A Different Sort of Counterfactual

People have speculated in the past about how the Civil War would have been different if it were televised. This speculation has usually followed one of two lines of inquiry: would Abraham Lincoln have been a viable presidential candidate in the age of television, and how would Americans have reacted to televised images of the battlefield, especially the death and carnage?

Frankly, I don’t find either line of discussion as compelling as do some others. Many 19th century political candidates would have found themselves worse for wear had they had to confront television cameras: ask Stephen Douglas. And I can just imagine Horace Greeley on Meet the Press. As for the sights if the battlefield, Americans seemed rather fascinated by photographs of battlefield dead, so, unless one was to place cameramen in harm’s way or use zoom lenses, I am not sure what the effect would have been.

That said, one question that might shed some light on what did happen is to ask how generals would have reacted to a constant, immediate, and visual coverage of their conduct of campaigns? After all, several generals, notably William T. Sherman, despised the press, and even Robert E. Lee offered a sarcastic observation about the press’s ability to second-guess him after the fact. George G. Meade’s eagerness to banish reporters critical of his generalship led to a press practice of not even mentioning him in dispatches in 1864. Other generals had more uneven relations with the press: although Ulysses S. Grant found the Cincinnati press irresponsible, he cultivated better relations with other reporters, most notably Sylvanus Cadwallader. William S. Rosecrans was much more successful than Grant with Cincinnati reporters, in part because he kept one around his headquarters.

So, have at it. In a war where so much hinged on the public’s perception of success and failure, and where so many initial reports turned out to be false or exaggerated, how would the presence of the modern media have changed the American Civil War, and what does that speculation highlight about how 19th century media coverage shaped warmaking?

10 thoughts on “A Different Sort of Counterfactual

  1. Matt McKeon June 23, 2011 / 6:22 am

    I don’t find it a very compelling point either. After all the press was overtly censored in World War II to protect the sensibilities of the homefront. Our current adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been staqe managed nicely. Can you imagine a photograph like “The Harvest of Death” the famous photo of Union dead at Gettysburg, coming out of Afghanistan? A dozen bloated American corpses? I believe the last president even prevented photos of discreet, flag draped coffins.

    People talk about TV coverage of Vietnam being an influence, but that’s mostly a dotchstoss myth.

    So I imagine the two sides would have found a way either to carry on killing.

  2. Ray O'Hara June 23, 2011 / 7:28 am

    A modern press means a modern audience. People back then could sit through a 2 hour speech and listen attentively, we’d be bored in minutes {Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was a “long” 13 minutes}
    Today it’s 20 second sound bites for the hoi polloi
    So while info is immediate it is also obsolete/old news minutes later.
    So the modern media has a more instant effect it also has a short and rapidly shifting attention span., a disaster today is forgotten over the weekend.

    As for how individuals would have coped. McClellan is the one who would have been fun to watch. He’d have loved the early adulation but then the 2nd guessing and endless uninformed speculation of the 24 hour news cycle would have taxed him beyond limit. The letters to Dearest Ellen would probably combusted upon opening the envelopes.

  3. Charles Lovejoy June 23, 2011 / 8:48 am

    I wonder how much press ( if little censorship ) the Southern Unionist and the Northern Peace Democrats would have gotten? I could see the Northern media having talking point shows with Southern Unionist or the Southern news media hosting Northern Peace Democrats on their commentary shows. It could have been interesting.

  4. Ned Baldwin June 23, 2011 / 9:01 am

    I have seen it argued that televising war could increase public outcry against war, making it harder to continue. But it seems just as likely to me that it could have led to more virulent public outrage against the enemy.

  5. TF Smith June 23, 2011 / 10:00 am

    “Modern” is a wide spectrum – Relationships between the administration, military, and press have varied widely in the 20th and 21st centuries, conflict by conflict. From the heavy censorship and generally supportive coverage during the world wars to more critical in Korea to much more critical in Southeast Asia to “embeds” in the Persian Gulf War to a very mixed (and, as suggested above, at times very controlled) coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    One interesting dynamic in the CW was having the “national” press of the two combatants speaking and printing the same language, and circulating their coverage on both sides of the front – that is a facet of journalism in the CW that has not been present in the 20th or 21st centuries.


  6. Matt McKeon June 23, 2011 / 10:48 am

    In a Civil War context would television or more modern media been effective propganda tool, aimed at the “hearts and minds” of the other side. A propaganda offensive in a war in which both sides spoke English knew each other pretty well.

  7. Matt McKeon June 23, 2011 / 10:51 am

    The previous comment was a little incoherent. I meant

    “In a Civil War context, would television or modern media been effective propaganda tools? Campaigns aimed at the “hearts and minds” of the other side. A propaganda offensive in a war in which both sides spoke English, and knew each other pretty well, is an interesting counterfactual.”

  8. Mark C June 23, 2011 / 10:51 pm

    It’s also possible a modern media would have exposed the evils of slavery to a northern population and outraged them. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with video would have had an enormous impact. In the 1960’s, the media not only affected the Vietnam War but also caused Northerners to support civil rights for blacks.

    I suspect that many Union soldiers fighting for “union” would have been fighting to abolish slavery as well.

  9. Noma June 26, 2011 / 8:36 pm

    After some apprehension (because of his comments on Grants actions at Yazoo, I finally worked up the nerve to read Sylvanus Cadwallader’s “Three Years with Grant” (intro by Brooks Simpson)).

    While this was not television, it certainly highlights yet another aspect of the media revolution which accompanied the Civil War. Other revolutionary aspects include the use of photography (Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, etc.), the rise of illustrated news magazines (Frank Leslie’s, Harpers and others), and the role of the telegraph.

    Cadwallader’s accounts of the risks that correspondents took are fascinating. And, on the other side, it seems like the beginning of the press going to lengths to capture an ongoing story. Cadwallader relates how in the final phase of the war in Virginia, the New York Herald set him up with excellent horses, and even a professional cook from the Willard Hotel, with the view of creating a friendly haven and encouraging the chatty-ness of visiting officers and other guests.

    In spite of his comments about Grant at Yazoo, my general impression was that Grant treated him well, and that Cadwallader was generally captivated by him. Interestingly, Cadwallader also claims the credit for breaking the name black-out imposed by the press on the incautious George Meade.

    I know the New York Times has published a book of all its major articles from the Civil War. I’m wondering if any similar publication exists for those historical articles from the New York Herald?

  10. Jeff Davis June 27, 2011 / 4:07 pm

    Unlike Brooks, I find the counter-factual of televised coverage of the 1860 election a fascinating concept. Frankly, I think Lincoln would have won hands down…his style and his self deprecating humor would have won many hearts and minds.

    As for the Generals, they would have had to see what the press was reporting about them. I don’t know how practical that would have been.

    But imagine what the affect would have been on Fighting Billy Mahone when he refused to advance on July 2 at Gettysburg. There would have been no covering up of that issue.

    There were reporters in most HQ during the war. I think from time to time veiled reports were sent to press regarding this General or that General, and what they were saying?

    How would Grant have survived his General Order No. 11 of 1862? Would not Television have gone viral over that?

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