- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman loved newspapers. Unfortunately, he almost always hated newspapermen. And newsmen gave Sherman repeated cause for grief and disgust.

Headlines such as “General William T. Sherman Insane” pained him, and he responded angrily.

During the initial months of the Civil War, Sherman made his way to the Washington office of Associated Press each night at 9 to read the daily war news telegraphed from the front. Henry Villard of the New York Herald learned of this habit and began to join Sherman every night. Sherman told Villard he loved to read the news and newspapers, “but he frequently objected to what the writers ‘scribbled.’”

Perhaps Sherman’s many spats with news writers tell us something about his ego and vanity. “He liked nothing better than to express his mind upon the news as it came,” Villard wrote. Sherman enjoyed being the center of attention “as long as the attention was entirely positive.”

Villard and Sherman met at Bull Run and at these regular meetings in the AP office. They became friends, but Sherman would learn to both trust and distrust, to admire and even to hate newspapermen.

Put on leave

Early in the war, Gen. Henry Halleck saw the effect newspapers had on Sherman, who agonized over critical reporting. Halleck told Sherman’s wife, “Take your husband home and don’t let him talk politics or read newspapers for two weeks.” Halleck thought Sherman suffered from exhaustion.

While Sherman was on leave, the New York Times reported that “General Sigel is now in command in place of General Sherman, whose disorders have removed him, perhaps permanently, from his command.” Two days later, the Cincinnati Commercial magnified what it saw as a juicy story with the “Insane” headline.

This started a long and tedious confrontation between Sherman and several newspapers that included numerous letters to editors by Sherman and his family members, letters to senior politicians and military officers, charges and countercharges, and debates and quarrels.

Through the course of the war, these spats and confrontations seemed to involve everyone in Sherman’s life, from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on down. The disagreements and controversies shed light upon both the importance of accurate news reporting and the dangers of an almost totally unregulated media system.

Restrained by wife

After Shiloh, newspapers brought both Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman to national attention, but the reporting hurt them both. Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette spent two days with the Union forces, then raced to Cincinnati to detail the shock the Union Army faced when Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s Rebels fell upon them. If not for many factual errors by Reid, the careers of Grant and Sherman might have ended then and there.

The Ohio governor repeated Reid’s charges and again raised the hackles of Grant and Sherman — and Sherman felt compelled to respond. Fortunately, he sent the draft of his Stanton letter to his wife and her father before forwarding it to the newspapers. Sherman’s wife wrote to him, “The letter cannot be sent verbatim to the newspapers” with the slur upon “Editors and anonymous scribblers.” Sherman toned down his response, but he was intent on sending it to “editors in every direction.”

In July 1862, Sherman captured Memphis. But he never instituted a system of passes to regulate civilians intent upon entering or leaving. Again, the Cincinnati Commercial came after Sherman, with a story that included the following line: “The whole Confederacy is in a fair way to be supplied with salt through what may be termed the Memphis sieve.”

This criticism seemed on the mark, and the Commercial followed up with a story about Union officers speculating in cotton. Sherman couldn’t restrain himself and answered, “Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than Charleston.”

‘Killed’ by the press

On Sherman’s next operation, he banned reporters from traveling with the Army. As he marched on Chickasaw Bluffs, Miss., he had no idea that his enemies within the Army welcomed along the writers.

After Chickasaw, the Missouri Republican printed distorted articles denying any credit to Sherman and making Gen. Francis P. Blair Jr. something of a hero over Sherman. Blair’s brother, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, was influential with Lincoln but no friend of Sherman’s. The Blair family and Thomas W. Knox of the New York Herald echoed the newspaper’s line and added criticism of Sherman.

Sherman, dejected after Chickasaw, wrote, “The Press has now killed [Union Gens.] McClellanþ Buell, FitzJohn Porter, Sumner, Franklin and Burnside. Add my name and I am not afraid of the association. If the Press can govern the Country let them fight the battles.”

In May 1864, Sherman banished a reporter from the vicinity of his army. And not just any reporter. Benjamin Taylor of the Chicago Daily Journal had become the most widely read newspaper correspondent in the North, in large measure because of his courageous coverage of Sherman and his army. But Taylor’s reports had become too accurate, and in Sherman’s opinion, they gave vital information to the enemy.

Sherman considered him a spy.

‘Contraband news’

When Sherman left Grant and pointed his army at Atlanta, he paid the Confederate press a compliment. “I will not attempt to send couriers back,” Sherman told Grant, “but trust to the Richmond papers to keep you well advised.” They did, indeed.

By the time Sherman’s army captured Atlanta, he had learned the lessons the newspapers taught him after he captured Memphis. He ordered all civilians to evacuate the city, and he banned civilian trading with the Union Army.

On Nov. 14, 1864, the Richmond Examiner reported: “Sherman has burned Atlanta, and marched for Charleston!” Sherman had burned Atlanta, but as was often the case, the newspaper’s speculation on his destination was not based in fact.

Before Sherman’s big march got very far, the Indianapolis Journal sketched out his plan. The Journal helped to emphasize the importance of the story by hanging on Sherman’s every word. “Sherman expresses the utmost indifference as to [Confederate Gen. John Bell] Hood’s movements,” reported the Journal, “and says, ‘[Union Gen. George H.] Thomas has sufficient troops to attend to him and to prevent his returning south.’ ”

The next day, the New York Times printed a lengthier, more detailed account, including Sherman’s intentions and troop strength.

The New York Times also reported on the commentary and news from other papers. A front-page story Nov. 18, 1864, reported, “A dispatch was published in a Cincinnati paper of yesterday reporting the departure of Sherman’s Army from Atlanta on the 9th or 12th.”

Grant called the reporting “the most contraband news I have ever seen published during the war.” Stanton immediately blamed Sherman. The reports “come from Sherman’s army and generally from his own officers,” Stanton said. The Army of the Potomac sent out troops to confiscate and burn copies of the offending newspapers. But nothing was heard from Sherman himself. For once, he failed to answer the criticism. His army seemed to disappear.

The final furor

As Sherman’s march continued, Southern, and some Northern, newspapers condemned him and his army. Southern papers dubbed him a “leader among highwaymen” and “the foremost villain of the world.” The Dayton (Ohio) Empire proclaimed Sherman a “savage” who made infamous Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, called the Beast of New Orleans, look like a “high-toned and most gallant gentleman.”

Sherman wrote: “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”

Sherman’s last act of the Civil War, the negotiation of surrender terms with Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston, caused the final furor of his wartime service. Sherman’s terms went beyond those Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee had agreed upon at Appomattox. Almost inexplicably, Sherman had promised that the federal government would restore the Southern states to their prewar status in the Union — and under the leadership of the former Rebels.

The newspapers erupted. But that is another story unto itself.

The long chase

After the war, a reporter asked Sherman if he would like to meet Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Sherman replied, “No, sir. If I could have caught Mr. Greeley during the war, I would have hung him.”

Newspapermen chased Sherman throughout the rest of his career. At one point, newsmen accused Sherman of favoring the extermination of the American Indians, a charge he denied.

Sherman enjoyed reading the news but responded angrily when the newsmen, in his view, maligned him in even the slightest way. The history of these published accusations and rebuttals tells us much about Sherman and the newsmen of his time.

However, he lived to see newspapers that had been highly critical of him during the Civil War, such as the New York Herald, urge him to run for president of the United States.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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