Newspapers – same today as yesterday

When a newspaper today publishes something having to do with the war d’jour or some foreign policy decision or indecision there are howls of protest from one side or the other of the political spectrum and sometimes both.  Either the paper shouldn’t have published this because it endangered operations or the paper was insensitive to the dead of another operation.  It usually comes down to the scoring of some political point or another.  Sometimes, however, you just have to sit back and wonder, “What were they thinking?”

In early October of 1861, no one was really sure what horrors the Civil War were going to bring to Kentucky.  Both Federal and Confederate forces were forming in and around the state and every man joining these organizations were chomping at the bit for their own bit of glory.  General Sherman assumed command in Kentucky with the retirement of General Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame and quickly set to work organizing the mess.  This mess was not at all General Anderson’s fault but…it was still a mess.

On October 16th General Sherman met with Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas at the Galt House in Louisville.  Secretary Cameron brought with him something of an entourage of reporters which, when General Sherman questioned their attendance for the discussion, Cameron said:

They are all friends, all members of my family, and you may speak your mind freely and without restraint.

That should have been a clue to General Sherman.  Chalk it up to Sherman’s exhaustion or excitement but he missed the clue and would pay dearly for it just two weeks later.

The discussion, as related in General Sherman’s Memoirs, was quite frank and direct.  Sherman laid a map of the United States on a table and explained his situation.  General Fremont in Missouri had a 100 mile front with the Confederate Forces and had 60,000 men for his operations.  General McClellan in Northern Virginia had about the same 100 mile front with Confederate Forces and had 100,000 men for his operations.  General Sherman had a 300 mile front, from the Big Sandy River valley to Paducah, with only 18,000 men and weapons that the Indiana and Ohio Governors had rejected for their own troops.  He outlined where his troops were, where he wanted more troops, and suggested just where those troops would come from.  He discussed his plans for operations, weaknesses in his line, and his thoughts on the movements of Confederate Generals Zollicoffer, Buckner, and Johnston.  He felt his position so weak that “…if Johnston chose, he could march to Louisville any day.”  Secretary Cameron was “astonished” by some of these facts.  He ordered Adjutant-General Thomas to make notes of this so he could attend to them upon his return to Washington.

On October 31st, the New York Times reported the entirety of Thomas’ report to Secretary Cameron.  The same report that would allow General Buell to build his Army that would defeat Zollicoffer at Mill Springs, help save Grant at Shiloh, and ultimately save Kentucky for the Union at Perryville(no thanks to Buell’s personal efforts).  The same report that would find its way into the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion some 20 years later.  How could such critically dangerous information find its way into a national newspaper just 2 weeks after the meeting took place?  With a room full of reporters during the discussion it shouldn’t be any real surprise but there were two others in the room as well and one of them had a penchant for story telling.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, offers a bit of insight useful for our purposes.  It seems that Secretary Cameron had something of a checkered past.  She said, “For years, charges of bribery and bad dealings with the Winnebago indians had sullied Cameron’s name” and “Considering  Lincoln’s ‘well known rigid adherence to honesty,’ it seemed impossible to Villard(a correspondent following the newly elected President) that Honest Abe would besmirch his cabinet with someone of Cameron’s unsavory reputation.”  When President Lincoln offered the post of Secretary of War to Cameron, Cameron asked Lincoln to put it in writing.  When Cameron returned home to Pennsylvania,  Goodwin writes “he brandished the offer among his friends like ‘an exuberant school boy.'”  With this in mind it isn’t difficult to see Cameron offering some long winded tale as one of his reporter “family members” scarfed up Thomas’ report.

Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas was also quite the character.  Gabor Boritt in his book Lincoln’s Generals appears to make the claim that Thomas was responsible for efforts to label General Sherman as “insane”.  He was arrogant and power hungry so it doesn’t seem to much of a stretch that he could have leaked the report himself.

Who leaked it wasn’t nearly as damaging as that it was leaked at all.  The New York Times is the earliest publication I can find of the report and they attribute their source to “The Tribune”.  I don’t know if that is a paper in New York called “The Tribune” or some other “Tribune” across the country.  On the same day the report was published the Times also offered an editorial where they state:

The report of Adj.-Gen. THOMAS to the Secretary of War, in regard to the condition of the Western Military Department and the manner of conducting business under Major Gen. FREMONT’S administration, which we publish in the TIMES to-day, is certainly the most remarkable document that has seen the light since the beginning of the present war. We allude not so much to the matter of the report, though that is astounding, perplexing and painful enough; but to the  fact that such a document, so singular in its details, so damaging, if true, to the National cause in its revelations of our weakness to the enemy, and so  disgraceful to one of the first officers of the country and to his aids and  associates, was permitted to be published at all, in the informal and unsustained shape of the diary of a traveling Adjutant.

So, they understood the damage this report could inflict on the “National cause” yet they publish the report anyway in a superficial effort to score some points against the Tribune:

If the TIMES’ publication of the power of the American fleet, sailing to an unknown shore, excited
the “surprise and indignation” of the Cabinet and of the Tribune, what will their verdict be on this
unparalleled exposure of the inefficiency of our Generals and their armies, and the indication of
their plans of moving through the enemy’s country?

Is it just me…or could there be a better way of dealing with this, still score your petty coup, and at least make an effort to limit the potential damage caused?

2 Responses to Newspapers – same today as yesterday

  1. Wayne says:

    Testing from the blog…

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