BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Goodheart, a historian and professor at Washington College, is the author of a blog called Disunion. Its subject, the American Civil War. Blogs, of course, are a great vehicle for tracking news and views in the moment, but the Civil War – for those who keep track of such things – has been over for nearly a century and a half. No matter. Goodheart says there’s much to appreciate in blogging the war via newspaper accounts day by day. It enables us to experience it almost like contemporaries.
ADAM GOODHEART: The way that people experience history is not a sort of a sweeping view from 500 miles up where you see armies marching across the landscape. The blog format, I think, lets people experience the history of the past one day at a time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Something else you've never had to reckon with as a historian before was comments from readers.
ADAM GOODHEART: People are refighting the old ideological battles of the 19th century in a way that Americans never seem to tire of doing. There seems to be a big movement to connect the Tea Party to the Confederacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did the war change journalism?
ADAM GOODHEART: Journalism changed the Civil War before the Civil War changed journalism. By 1860, by the time of Lincoln’s election, every major newspaper in the country carried reports by telegraph. The telegraph, and just the proliferation of the media in general, really created sort of a national echo chamber that might be a little bit familiar to some people today. Compare the American Revolution to the Civil War. In 1775 there were 37 newspapers, and most of them were weekly newspapers. In 1860 there were 3700 newspapers, and very many of them were daily newspapers. And, much as in today’s media environment, it rewarded the people who could be the most outrageous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
ADAM GOODHEART: Sure. Well, my favorite bit of invective that I came across in researching my book is an editor saying: “Lincoln is a cross between a sand-hill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I'm not sure what he was trying to get across, but clearly it was not meant to be a compliment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And it seems that accurate information was not the premium item here. It was more about emotion.
ADAM GOODHEART: To some degree it was about telling people what they wanted to hear. For instance, when the disaster at Bull Run occurred, many of the Northern newspapers reported it initially as a great and glorious Union triumph. It was only later that the real reports started to trickle in about the Federals racing one another as fast as they could back towards Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk about the racial sensitivity of the Civil War press.
ADAM GOODHEART: Racial sensitivity? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there any?
ADAM GOODHEART: [LAUGHS] Uh, no. [LAUGHS] Not only was there no racial sensitivity but in fact racism really was the sort of political currency of the times. Every issue of every newspaper practically was sprinkled with disgusting racial invective that -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: North and South.
ADAM GOODHEART: North and South. Well, of course, the Southerners were talking about Lincoln as the candidate of the Negro. Meanwhile, the Northerners were trying to prove that they didn't love Negroes any more than the Southerners did. The Republicans, in fact, all through Lincoln’s Republican campaign in 1860, were going to great lengths to prove how racist they were. I kept finding references to the possibility of there eventually being a black President of the United States. Lincoln’s opponent started asking, well, if this antislavery doctrine of the Republican Party is carried to its logical extreme, is that going to mean that we're going to have to grant black people full citizenship? One politician asked, will you allow them to sit at your own table, marry your daughters, sit in your Halls of Congress and perhaps be President of the United States? One other account that I found described a Democratic parade through the streets of Manhattan in 1860 and there were banners. One of the banners showed Abraham Lincoln embracing a black woman and another one showed a sort of a stereotypical cartoon of an African-American, and beneath it were the words: “The successor of Abraham Lincoln in 1864.” So this specter of a future black president was a scare tactic that was used repeatedly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you blog it day after day after day, and you see so much of the inaccurate reporting, do you see anything good here? Was the public at all served by the coverage of the day?
ADAM GOODHEART: There’s so much good to talk about. For one thing, I think the vividness of the reporting at that time was something that influenced public opinion perhaps even more than the rhetoric and the bombast. For instance, when John Brown was hanged in 1859 for his attempt to foment an insurgency of slaves in the South, this young correspondent named Ned House managed to get himself onto the scaffold standing right next to John Brown. He pretended that he was a medic who needed to be there with him. And so, House was literally close enough that he could hear Brown’s neck snap as he fell through the trapdoor. And he wrote an incredibly vivid description for Northern readers describing this body there, kicking and struggling at the end of the rope. And this just brought the news home to Northerners in a way that they wouldn't have felt if they had just simply read a dispatch that said, John Brown was executed yesterday at Harper’s Ferry, which was the way the news would have been reported 20 or 30 years before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How sophisticated do you think the public was with regard to its media?
ADAM GOODHEART: Well, I think people knew enough to be quite skeptical of the newspapers, especially as the war progressed. There were jokes that said the reason that some newspapers published morning editions and evening editions was so that the evening editions could contradict and retract everything that had been in the morning edition.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And yet, people were voracious, I think, in the way that readers of blogs are voracious today. There’s a skepticism but there’s a human tendency that I think has perhaps always existed, to want to be the first to know the most.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Newspapers then were conduits of emotionally inflected information as the events unfolded. What do you think they resembled more, blogs today or newspapers today?
ADAM GOODHEART: I think the newspapers of the time were – certainly they would be familiar to anyone who looked at them today. They include what we would think of as news features. There are sports pages; there are financial pages in the newspapers of the 1860s. But I think the way that people spoke in the press was more similar to the way that people speak on blogs now. For instance, The Richmond Dispatch at the very beginning of the war said: “Let them come, those minions of the North. We will glut our carrion crows with their beastly carcasses. Yes, from the peaks of the Blue Ridge to the Tidewater, we will strew our plains and leave their bleaching bones to enrich our soil.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yum!
ADAM GOODHEART: [LAUGHS] I think part of what drove Americans to disunion in 1860 was the fact that for the first time each side, each section of the country could hear what the other one was saying. And the Northerners heard this kind of invective from the South and they said, my God, these Southerners aren't just simply protesting against certain policies. They can't just simply be coaxed with compromise back into the Union. They want to, as another newspaper said: “let our accursed blood manure their fields.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a historian, you take the long view. Do you sense that we're moving through a cycle, you know, divisive politics, divisive media?
ADAM GOODHEART: Well, it’s always very hard to say whether it’s the divisive politics that are driving the divisive media or vice versa. We do have a lot of people in whose interest it is to whip up all kinds of public fervor on various issues, often based on misinformation or disinformation. And I think that’s just what was going on in the 1850s and 1860s. I think the antidote to it is calm and responsible reporting. But, as we learned in the 1860s and as we're learning today, it can be very hard for those calm and measured voices to break through the din.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam, thank you so much.
ADAM GOODHEART: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Goodheart is the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, which will be published in April. He’s currently blogging the Civil War for The New York Times website.