Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 5

Part five in a series.

Don Carlos Buell

Western commanders and troops may have had a more difficult time gaining the respect of their superiors, but they also were greatly affected by the media’s perception of their contributions to the war. Media coverage of the war played an enormous role in shaping the public’s perception of the areas and figures of importance in the war.  The majority of the population of the United States during the war was spatially located on the eastern coast of the nation, and thus naturally the major newspapers were located in the east and primarily focused on the east, as well as on the ramifications of political action in their respective capitals. At the beginning of the war, newspapers on both sides focused on the political aspects of the war while also publishing camp gossip and relaying news sent home by officers and men from the front. Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, newspapers in the north and south took the story of the two forts and did focus prominently on it, in what would be a departure from the vast majority of the eastern coverage of the war. This however would prove to be the exception to the rule, as eastern battles and commanders subsequently grabbed headline after headline of the major periodicals and papers.

Even when western leaders requested coverage by the press, they found it difficult for their stories to be told. Shortly after the loss at Fredericksburg, Southern forces soundly defeated William T. Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou, while Sherman was leading a force towards Vicksburg. Sherman and his brother John Sherman wanted William’s battle report published in the eastern newspapers. The brothers wanted the true story and circumstances of the battle to be known, but this was not to be. Politicians, generals, and the media focused so heavily at the time on Lincoln and Burnside in the east that they had little notice of Sherman’s attack, which took a back seat to the news of the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed into law on January 1st, 1863. Ironically, while in victory at Shiloh the western armies received bad press, now in defeat they could receive little coverage at all.

Senator John Sherman

John Sherman wrote his brother, “I asked Gen. Halleck to allow me to publish it. {report on Chickasaw Bayou} He declined, unless the Secretary of War consented, and said he would submit my application to the Secretary. Afterwards I saw the Secretary, and he told me he had directed a copy of the report to be furnished for publication. I again called at Halleck’s and saw Gen. Cullum, who objected to the publication on various grounds…This morning I received a note from Halleck stating that…he did not deem it advisable to publish the report at present.”

If western commanders could not get their words or actions into the press because of the dominance of the media’s focus on the events and people in the east, they could not blame reporters only, but also themselves. Many of the western commanders did not endear themselves to newspapermen, and contemporary newspaper coverage reflected this. Wartime newspaper coverage, often heavily utilized by modern historians, reflects as well as helps perpetuate this eastern bias.Sherman wrote to his brother John that he thought “newspaper correspondents regard me as the enemy of their class. I announced that all such accompanying {toward Vicksburg} were and should be treated as spies. They are spies because their publications reach the enemy, give them direct and minute information of the composition of our forces, and while invariably they puff up their patrons, they pull down all others.”Sherman had a very good point, as officers on both sides read the paper for information. Another great point he had was in regards to “pulling down all others.” Newspapermen were known to create stories that slandered generals and politicians alike, and that often contained only a kernel of truth.

Henry “Old Brains” Halleck

U.S. Grant is one western commander who found that his story was actually told in eastern news outlets, though he might have preferred that it had not been. Though one of the most talented of Union commanders, Grant encountered a great deal of early popular criticism and resistance to his leadership while acting as a western commander; this criticism came from not only other commanders but also from the press, which in turn affected the attitudes of the northern people.

As a western general in the early stages of the war he did not capture the public’s attention or heart like dashing George McClellan, and despite his victories his personal habits were called into question by the public and he was also derided as a “butcher” in the press. Army politics even downplayed the importance of Grant’s early accomplishments. Henry Halleck and Don Carlos Buell wrote to the War Department, politicians, and newspapers following the battle of Shiloh in an effort to downplay Grant’s role and spread the idea that Grant was a drunkard. New York Herald reporter Frank Chapman wrote that Grant was so drunk at Fort Donelson that he fell from his horse. Grant was an accomplished horseman and the story is most likely untrue. In retrospect this all seems petty and not worthy of notice, but there is an importance to the controversy.

While Western commanders were bickering, and they projected an image that, once it made it into print, did not encourage citizens at home to respect them or their actions. The generals’ battle of words in the newspapers following the fall of Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh showed that Western command was divided at best, and that the press’ reporting of this division affected how many northern citizens viewed the western conduct of the war.

George Washington Cullum

After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant and Sherman took some of the headlines from the eastern forces, though this mostly occurred in the papers located in Ohio and other western areas. John Sherman wrote to his brother William “How completely the tone of the press has changed in regard to you. Even the “Gazette,” {Cincinnati Gazette} which has been malignant to the last degree, published quite a number of letters in which your share of the movements about Vicksburg was highly praised.” Sherman and Grant were well represented in the western newspapers following Vicksburg, yet the eastern seaboard still remained focused on the east, since the Battle of Gettysburg had just ended a day before Southern commander Pemberton had surrendered his army at Vicksburg.

Shortly after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, John Sherman stated that “Popular opinion is so changeable that it is worthless.” “Meade has had a foretaste of this. His drawn battle at Gettysburg relieved the country from a great danger, and he was at once a hero; he was the coming man. He has allowed Lee to escape him, and all his popular honors are lost. McClellan has succeeded in establishing the position of a party leader, and now enjoys the bad honor of being cheered by a New York mob of thieves and scoundrels, while poor Hooker is dropped by all just when he thought he had Lee in his power.” John Sherman illustrates perfectly the thought process of wartime Americans. His brother was just in one of the most successful Campaigns of the war and had played a very prominent role in the campaign, but John focused on matters in the east. Militarily and politically, John Sherman shifted the focus from his brother’s triumph to the Eastern Theater with a few short sentences.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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