News from the Civil War: The Spigot Starts to Open

By Gary Farrow, Member of the Danville Historical Society

Journalists, probably from the New York Herald, are on-site, reporting on the war through use of the telegraph.

Prior to the Civil War, revolutionary technology remade the newspaper business so that information could be delivered from faraway places faster and cheaper than ever before. The October ‘61 editions of the North Star brought home opinion from a Boston Journal correspondent, the sentiments of a Danville soldier at the Virginia front, and news of military activities on the Gulf Coast,

North Star October 5, 1861

The General who wouldn't fight. A drawing of General McClellan and his staff. The General is standing on the left with his hand in his jacket.

Why McClellan Holds On

The Washington Correspondent of the Boston Journal writes… It has been two months since the advance of the Federal troops from Bull Run to Washington….the people are anxious to have something done by the large army to blot out the disagreeable part of that affair…

…It was supposed that everything would be in readiness by the first of September and that by the present time we should have made a triumphant march towards the very heart of secession, but instead here we are throwing up entrenchments with rebels flaunting their hateful burning in our face with the great dome of the capital in full view of their work at Munson’s. It is provoking to the blood…

…But the beauty of his [McClellan’s] hanging on… He has, by remaining quiet completely frustrated the plans of the rebels. They intend to attack us, but found we are getting very strong… They have conquered all in vain… When he sees that the proper time has come to let go, I am confident that he will do it in a manner that will win admiration.

The above flattering picture … was published in the Boston Journal… We trust that the preceding sketch of his position was not exaggerated… If Gen. McClellan is pursuing a course that will, in the end, justify all our high hopes and expectations, to his military genius and watchful discipline will much credit be due, for any favorable result that may crown our army now entrenched on the Potomac.

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The North’s cry for retribution and redemption fell on the shoulders of General McClellan. They found the loss at Bull Run “provoking to the blood,” wanted action and weren’t getting it. So the journalist offers this rationalization. “He has, by remaining quiet completely frustrated the plans of the rebels.”

The pretzel logic of the Boston Journal’s speculation is laughable. After a bitter defeat, the correspondent seems to be saying, “We have ‘em right where we want ‘em”. The last paragraph of the article reflects the North Star’s restrained but positive “wait and see” attitude about McClellan. As it turns out, they would be waiting a long time.

During this period in history, newspapers were making a transition from being mouthpieces for a particular point of view, such as The Liberator, an abolitionist paper, to including more fact-based news reporting which was demanded by the public. It was the beginning of modern journalism.

Through the technology of the copper wire telegraph, which had expanded out to the West coast, news could be collected by major newspapers in a matter of hours rather than days. Trains also increased the web of newspaper distribution by carrying metro weekly editions, such as Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, to the hinterlands.

In order to handle telegraphic dispatches, a collective of major newspapers, formed to share stories, evolved into the Associated Press. While changes in paper and print making allowed the price of a newspaper to decline from six cents in 1830 to a couple of cents in 1850.

Circulation increased twice as fast as the population with newspapers riding an information revolution to become the most influential means of communication in the country. By 1861, America was wired. The world had sped up.

This newspaper sketch is of the balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe, that did aerial reconnaissance for the Union at Falls Church, VA. In late September, the Union had once again secured the area and began building forts in the area.

North Star October 12, 1861

Camp Advance Fairfax Co., Va

Letter from a Danville Soldier of the 4th Regiment

Editor of the Star – We have at last, after all the delays required to the moving of large bodies, reached the seat of war and those of which we have read so much in the papers, in connection with the great struggle now pending we have viewed with our own eyes and traversed with our own feet.

…During our journey from Vermont… The men were very enthusiastic and enjoyed themselves well, generally … except a little dissatisfaction which arose on account of not receiving their regular rations while enroute…. The rations now furnished are good as anyone could ask for, comprising fresh meat, good bread, rice, beans and coffee.

… An expedition was sent to Falls Church, and through some misunderstanding on the part of the officers our troops fired upon each other killing 10 and wounding over 30. We have various reports in regards to the matter, and I should not wonder if none of them were true, for in fact we cannot get the truth half as quick here as we can in Vermont.

Yours unconditionally,

S.H.S.

Homesick and heartsick by the loss of his comrades, the veil of cynicism begins to descend upon a young Danville man now caught up in the life and death machinations of a large impersonal war.

North Star October 19, 1861

Benjamin Greenbank, of Danville, has we understand received a large order from Government to manufacture a lot of army blue cloth, and he has already commenced the works.

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In 1849, Mr. Greenbank bought the mill in what is now known as Greenbank’s Hollow and founded Vermont Valley Woolen Mills which was the largest such enterprise in Northeastern Vermont. Clustered around the mill was a “company” townlet called Greenbank’s village which had about 12 houses, a store and a post office.

The company operated at its peak during the Civil War when it was producing as much as 700 yards of cloth per day. The mill burned down in the 1880’s and was never rebuilt.

North Star October 19, 1861

General Scott's Anaconda Plan to defeat the South with less bloodshed.

Intelligence from the Gulf squadron says the whole coast from Galveston to the Florida reefs was completely blockaded.

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This small bit of news signified a large part of Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda plan to win the war against the South. As a military man General Scott, who led American forces in the war against Mexico, was second only to George Washington in public esteem. His scheme was to implement a naval blockade along the South’s entire coastline and control the length of Mississippi River with men and gunboats.

Scott felt that -in time – the economic costs and abject boredom of this constriction would encourage the rise of Unionist sentiment in the South and bring the Region to its senses. He wanted a war that would minimize the loss of blood, avoid the ruination of the South and mitigate the sectional differences that would take generations to heal.

However, the press and public’s cruel logic, a concoction of hubris, naivete and blood lust, would not abide the old General’s plan. If it was blood atonement they wanted, the politicians would give it to them on a scale not seen before or since: 620,000 people would lose their lives in this conflict. The equivalent number today would be 15,000,000 dead.

A newspaper is a social artifact. It reflects how we see and feel about things at the time. The North Stars of October, 1861, are representative of a people struggling to adapt to the speed of information brought to them by new technology and a new world where life as it had previously existed was blown apart.

Through the lens of history, we can laugh at the silliness of a correspondent who fills up a newspaper column trying rationalize what General McClellan is not doing and experience how a young Danville man felt about being thrown into something much larger than he imagined. Take note of how a young man goes off to war and a rich man profits. See an impulse for blood retribution that would override a war plan that minimized death and destruction.

All these fragments of history are about people in a particular time and place, but their experience is timeless and universal. They are us.

 

 

 

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