Civil War Profiles — Lincoln silenced the anti-war press

Date Published: 
Nov. 17, 2017

In modern times, the presidency and the media have often been at odds in this country. Newspapers typically scrutinize presidential pronouncements, and the opposition press can be fault-finding and vindictive.


On the whole, in 1861, after civil war erupted among the states, newspaper editors in states that did not secede from the Union were either pro-slavery and/or anti-war, or abolitionist and supportive of preserving the Union. The anti-war editors primarily supported the Democratic Party, and the Unionists tended to be Republican in their political leanings.

The president at the time was Abraham Lincoln, who won the election in 1860 running on a Republican platform. After he took office in March 1861 and the North-South conflict began the following month, Lincoln soon realized how opposition newspapers were undermining the effort to bring the seceded states back into the Union.

Harold Holzer explained in “Stop the Presses,” “The Lincoln administration turned a blind eye to the First Amendment in the interest of national security” (Civil War Times, December 2014), and the government in Washington “banned pro-peace newspapers from the U.S. mails, shut down newspaper offices and confiscated printing materials.”

The administration intimidated and jailed reporters, editors and publishers who sympathized with the South or objected to taking up arms to restore the Union. Although Lincoln did not personally initiate these actions, he also did not intervene to prevent them from happening.

Press censorship went into effect, and telegraph service between Washington and Richmond was discontinued. The military took control of the telegraph lines in the North, and postal service was banned between the warring sections of the country.

When the Alexandria Gazette in Virginia refused to publish a proclamation of martial law, Union soldiers seized the office and destroyed property. That precedent led to widespread denunciation of anti-administration newspapers, many of which were forcibly shut down.

Lincoln authorized military commanders “to arrest, and detain, without resort to the ordinary processes and forms of law, such individuals as he might deem dangerous to the public safety.” The Baltimore Exchange newspaper editorialized “the war in the South is a war of the people, supported by the people,” but the war in the North was “the war of a party … carried out by political schemers.”

Although there were no known closures here in Delaware, the suppression of newspapers spread to the other border states of Missouri and Kentucky. John C. Fremont, the commanding general in that area, instituted martial law to control the press. He shut down the pro-Confederate St. Louis State Journal and arrested Editor Joseph W. Tucker. Although unlikely in the 21st-century, Editor Henry Raymond of the New York Times was in full agreement with the Lincoln administration shutting down pro-secession newspapers.

Even Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sanctioned action against wayward press organs. He ordered the Booneville Patriot to be closed in Missouri and Editor J.L. Stevens arrested for being an “obnoxious” Confederate sympathizer.

In Kentucky, a Union loyalist sent the Louisville Courier’s inflammatory editorials to Secretary of State William Seward. As a result, the U.S. Post Office banned Courier issues from the mails, and military authorities arrested Assistant Editor Reuben T. Durrett.

Pro-Union Kentucky Democrat Joseph Holt got President Lincoln personally involved in the Durrett case by informing him that Durrett had “done everything to incite the people of Kentucky to take up arms against the General Government.”

Lincoln kept Durrett in jail and rewarded Holt by naming him judge advocate general of the Union armies. (Judge Holt would later become the chief prosecutor in the case against the Lincoln assassination conspirators.)

Suppression of newspapers became widespread throughout the North in small towns and villages. These normally tolerant people became enraged at Democratic newspapers that “questioned military recruitment or mocked the soldiers’ performance on the battlefield.”

Latter-day observers rail against perceived bias and irresponsibility in newspapers and journals that address political issues and occasionally reveal information considered to be vital to national security. Except under wartime conditions, however, editors of these publications have not been subject to closure and arrest.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.