California Literary Review

Book Review: The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865

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February 7th, 2011 at 8:00 am

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The New York Times Complete Civil War
The New York Times The Complete Civil War 1861-1865
Edited by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 512 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


The Grey Lady Goes to War

Honest to goodness true story handed down through the generations in a friend’s family: On Nov. 19, 1863, 15,000 or so Americans gathered at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The greatest battle of the Civil War had been fought at Gettysburg in early July and the town had convinced Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin to provide state funding for the new cemetery.

The organizers of the dedication ceremony asked Edward Everett, a former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, to give the dedication speech. Everett agreed and told the organizers he would give a two-hour speech. This, believe it or not, was a middling length for mid-19th Century oratory in the United States. Americans expected public speakers to drone on for hours at a time, preferably with long stretches of platitudinous verbal excess and allusions to Greek and Roman mythology.

Everett, apparently the James Brown of his era, did not disappoint, delivering the promised two hours worth of lofty phrases and a diabolically detailed account of the war so far. Then, he took his seat on the podium. The newspaper reporters in the audience hustled to devour the food and beer which had been laid on tables at the rear of the audience area. They took it for granted that Lincoln would match Everett second by agonizing second. In the meantime, the distinguished members of the press had two hours in which to chow down before wandering back toward the stage to pick up a few quotes from Lincoln’s speech which they could use to pad their accounts of the day’s activities.

Within moments of Lincoln starting his address, however, someone bolted out of the audience and told the newsmen that Lincoln was almost done speaking. The reporters scrambled back into the crowd, most of them not getting within listening distance of Lincoln before he, too, sat down. The President was dogged all the way back to Washington by those members of the press who hadn’t caught the speech. Lincoln generously showed them copies of what would become known as the Gettysburg Address. Several dozen reporters, grateful that they weren’t going to face an irate managing editor, made sure to quote large portions of the address in the stories they filed during the week following the dedication ceremony. Lincoln’s largess helped ensure that his short speech would get far more coverage than it might have otherwise.

Take a look at the relevant stories in The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865 and you will get a slight glimpse of the pandemonium that attended the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. The Times duly warned its readers ahead of time that Everett was packing rhetorical chloroform: “Mr. Everett enters into a very minute statement of these things (the events of the war); and the elaborateness of the details, the large number of names, places and circumstances he has occasion to recall, will tend to confuse and repel those who are less familiar with the events than himself, and crowd out those ‘glittering generalities’ which he or any other great orator might be expected to mainly deal in on such an occasion.” Had Everett been able to supplement his speech with PowerPoint slides, the ensuing riot would have made the headlines in the same size type used to announce the end of the world.

The Times even went to the great length and expense to print a verbatim broadside of Everett’s speech and that of the Rev. Henry Beecher, another featured speaker at the dedication ceremony who did not make it to Gettysburg. Lincoln, contrary to the custom of the era, did not provide the newspaper with a copy of his speech ahead of time. Its unexpected brevity, combined with its plainsong oratory, must have astonished his audience and has continued to do so down to the present.

This collection of the Times‘ news coverage during the war is a must-have for Civil War enthusiasts and other American history buffs. It contains the power to astonish modern readers with its lofty rhetoric, constant editorializing in news stories and decisions on what was important to its audience. Those decisions are, in many cases, not what a modern newspaper would choose. And that is the core of this collection’s absolute necessity as a reference work and as a fun read. The Civil War you read about in the Times differs radically from how we have chosen to remember it a century and a half later.

The audience for whom these stories were written did not know the outcome of the war at the time they read them. For them, the struggle was one of contingency. One single mistake could end in a victory for the Confederacy. Disaster was a very real possibility to most supporters of the Union, including the readers of the Times. We view the Civil War from a far distance and, if we are not careful, impute an inevitability to events that did not exist 150 years ago.

Amateur military historians will be frustrated by the lack of a clear narrative in the Times despatches regarding important campaigns and battles. Stories would often change in their details dramatically from day-to-day. This is due to the usual loathing that every general (Douglas McArthur and George Patton excepted) ever born has for the news media. And the breakthroughs in communications technology that allowed newspapers the ability to transmit stories across long distances at the speed of light via a telegraph wire also allowed both sides in the war to concentrate armies larger than anything seen since the Napoleonic era. No one could hope to cover all of the battlefield. Generals themselves often had trouble getting the parts of their entire army to act in a coordinated manner.

An old saw in journalism says newspapers are the first draft of history. In this collection, you have the raw first draft in your hands. You’ll be surprised by what it has to say.

***

Sam Stowe is a writer and poet who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He wishes he could have met Abraham Lincoln.

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