When asked by America’s Civil War to write about a little-known Atlantan, I chose John H. Steele, editor of the Atlanta Daily Intelligencer from March 1863 to his death in January 1871. (The paper folded three months later anyway, victim to the upstart Atlanta Constitution.)
Steele is so under-the-radar that after extensive sleuthing, we still don’t know his middle name. (His gravestone in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery reads simply, “John H. Steele.”) In early 1864 a fellow newspaperman described him as “a large, heavy built man, about six feet in height, well proportioned and has a very durable look about him. His head is large and expansive, covered with a great thatch of silver grey.” He was known as a witty raconteur, “inimitable in racy anecdote.” He was therefore in demand at parties, “enjoys the society of the young [and] is popular with ladies.”1
John Steele was a dedicated Confederate propagandist, realizing that a wartime editor’s job was as much to support the cause as it was to report the news. He especially enjoyed vilifying Yankees, whom he characterized as “cerulean abdomens,” possessed of “azure corporations”—highfalutin’ terms for bluebellies, which he regarded as a substandard species of soldiery.
In writing our book, The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer Covers the Civil War (due out soon from the University of Tennessee Press), one of the themes my co-author Bill Hendrick and I sought to address was how John Steele, an intelligent and thoughtful man, could maintain his hope for Confederate victory until the very end, when the cause was collapsing.
In the ADI of May 7, 1864, for instance, he editorialized at length on Southern prospects: “We hold that the people of the Confederate States,” he intoned, “are the custodians of those great principles for which patriots of all ages have struggled, and for which martyrs have sacrificed their lives.” Should the enemy somehow prevail and subjugate the South (subjugate was Confederates’ favorite word, meaning put under the yoke) “infidelity, fanaticism in all its hideous forms, licentiousness in all its grossness, and cruelty and rapine, with all their horrors, will raise their disgusting forms and march boldly throughout our bright and sunny land.”2
It was a chilling prospect, made the more ominous by the manifest signs of a waning war effort, starting with the weakened strength of the armies. At the end of 1863, Adjutant and Inspector General Cooper reported to President Davis that he counted 233,586 men present for duty. No one knew the Yankees’ numbers, but they could be guessed as far higher. (They indeed were—496,783 at the end of ’63.)3
Then there were the casualties. In May 1864 the Intelligencer estimated that during the first two and a half years of war, to September 1863, some 120,000 Confederate soldiers had died of disease, and that just under another 30,000 had been killed—numbers that were well on their way to the estimated 258,000 Confederates who died during the war.4
Loss of territory was another index. At the end of 1863, of the 700,000 square miles of land in the eleven seceded states, perhaps a quarter of it was under Federal control: all of Tennessee, almost all of Arkansas, half of Louisiana, a third of Mississippi and a quarter of Virginia, plus coastal pockets along the entire Southern coast.5
The Confederacy’s travails at the start of 1864 extended from the war front to the home front. Most families were experiencing shortages of essential goods, both agricultural and industrial. Food was being produced in sufficient quantity, but with Southern railroads worn out or broken by the Yankees, and many Southern rivers under enemy control, distribution of life’s essentials was difficult and uneven.
The Confederacy’s main financial problem was inflation. When goods were available, they were often set at such exorbitant prices as to be unpurchasable. At the start of the war, one could buy a dollar in gold for three Confederate ones. At the end of 1863, one had to pay twenty.6
Vicksburg, Gettysburg, no foreign recognition, Yankee emancipation and slavery’s threatened demise: the list could go on and on. Yet through all of this, John Steele’s gaze was still on peace and Confederate independence. At the time of his writing in early May ’64, the editor exulted in such Confederate victories as Olustee and Mansfield, Forrest’s ride into Paducah, Democratic successes in the North, Yankee soldiers’ unwillingness to re-enlist: “All of these things indicate, as we think, the beginning of the end of this wicked war, and presage for us a triumphant conclusion of the sanguinary strife.”7
Be of good cheer, then, for though our hearts no doubt will be made to mourn, in the next few months, for many friends in battle slain, yet, we think it is safe to say, that putting our trust in God for deliverance, we will behold, before another year expires, the rainbow of peace spanning our heaven-blessed land and hear our young men and maidens, and our little ones singing, “This cruel war is over!”7
1 “PRESS ASSOCIATION,” ADI, March 2, 1864.
2 “We are at a loss…” (editorial), ADI, May 7, 1864.
3 Steven H. Newton, Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Mason City IA: Savas Publishing, 2000), 1.
4 “LOSSES IN THIS WAR,” ADI, May 4, 1864; Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 257.
5 Charles H. Wesley, The Collapse of the Confederacy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001 ), 37; Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Defeat of the Confederacy (Princeton NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1964), 142.
6 Albert D. Kirwan, ed., The Confederacy (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959), 129; Clifford Dowdey, The Land They Fought For: The Story of the South as the Confederacy 1832-1865 (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1955), 303.
7 “We are at a loss…,” ADI, May 7.