By Karl Reiner
Some things never seem to change. Government and the media exist in an uneasy relationship, especially in time of war. The unhappy association is replete with competing and conflicting interests. The rights of the media often conflict with the government’s need for secrecy. During the Civil War, generals such as Lee, Johnston and Sherman believed newspapers were a hindrance to them because they published information that was useful to the enemy.
Commanders on both sides avidly read newspapers published in enemy territory because they were good sources of information. Since the governments of the United States and Confederate States maintained the tradition of allowing the press to function relatively freely, the complaining generals may have had a point.
The big story in the early 1860s was the Civil War. For journalists, the job was fraught with danger, ethical conflicts and logistical problems. Being able to tell the story completely and accurately while maintaining some sensitivity to military security needs was a difficult task. It was one that created friction between reporters, editors and generals.
When the bulk of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army entrenched around Centreville in northern Virginia during the autumn of1861, military security and press rights collided. In December, the Richmond Dispatch published a story written by William Shepardson, a reporter. Shepardson related how the army was building log houses for winter quarters. His story included the name and location of the military units around Centreville and Manassas, the positions of cavalry and artillery.
Gen. Johnston was incensed when he read the article because about the only thing Shepardson got wrong was the name of the house Johnston was using as his personal quarters. On December 30, 1861, the seething general sent a letter to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond strongly suggesting Mr. Shepardson and the paper’s editor be charged with the crime of revealing critical military information to the enemy.
On January 5, 1862, the Confederate Secretary of War responded, informing Johnston that he too was “indignant at such an outragous breech of duty by both the writer and the publisher.” He told Johnston that the offenders could not be punished under existing laws. Benjamin related how he had asked the Confederate Congress to pass legislation designed “to protect the army and the country against the great evils resulting from such publications.”
He then deftly shifted responsibility back to Johnston, berating him for not controlling the movement of reporters. Benjamin bluntly told the general to arrest, confine and try by court-martial all dangerous and suspected persons caught prowling around the army’s camps. Military law had to be applied, the secretary of war wrote, because the civilian courts would not confine those arrested by the government on the suspicion of being disloyal.
Gen. Johnston thought Secretary Benjamin’s claim of being unable to control the press was an excuse. It allowed the authorities to avoid dealing with an unpopular political issue. After stewing over his options, Gen. Johnston took Benjamin’s advice. He ordered all newspaper correspondents barred from his army’s camps.
Although Gen. Johnston thought otherwise, the Richmond Dispatch, founded in 1850, was no den of Union spies or sympathizers. Edited by James Cowardin and John Hammersley, the paper had the largest circulation in the city, increasing from 18,000 to 30,000 during the war. The Dispatch was nonpartisan and maintained a neutral editorial policy.
William Shepardson appears to have been a god reporter. In this case, however, he and his editors appear to have disregarded the security of Johnston’s army. A little judicious editing of the locations and names of military units would have ensured that they would not be made public.
Perhaps the Dispatch believed the information was already public knowledge. Was the long-ago incident at Centreville caused by an intentional breech of security or a careless job of editing? Or was it a quick-tempered general’s overreaction to a benign newspaper story? Whatever the reason, it is part of the history of the ageless tension between national security needs and the media that continues to this day.