in these modern times a class of men has been begotten & attend our camps & armies gathering minute information of our strength, plans & purposes & publishes them so as to reach the enemy in time to serve his purposes. Such publications do not add a man to our strength, in noways benefit us, but are invaluable to the enemy. You know that this class published in advance all the plans of the Manassas Movement [which] enabled [Gen. Joseph E. Johnston]… to reinforce Beauregard whereby McDowell was defeated & the enemy gained tremendous strength & we lost in comparison. …”

The Newspapers declare me their inveterate Enemy, and openly say they will write me down. In writing me down are they not writing the Cause and the Country down? Now I know and every officer knows that no army or detachment moves or can move that is not attended by correspondents of hundreds of newspapers. …

“They encumber our transports, occupy state rooms to the exclusion of officers on duty, they eat our provisions, they swell the crowd of hangers on, and increase the impedimenta. They publish without stint positive information of movements past & prospective, organizations, names of commanders, and accurate information which reaches the enemy with as much regularity as it does our People. They write up one class of officers and down another, and fan the flames of discord and jealousy. Being in our very midst, catching expressions dropped by officers, clerks, and orderlies, and being keen expert men they detect movements and give notice of them. So that no matter how rapidly we move, our enemy has notice in advance. To them more than to any other cause do I trace the many failures that attend our army. While they cry about blood & slaughter they are the direct cause of more bloodshed than fifty times their number of armed Rebels. Never had an enemy a better corps of spies than our army carries along, paid, transported, and fed by the United States.”

There is a section of the article, focusing on on a letter written before the battle of Vicksburg. It must be read in full. A more scathing moral condemnation from the pen of Sherman, or anyone else cannot be found:

“As I have more leisure than usual now I will illustrate by examples fresh in the memory of all, why I regard newspaper correspondents as spies & why as a servant of an enlightened government I feel bound in honor and in common honesty to shape my official conduct accordingly. A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us. One who bears into a Fortress or Camp a baleful influence that encourages sedition or weakens us. He need not be an enemy, is often a trader woman or servant. Such characters are by all belligerents punished summarily with the extremest penalties, not because they are of themselves filled with guilty thought or intent but because he or she endangers the safety of an army, a nation, or the cause for which it is contending. AndrĂ© carried no intelligence back to Genl Clinton but was the mere instrument used to corrupt the fidelity of an officer holding an important command. Washington admitted the high and pure character of AndrĂ© but the safety of the cause demanded his punishment. It is hard to illustrate my point by reference to our past history, but I wish to convey the full idea that a nation & an army must defend its safety & existence by making acts militating against it criminal regardless of the mere interest of the instrument. We find a scout surveying our camp from a distance in noways threatening us but seeking information of the location strength and composition of our forces. We shoot him of course without asking a question. We find a stranger in our camp seeking a stray horse & find afterwards he has been to the enemy: We hang him as a spy because the safety of the army & the cause it fights for is too important to be risked by any pretext or chance. … I know the enemy received from the [press] … notice of our intended attack on Vicksburg & thwarted our well laid schemes. I know that Beauregard at Corinth received from the same source full details of all troops ascending the Tennessee and acted accordingly. I know that it was by absolute reticence only that Halleck succeeded in striking Forts Henry & Donaldson and prevented their reinforcement in time to thwart that most brilliant movement. And it was only by the absence of newspapers that we succeeded in reaching the post of Arkansas before it could be reinforced.

“I know that the principal northern papers reach the enemy regularly & promptly & I know that all the vigilance of our army cannot prevent it & I know that by this means the enemy can defeat us to the end of time. …

“Another view of the case. The Northern Press either make public opinion or reflect it. By gradual steps public opinion instead of being governed governs our country. All bow to it & even military men who are sworn officers of the Executive Branch of the Government go behind & look to public opinion. The consequence is & has been that officers instead of keeping the Executive Branch advised of all movements, events, or circumstances that would enable it to act advisedly & with vigor communicate with the public direct through the Press so that the Government authorities are operated on by public opinion formed too often on false or interested information. This has weakened the Executive and has created jealousies, mistrust, & actual sedition. Officers find it easier to attain rank, renown, fame, and notoriety by the cheap process of newspapers. This cause has paralyzed several fine armies & by making the people at home mistrust the ability of Leaders, Surgeons, & Quarter Masters has even excited the fears of parents so far that many advise their sons and brothers to desert until desertion & mutiny have lost their odious character. I’ll undertake to say that the army of the Potomac has not today for battle one half the men whom the U.S. pays as soldiers & this is partially the case with the army of the Tennessee & here.

“In all armies there must be wide differences of opinion & partial causes of disaffection—want of pay, bad clothing, dismal camps, crowded transports, hospitals rudely formed, & all the incidents of war. These cannot be entirely avoided & newspapers can easily charge them to negligence of commanders & thereby create disaffection. I do not say the Press intends this but they have done this and are doing it all the time. Now I know I made the most minute and careful preparation for the sick & wounded on the Yazoo, plenty of ambulances & men detailed in advance to remove the wounded—four of the largest transports prepared & set aside before a shot was fired & that every wounded man was taken from the field dressed & carefully attended immediately & yet I know that the Press has succeeded in making the very reverse impression & that many good people think there was criminal negligence. The same naked representations were made at Shiloh & I saw hundreds of Physicians come down & when our Surgeons begged & implored their help they preferred to gather up trophies and consume the dainties provided for the wounded & go back and represent the cruelty of the Army Surgeons & boast of their own disinterested humanity. I know this & that they nearly ruined Dr. Hewitt, one of the hardest working Surgeons in any army. I see similar attempts—less successful however—against Dr. McMillan. Not a word of truth, not even a pretense of truth, but it is a popular & successful theme & they avail themselves of it. What is the consequence? All officers of industry who stand by at all times through storm & sunshine find their reputations blasted & others—usually the most lazy & indolent—reaping cheap glory & fame through the correspondents of the Press.

“I say in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord & discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies. Shall we succumb or shall we meet and overcome the evil? I am satisfied they have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars & brought our country to the brink of ruin & that unless the nuisance is abated we are lost.

“Here we are in front of Vicksburg. The attack direct in front would in our frail transports be marked by the sinking of Steamers loaded with troops, a fearful assault against the hills fortified with great care by a cunning enemy. Every commander who has looked at it says it cannot be done in front—it must be turned. I tried it but newspaper correspondents had sent word in advance & ample preparations were made & [enemy] reinforcements double my number had reached Vicksburg. McClernand was unwilling to attack in front. Grant ditto. Then how turn the position? We cannot ascend the Yazoo to where our men can get a footing. We cannot run our frail transports past the Vicksburg Batteries, so we resolve to cut a channel into the Yazoo at the old pass near Delta above & into the Texas by way of Lake Providence. Secrecy & dispatch are the chief elements of success. The forces here are kept to occupy the attention of the enemy, two steamers are floated past the Batteries to control the River below & men are drawn secretly from Helena & Memphis to cut the canals & levees & remove all the inhabitants so that the enemy could not have notice till the floods of the Mississippi could finish the work of man. But what avail? Known spies accompany each expedition & we now read in the Northern papers … that our forces here are unequal to the direct assault but we are cutting the two canals above. The levees are cut & our plans work to a charm but the enemy now knows our purposes & hastens above, fells trees into the narrow headstreams, cuts the side levees, disperses the waters & defeats our well conceived plans.

“Who can carry on a war thus? It is terrible to contemplate: & I say that no intelligent officer in this or any American army now in the field but would prefer to have his opponent increased twenty—Yea, fifty percent—if the internal informers & spies could be excluded from our camps … if the people could only see as I see the baleful effects of this mischievous practice they would cry aloud in indignant tones. We may in self defense be compelled to take the law into our own hands for our safety or we may bend to the storm and seek a position where others may take the consequences of this cause. I early foresee this result & have borne the malignity of the Press—but a day will come & that not far distant when the Press must surrender some portion of its freedom to save the rest else it too will perish in the general wreck. …

“I know I could have easily achieved popularity by yielding to … outside influences but I could not do what I see other popular officers do: furnish transportation at government expense to newspaper agents & supply them with public horses … [and] give access to official papers which I am commanded to withhold to the world till my Employer has benefit of them. I could not do these things & feel that I was an honest man & faithful servant of the Government, for my memory still runs back to the time when … an officer would not take a government nail out of a keg on which to hang his coat or feed his horse out of the public crib without charging its cost against his pay. …

“Again the habit of indiscriminate praise & flattery has done us harm. Let a stranger read our official reports & he would blush at the praise bespattered over Regiments, Divisions, and Corps for skirmishes & actions where the dead & wounded mark no serious conflict. …

“I have departed from my theme. My argument is that newspaper correspondents and camp followers, writing with a purpose & with no data, communicate facts useful to the enemy and useless to our cause & calculated to impair the discipline of the army & that the practice must cease. We cannot appeal to Patriotism because news is a salable commodity & the more valuable as it is, the more pithy and damaging to our cause. … The law gives me the means to stop it & as an army we fail in our duty to the Government, to our cause, & to ourselves when we do not use them.”

The newspapers had upbraided Sherman not only for incompetence and insanity but also for what they considered a disregard for his men and a willingness to sacrifice them heartlessly. Nothing incensed Sherman more than this. “Among all the infamous charges,” he wrote to friends in St. Louis, “none has given me more pain than the assertion that my troops were disaffected, mutinous, and personally opposed to me. This is false, false as hell. My own division will follow me anywhere. …” As indeed Sherman’s troops were to prove to the nation time and again. To Senator Ewing, in his long letter of February 17, Sherman wrote:

“Every soldier of my command comes into my presence as easy as the highest officer. Their beds & rations are as good as mine & certainly no General Officer moves about with as little pomp as I. They see me daily, nightly, hourly along the picket line afoot, alone, or with a single orderly or officer, whilst others have their mighty escorts and retinue. Indeed I am usually laughed at for my simplicity in this respect. … Many a solitary picket has seen me creeping at night examining ground before I ordered … [the men] to cross it & yet other lazy rascals ignorant of the truth would hang behind sleep or crouch around the distant campfire till danger was passed, and then write how Sherman with insane rashness had pushed his brave soldiers into the jaws of death. … When I praise I mean it & when troops fall into disorder I must notice it, but you may read my reports in vain for an instance when troops have kept their ranks and done even moderately well but I have encouraged them to a better future. … I know that in trouble, in danger, in emergencies the men know I have patience, a keen appreciation of the truth of facts & ground equalled by few, and one day they will tell the truth. …”

Throughout the war Sherman, like all in high command, was besieged by petitioners appealing for all manner of benefits. He disappointed many, cutting them short, which probably prompted the Cincinnati Commercial to judge him proud and haughty. From this charge, too, Sherman defended himself to his foster father:

“Abrupt I am, & all military men are. The mind jumps to its conclusions & is emphatic, & I can usually divine the motive of the insidious cotton speculator, camp follower, & hypercritical humanity seeker before he discloses his plans & designs. An officer who must attend to the thousand & one wants of thirty thousand men besides the importunities of thousands of mischievous camp followers must need be abrupt unless the day can be made more than twenty-four hours long. A citizen cannot understand that an officer who has to see to the wants and necessities of an army has no time to listen to the usual long perorations & I must confess I have little patience with this class of men. …”

Two days after delivering his deposition against the press, Sherman learned that a military court had found Thomas Knox not guilty of the charge of giving intelligence to the enemy, or of being a spy. The court did find him guilty of willfully disobeying Sherman’s order by accompanying the army down the Mississippi (although it “attaches no criminality thereto”) and of causing his dispatch to be printed in the New York Herald without the sanction of the general in command (as required by War Department General Order No. 67, August 26, 1861). Accordingly Knox was sentenced “to be sent without the lines of the army, and not to return under penalty of imprisonment.”

The New York Herald was among the strongest supporters of Lincoln’s administration, and the paper appealed at once to the President, who countermanded the sentence on the condition that Grant, Sherman’s superior, agreed. Grant would not. He told Knox that only if Sherman himself gave his consent would Knox be allowed to remain. Knox therefore was forced to appeal directly to the man he had defamed. He was proud and formal: “I should be pleased to receive your assent in the present subject matter,” adding an expression of his “regret at the want of harmony between portions of the Army and the Press. …”

Sherman must have taken some pleasure in writing his answer. “Come with a sword or musket in your hand, prepared to share with us our fate … and I will welcome you as a brother and associate; but come as you now do, expecting me to ally the reputation and honor of my country and my fellowsoldiers with you as the representative of the Press which you yourself say makes so slight a difference between truth and falsehood and my answer is Never!”

Sherman thanked Grant for handling Knox’s request as he had. The court’s decision had been less than a clear-cut victory in Sherman’s eyes, but he satisfied himself with the realization that the trial and then banishment of Knox had a sobering effect on other correspondents, some of whom voluntarily abandoned the Vicksburg area. Sherman went on to play a prominent role in the campaign, his 15th Corps carrying out prodigious forced marches. In the final push against Vicksburg, Sherman’s corps occupied the right flank of the encircling Federal army. The indiscretion of the press would cause Sherman no serious harm again until the campaign in North Carolina.

Having focused more on the military perspective, let's turn things toward the 'scribblers': What are the takeaways in this history for the press of the 21st century? What lessons lay in these letters for newspapers, blogs, and etc.? I would say, a lesson in humility and the need for circumspection:

If today the head of an established press organization can look back, as Bradlee does in the 'afterward', over the approximately 150 year gap and recognize over-reach and galling lack of judgment, should todays press not also be able to focus that same regard on their actions today, and temper those actions in light of the elementary moral principles that pressmen of that day so clearly neglected?

And, I also think that something of the methods utilized by Grant and Sherman with regard to Mr. Knox might be extracted, modified, modernized and implemented with regard to information outlets that are considerably less circumspect in what they choose to broadcast than the established newspapers and internet institutions. Might the proper course of action with regard to the detestable WikiLeaks organization and Mr. gleaned from Sherman's letters?

In fact, the more I think about it, the press during the Civil War resembled Wikileaks more than it does the establishment press or the new media of today. Something to think about if the evolution of information technology and distribution brings us more and more Wikileaks organizations, or lone wolves that emulate Assange and his ilk.

Need I say, read the whole darned article?