Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is Vicksburg Ours? Or, Journalistic Optimism in 1863

by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Every so often an enthusiastic rookie news reporter will rush into print without checking the facts. The pressure to “scoop” rival news media is a major factor, but personal optimism and getting swept along by a story’s momentum also enter the equation. On the dark side, reporters have also released deliberately false items in a desire for personal gain. Professional journalists and broadcasters generally pay a severe price for their lapses, ranging from loss of jobs to prison terms and fines for fraud or libel. A former classmate of mine destroyed a promising career in radio news by reporting the death of the state’s senior U.S. senator, who was very much alive at the time. (Internet bloggers, on the other hand, are under no industry regulation or societal restraints, and can publish online any and everything that pops into their heads, unhampered by ethical or factual obstacles.) The Russian proverb, “Trust – but Verify,” should be applied as a routine process of critical thinking when reading this, or any other print or electronic document. Just because a statement appears in print, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

[1863] The New York Herald, May 25.
The 1948 presidential election provided the modern icon of journalistic optimism – a grinning President-Elect Harry S. Truman waving the Chicago Daily Tribune, whose headline proclaimed “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN!” (The technologies of vote tabulating, communications, typesetting, printing and distribution were much cruder and slower in 1948, and it is difficult to blame the Tribune’s editor for deciding to lock the front page and go to press, based on the available data at deadline.)

Winfield Scott.
With the rise of the penny daily press in the 1830s, any form of chicanery could be considered a legitimate tactic to lure purchasers. The object of operating a paper was not to report the news, but to sell more advertising. In 1835 the New York Sun published a series of articles claiming to describe sentient life on the Moon. This classic hoax, probably written by scholar Richard A. Locke, spoofed current astronomical theories and created a journalistic sensation (and presumably a circulation rise).

Anaconda Plan, Library of Congress.
The Sun’s rival, the New York Herald, founded by the eccentric James Gordon Bennett, Sr., on May 6, 1835, would become the most profitable daily newspaper in the United States. It achieved notoriety a year later with its saturation coverage of the murder of New York prostitute Helen Jewett. By 1861, with characteristic modesty, it called itself “the most largely circulated journal in the world.” Bennett believed that the function of a newspaper “is not to instruct but to startle.”

Vicksburg, Mississippi.
And startle it did: the Herald’s headline on May 25, 1863, proclaimed, “VICKSBURG IS OURS. INVESTMENT AND CAPTURE OF THE REBEL GIBRALTAR OF THE WEST.” Surrounding a woodcut map of the vicinity of Vicksburg, smaller headlines proclaimed, “THE VICTORY COMPLETE.” “EIGHT THOUSAND PRISONERS TAKEN.” “NO REST FOR THE REBELS.” (An earlier reader of my copy of this paper noted in pencil in the margin, “Not Yet.” Unfortunately for Union hopes, he was correct. The key Mississippi stronghold would not surrender for another five bloody weeks.)

[1863] Harper’s Weekly, July 25.
After two years of Civil War, during which the Union had suffered huge losses, many Northerners became increasingly pessimistic. Large battles at Antietam, Maryland, and Fredericksburg, Virginia, were touted in the press as Federal triumphs, yet their crushing casualty figures and inconclusive results made them pyrrhic victories at best.

Nevertheless, the Union had a winning strategy.

[1862] Fort Donelson.
Early in 1861, ancient General Winfield Scott, hero of both the War of 1812 and the 1846-48 war with Mexico, had proposed to Lincoln and his advisors the so-called “Anaconda Plan” to strangle the Southern Confederacy by blockading her seaports and taking control of the Mississippi River, while striking overland at major manufacturing and agricultural centers.

[1862] The Southern Illustrated News.
In describing the strategic meeting, U.S. National Park Service historian Terrence J. Winschel states that, “Examining a map of the nation, Lincoln made a wide sweeping gesture with his hand then placed his finger on the map and said, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” It was the president’s contention that, “We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.” Lincoln assured his listeners that, “I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.””

[1863] New York Herald, May 25.
Despite the inactivity, bungling and blundering of Lincoln’s generals, the “anaconda” gradually tightened its squeeze on southern commerce. Superior northern manpower waged a war of attrition on rebel troops. As supplies dwindled and casualties became harder to replace, only superior leadership and individual determination kept the Confederate forces in the field.

[1863] New-York Tribune, July 3.
New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi were securely in Union hands by mid 1862. A year later, Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Sebastopol of the South,” (a.k.a. the “Gibraltar of the West”) stood virtually alone, menaced by ironclad naval gunboats coming upriver and land forces closing in from several points. If Vicksburg held out, supplies could continue to move from west to east and via the unoccupied stretches of the great river system. If the city fell, the Confederacy would be in major difficulty and both sides knew it. Not only would crucial commerce be cut off, but the river would also provide transportation for additional enemy troops to threaten the interior.

[1863] Gettysburg Headlines, New-York Tribune, July 3.
Union generals Ulysses S. Grant, the victor of Ft. Donelson, and William T. Sherman committed their forces to the capture of Vicksburg early in 1863. Their slow and bloody progress was hampered by the area’s naturally swampy terrain and dense thickets, and by a string of well-placed Confederate fortifications. Unlike his predecessors, Grant absorbed crippling losses and doggedly remained on the attack, by land, river and amphibious operations, never allowing his opponents time to regroup. By May 25, 1863, Union troops had encircled and invested Vicksburg with earthworks, beginning a classic protracted siege that would last nearly two months.

[1863] Vicksburg Items, New-York Tribune, July 3.
It was at this point that some of the northern press jumped the gun and declared victory, underestimating the resolve of their rebelling countrymen. As the weeks of intense bombardment, sorties and zigzag trenching dragged on, ultimate Union victory seemed once again in doubt. An army under General Joseph E. Johnston threatened Grant’s rear, and Union casualties continued to mount.

[1863] Harper’s Weekly, August 25.
In the east, Robert E. Lee’s troops once again menaced Maryland and Pennsylvania after winning new victories on the old battlefields of northern Virginia. This crisis served to draw public attention away from the western stalemate and focus Union effort on the mid-Atlantic theater. However, while this last major Confederate invasion was being repulsed in the three-day battles around Gettysburg, the starved city of Vicksburg finally surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863. The news, coupled with the Gettysburg victory, created wild jubilation in the north for several days. (Reality came crashing back two weeks later with the so-called “draft riots,” which erupted in several northern cities.)

[1863] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 8.
Grant and Sherman, the conquerors of Vicksburg, would relentlessly punish the South during the next two years, creating a burned out wasteland and economic ruin. Although her armies fought grimly on and kept Union casualty rates high, never again would the Confederacy seriously menace the Northern states.

[1863] Grant enters Vicksburg, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 25.
According to Terrence J. Winschel, “It took several days for [Grant’s] message to reach the capital, during which time the only remaining Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River — Port Hudson, Louisiana — fell into Union hands. Upon receipt of Grant’s message, Lincoln sighed, “Thank God,” and declared “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.””

For further reading: Terrence J. Winschel, Triumph and Defeat; The Vicksburg Campaign (Savas Publishing Co., 1999)

A concise summary of the Vicksburg campaign may be found HERE.


No comments:

Post a Comment