February 18, 1863
My Dear Brother,
I have seen your speeches on the subject of absentees, filling up the army with conscripts, and the necessity of standing by the President for the sake of unity of action. So at last I see you and the Country begin to realize what we ought to have known two years ago, that individual opinions however sincere, real & honest are too various to Secure unity of actions, and at last that men must forego their individual notions and follow some one Leader, the Legitimate & Constitutional one if possible. Two years of war, costly & bloody have been endured and we have arrived by sad experience at a Result that all the world knew before. If the People of the North will not learn from the experience of the world, but must go on groping in the dark for experience to develop and demonstrate the Truth of established principles of Government, why of course there is no help for it, but as a people we must pay the price.
We have reproached the South for arbitrary conduct in coercing her People – at last we find we must imitate their example – we have denounced their tyranny in filling their armies with conscripts – and now we must follow her example – We have denounced their tyranny in suppressing freedom of speech and the press, and here too in time we must follow her Example. The longer it is deferred the worse it becomes.
Who gave notice of McDowell’s movement on Manassas, & enabled Johnston so to reinforce Beauregard that our army was defeated?
Who gave notice of the movement on Vicksburg?
Who has prevented all secret combinations and movements against our enemy?
Who has sown the seeds of hatred so deep, that Reason, Religious and Self-interest cannot eradicate them?
I cannot pick up a paper but tells of our situation here, in the mud, sickness, and digging a canal in which we have little faith. But our officers attempt secretly to cut two other channels one into Yazoo by an old Pass, and one through Lake Providence into Tensas, Black Red &c., whereby we could turn not only Vicksburg, Port Hudson, but also Grand Gulf, Natchez, Ellis Cliff, Fort Adams and all the strategic points on the Main river, and the busy agents of the Press follow up and proclaim to the world the whole thing, and instead of surprising our enemy we find him felling trees & blocking passages that would without this have been in our possession, and all the real effects of surprise are lost. I say with the Press unfettered as now we are defeated to the end of time. Tis folly to say the people must have news…
William T. Sherman, February 18, 1863
War & Freedom of the Press
Clearly, William T. Sherman was not pleased with reporters, newspapers, or the press. His tirade in this letter to his brother-in-law highlights an age old debate and quarrel with the military and the free press. What should be reported? What should be concealed? Where is the line between truth, wisdom, and just plain propaganda. These are questions which have challenged and haunted America for decades of past and continue to be discussed today as information becomes more and more of a weapon in the digital age.
As mentioned in previous posts, the North took measures against publishers and presses printing “treason” against the Federal government as part of the war powers. That’s a separate and yet related issue to the one Sherman addressed. He was irritated by the naysayers on the homefront, but he was angry about the unfettered reporting on military operations which revealed whole plans to the Confederates, giving them an opportunity to prepare. Sherman argued that men’s lives were lost because of this, and he asked if a slightly censored press was better than the slaughter of his men. The counterargument would be if the freedom of press is limited in war, will it set precedent for limits in other areas?
Still, Sherman had a point. How was the Union going to win a campaign or the war if faithful reporters consistently handed over plans or detailed possibilities to the enemy? And the debate ran on for the duration of the Civil War on to the Vietnam Conflict and into the 21st Century conflicts.
Heading For Vicksburg
Vicksburg. It’s a city name that dominates 1863 history. By ’63, this city was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Once captured, the Confederacy would lose official and all easy contact with the western states.
Grant, Sherman, and the other Union generals in the western theater were aiming for this city. However, it wasn’t an easy road to march. Swampy land, the river, tributaries, weather, and sickness were just some of their difficulties (aside from the press).
In February 1863, Union forces were in preliminary maneuvers that would eventually bring armies outside the city and begin a formal siege. From January to March 1863, the Bayou Campaign was an effort to create alternate waterway routes toward Vicksburg to avoid the big guns of the city firing on the river fleet.
Spoiler alert – Vicksburg surrenders on July 4, 1863, but in other posts, we’ll be tracking the progress of the armies and civilians.
Conscription. Instituted for the very first time in American history by the Confederates in 1862, it was heavily ridiculed by the Northern press as proof that Southerners had to force men to fight this war. However, the loud editorials and political cartoons quieted as the North faced their own recruiting troubles.
On March 3, 1863, the North passed their own draft law – called the Enrollment Act – forcing all male citizens and immigrants seeking citizenship between 20 and 45 to register for the draft. As the year progressed, the unpopularity of this measure appeared in violent forms, particularly during the New York Draft Riots in July 1863.
Sherman’s letter hits hard at hypocrisy and hammers at questions which have loomed in American History for years and in conflicts of all years. Draft and freedom of the press. Perhaps, in many ways, history does simply repeat itself.