The United States of America has just come through the most contentious political season in recent memory. Fingers of blame are pointing in all directions, and one is wagging particularly hard at US news media. Because I am a journalist, I can see what is going right and what is going wrong among our traditional news outlets from a different perspective than that of a person who is purely a news consumer. What I see in the context of history is that, though there are and have been bad actors and good ones among the press corps, the human tendency to want to “kill the messenger,” as uttered by Sophocles in Antigone and written by Shakespeare in England so long ago, remains strong.
In that light, I bring you a journalist’s tale from another one of America’s contentious periods–its bloodiest, to be sure–the Civil War. His story almost ends when a Union general wants to, quite literally, kill him.
The thorn in Union generals’ sides
William Swinton (1833-1892) was a New York teacher and writer. He and his brother John, a well-known labor activist and journalist, were associated with a group who called themselves American Bohemians–writers, philosophers, actors and artists, among others. The poet Walt Whitman, to name one famous member, was also part of the group which met at a Manhattan beer cellar known as Pfaff’s.
At the outset of the Civil War, during the first western Virginia campaign, Swinton traveled to Charleston, Virginia to work as a war correspondent for The New York Times. Albert Deane Richardson of the New York Tribune accompanied him.
The reporters asked Union General Jacob D. Cox whether they might follow the troops and under what conditions. Cox wrote in his military memoir that the quartermaster of the Kanawha Brigade of the Department of the Ohio offered to supply the journalists with a tent and transportation. Cox’s only limitation on their reporting was that they allow an Army staff member to read the letters before they were sent to New York, to make sure no information was released that might aid the Confederate forces.
“This seemed unsatisfactory, and they intimated that they expected to be taken into my mess and to be announced as volunteer aides with military rank. They were told that military position or rank could only be given by authority much higher than mine, and that they could be more honestly independent if free from personal obligation and from temptation to repay favors with flattery.”
–Gen. Jacob D. Cox
Cox recounted that the two pressed the matter of being given volunteer military rank one more time and were turned down. At that point, Cox claimed, the journalists turned on their heels and departed.
“They left the camp the same evening, and wrote letters to their papers describing the army as demoralized, drunken, and without discipline, in a state of insubordination, and the commander as totally incompetent. As to the troops, more baseless slander was never uttered. Their march had been orderly. No willful injury had been done to private property, and no case of personal violence to any non-combatant, man or woman, had been even charged. Yet the printing of such communications in widely read journals was likely to be as damaging as if it all were true.”
Swinton did not leave Virginia. He stayed and pursued stories about the troops of another, even more famous General: Ulysses S. Grant. American politician and diplomat (and later, US Secretary of State) Elihu Washburne visited General Grant during the Wilderness Campaign. As it turned out, William Swinton was traveling with Washburne, who introduced the writer to Grant. The General tells a very similar story to Cox’s, about Swinton expecting to be housed at Grant’s headquarters. This time, Swinton explained that he was there as a historical writer who hoped to chronicle the Union campaigns for a book he wanted to write.
As Cox did before him, Grant denied Swinton’s housing request:
“Probably Mr. Swinton expected to be an invited guest at my headquarters, and was disappointed that he was not asked to become so. At all events he was not invited, and soon I found that he was corresponding with some paper (I have now forgotten which one), thus violating his word either expressed or implied.”
–Gen. U.S. Grant
Grant’s charge that Swinton was misrepresenting himself was not his only complaint. He accused the writer of leaking his orders to the Richmond newspapers. One night, Swinton was actually caught in the act of eavesdropping.
“General Meade came to my tent for consultation, bringing with him some of his staff officers. Both his staff and mine retired to the campfire some yards in front of the tent, thinking our conversation should be private. There was a stump a little to one side, and between the front of the tent and campfire. One of my staff, Colonel T.S. Bowers, saw what he took to be a man seated on the ground and leaning against the stump, listening to the conversation between Meade and myself. He called the attention of Colonel Rowley to it. The latter immediately took the man by the shoulder and asked him, in language more forcible than polite, what he was doing there. The man proved to be Swinton, the “historian,” and his replies to the question were evasive and unsatisfactory, and he was warned against further eavesdropping.”
Swinton left Grant’s encampment and made his way to Cold Harbor, in Hanover County, Virginia. There he drew the ire of Major General Ambrose Burnside. The author Augustus Woodbury wrote about Swinton’s unfair coverage of Ambrose’s leadership.
“The cause of the author’s spitefulness dates back to the time when he was a correspondent for the New York Times. In the issue of that paper of January 16, 1863, he characterized General Burnside’s letter of December 17th to General Halleck as one “in which there is nothing his but the signature, and to which his good nature, not his conscience, consented. “
–Augustus Woodbury, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps
Shoot the messenger
Burnside let this incident go with a reprimand, but soon Swinton’s reporting dug even deeper under the Major General’s skin. He wanted Swinton shot, according to General Grant:
“General Meade came to my headquarters saying that General Burnside had arrested Swinton, who at some previous time had given great offence, and had ordered him to be shot that afternoon. I promptly ordered the prisoner to be released, but that he must be expelled from the lines of the army not to return again on pain of punishment.”
His methods may have been unorthodox, perhaps even sketchy. But was William Swinton’s reportage on the Union generals and their troops inaccurate? One historian thinks not:
“Mr Swinton was a scholarly man of excellent character, but quite free in his criticism of the generals in command of the troops in what he regarded as useless slaughter of the men. He possessed the art of compressing into a sentence or paragraph a bit of characterization that would long cling to a man through weal or woe. He had referred to Meade’s ‘excessive circumspection’ and written of certain battle: ‘Where, oh where, meanwhile, was Burnside!’ He thus incurred the wrath of Burnside and, later, the hostility of General Meade.”
An attempt to clear their names
Despite the threat to his life, Swinton survived the wrath of military leaders and went on to write books about the Civil War, as well as to teach. Nearly a century after Swinton and Richardson’s reports about General Cox’s military leadership, an “association of veteran newspaper men” called The Society of the Silurians petitioned the Librarian of Congress to clear their names.
This excerpt from the 1956 New York Times article explains:
“Help was asked,”in clearing up an apocryphal tale concerning two newspaper correspondents in the Civil War.”
“[They have been] accused of writing false and malicious reports about Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox and his troops in the Kanawah (sic) Valley campaign of 1861 because he refused to appoint them volunteer aides, or to invite them to eat at his mess.”
A former New York Tribune editorial writer claimed that an examination of the two newspapers’ Civil War coverage turned up nothing like what Gen. Cox alleged in his memoirs. “The reporters did describe insubordination and indignation among the men of General Cox’s command,” explained Emmet Crozier. “But other reporters said much the same thing and the General later admitted there had been serious insubordination in his command.”
The Watchdog Committee of the Silurians, which is today one of the country’s oldest press clubs, appealed to Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford to appoint a committee consisting of a historian, a newspaper editor and the Librarian himself to determine, once and for all, whether the reporters were guilty of inaccurate reporting. Mumford offered them little hope at that time that such an inquiry would ever take place.