This post was written by Kerry Huller, a Digital Conversion Specialist in the Library’s Serial and Government Publications Division.
It’s Sunday morning, April 13, 1862, and as a loyal Memphis Daily Appeal reader, you pick up that day’s paper. You’re eager to find out what is happening on the frontlines of the escalating war between the North and South. On this particular day, after reading through the issue, you discover that the Confederate Army is still in control of the battlefield at Shiloh in Tennessee. And shockingly, poisoned balls and poisoned quinine, smuggled in by the Federals, had been found.
The New York Herald reported Wednesday morning, April 9, 1862 that casualties from the battle at Shiloh were likely 18,000 to 20,000 for the Union side and as much as 35,000 to 40,000 for the South. This newspaper dispatch and the overwhelming number of killed, wounded and missing were read aloud that day in the U.S. House of Representatives, leaving the group completely stunned (The North Reports the Civil War, p. 178).
Unfortunately, you would have been misled by the Memphis Daily Appeal special dispatch written by P. W. A., or Peter Wellington Alexander, as well as by the New York Herald which overstated casualty numbers by a considerable amount. The reporting on the Battle of Shiloh included a wide range of false stories, exaggerated narratives, omissions, and inaccuracies. In fact, in The North Reports the Civil War, J. Cutler Andrews writes, “Probably no battle fought during the Civil War excited a greater amount of controversy than did the Battle of Shiloh, and for this the army correspondents were in no small degree responsible” (p. 179).
160 years have passed since the Battle of Shiloh was fought over April 6-7, 1862, and what we do know is that the Confederates were driven back and away from the battlefield on April 7, leading to a Union victory, and though the casualty numbers were alarmingly high, the estimated total for both sides was closer to over 23,000.
In February 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant claimed Union victories at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson along the Cumberland River, and was pushing toward Corinth, Mississippi – an important railroad intersection and supply route for the Confederacy. Grant and his troops stopped at Pittsburg Landing, along the west bank of the Tennessee River, and were ordered to wait for Major General Don Carlos Buell and his men before marching on to Corinth. But before Buell arrived, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston attacked at daybreak on Sunday, April 6. The Union troops put up a counterattack, but wound up losing ground and had to retreat to defensive positions. The fighting continued all day, and during the action, General Johnston was shot by a bullet, which tore an artery and caused him to bleed to death. Afterward, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard was put in command. As nightfall approached, Beauregard, thinking the Confederacy had safely won, decided to end the attack. But overnight, Buell arrived with his back-up troops, and on Monday morning, April 7, Grant and the Union army attacked. Beauregard ordered counterattacks, but was outnumbered, and eventually decided to retreat toward Corinth.
The questionable reporting surrounding the Battle of Shiloh caused a lot of debate among the public and myths to develop. However, several factors were at play that affected not only the reporting at Shiloh, but also the quality of the coverage of the Civil War in general. One of the primary causes was the lack of experienced war correspondents (at least initially). There were very few journalists who had covered war previously and those reporting on the Civil War were often quite young – in their twenties, some only teenagers. There was a variety of censorship involved as well. Some military commanders in the field didn’t trust the news correspondents and would refuse to give them access, fearing that military plans might be revealed to the enemy. In some cases, if a correspondent was given access, they were expected to provide the story to a military official onsite before they were allowed to leave. Additionally, Federal military officials would monitor the telegraph lines and the government began issuing its own dispatches about major battles and events. Southern newspapers faced additional problems that the North did not experience. There were very few paper mills located in the south, so newsprint was hard to come by once shipments from the north stopped and deliveries from overseas were blockaded. Staffing quickly became an issue also, as printers, editors and reporters started enlisting in the Confederate Army. As the Federal forces began reaching the south, they often closed, took over, or supervised the newspapers. In one instance, the Memphis Daily Appeal refused to cede to Union forces and hauled their equipment by flatcar to another town. The paper stayed on the run for nearly three years, earning the nickname, the “Moving Appeal.”
Despite these hardships, the era of Civil War journalism did spark some significant change in the newspaper business. As the public’s interest in news from the frontline grew, publishers began overlooking the Christian Sabbath and issued editions on Sunday. Additionally, the inclusion of reporters’ bylines became more widespread following General Joe Hooker’s General Order No. 48. Hooker wanted journalists to be held accountable for reporting false information or for sharing intelligence on troop movements. Initially, correspondents were opposed to the idea, thinking it would restrict what they wrote, but discovered that it also garnered attention for their writing. Many reporters, including the southern correspondent, Peter Wellington Alexander, used several bylines, including “P.W.A.,” “A,” and “Sallust” for the Daily Dispatch in Richmond, VA.
Graphics began to make an appearance on newspaper pages, especially on the front pages of the larger daily papers. Maps showing the battlefield layout and troop locations often appeared alongside dispatches from the front, and lists of casualties. The government had no formal system for notifying families about loved ones who had died or been injured, so newspapers attempted to fill this gap. The news from the frontline began to take over the entire front page, pushing out the advertising.
In honor of this upcoming anniversary for Shiloh, as well as other Civil War battles, try your own searching on Chronicling America*. If you want to focus on a specific conflict, remember that it may have been referred to by different place names. For example, the Battle of Shiloh was also called the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, so searching for both will likely give you more results. And if you would like to locate articles from the time period when the fighting happened, be sure to add a date range under the Advanced Search option in Chronicling America. In order to locate reporting on the Battle of Shiloh, include a date range starting with April 8, 1862 through the end of that month, or perhaps further to locate follow-up articles and reaction to what took place. The facts surrounding Shiloh were hotly debated in the weeks following the battle and newspapers reported on this controversy with dispatches from correspondents and letters from soldiers. If you would like to research local coverage of a battle, keep in mind that you can further narrow your search by selecting a specific state or a specific newspaper title in the drop-down menus found in the Advanced Search tab.
So go ahead and try a little digging on your own and see what reporting you uncover about Civil War battles in Chronicling America.
Discover more by examining battle-related Civil War Topics in Chronicling America, which provide timelines, search strategies and selected articles:
- Appomattox (1865-1868)
- Blockade Runners in the Civil War (1862-1904)
- Civil War Maps in the New York Daily Tribune (1861-1865)
- Civil War Secessions (1860-1861)
- Fort Sumter (1861)
- Gettysburg (1863)
- Ironclads (1861-1931)
- Sherman’s March (1864)
- Andrews, J. Cutler. The North Reports the Civil War. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1955.
- Andrews, J. Cutler. The South Reports the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
- Daly, Christopher B. Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
- Huntzicker, William E. The Popular Press, 1833-1865. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Kobre, Sidney. Development of American Journalism. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1969.
- Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism; Rev. ed. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.
- “Shiloh Pittsburg Landing: Hardin County, TN Apr 6-7, 1862,” American Battlefield Trust.
- “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia Library.
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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