How Newspapers Reported the Civil War

A collection of historic front pages shows how civilians experienced and read about the war

Illustrated News
Newseum Archives

Chester County Times

Chester County Times
(Newseum Archives)

The Chester County Times in Pennsylvania made no attempt to disguise how it felt about the election of Abraham Lincoln as the nation’s 16th president. “A Clean Sweep!” it exclaimed. “Corruption Ended!! The Country Redeemed! Secession is Rebuked!!! Let the Traitors Rave!”

This was a time when newspapers were rigidly aligned with political parties. In Chester County, Lincoln’s win signaled a chance to lay on the exclamation marks. It was also a time when news-hungry citizens relied on newspapers as the primary means of mass communication. Advances in technology—especially the development of the telegraph—made rapid dissemination of the news possible. The Twitter of the era, the telegraph cut days or weeks off the time it took dispatches to reach the public.

The Chester County Times is one of more than 30 newspapers spotlighted in “Blood and Ink: Front Pages From the Civil War” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The show, which coincides with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and runs through 2012, covers key events of the war, including major battles and the lead-up to and resolution of the conflict, says curator Carrie Christoffersen.

Published November 7, 1860, the Times’ election extra reported Lincoln had won Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Rhode Island. (In the end, Lincoln carried every Northern state except New Jersey.) Virginia went for candidate John Bell, and North Carolina for John C. Breckinridge. The front page uses the abbreviation “Breck’ge, credits the telegraph operator by name and fills the final column with the cryptic, boldface words “Wide Awake.”

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper
(Newseum Archives)

Lincoln’s election was the final trigger for secession, and Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederate States of America. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, based in New York City, printed a woodblock engraving of Davis addressing the citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, from the balcony of the Exchange Hotel on February 16, 1861, two days before his inauguration. The illustrator depicted men waving their top hats in jubilation on the ground, while overhead, two other men, presumably slaves, perched on narrow pedestals and held candlesticks to cast light on Davis’ face.

Illustrated News

Illustrated News
(Newseum Archives)

Soon artists and correspondents were covering far more dangerous assignments. Calling themselves the “Bohemian Brigade,” they traveled with armies as witnesses to war. “There were battlefield sketch artists who were essentially embedded,” says Christoffersen. These men were dubbed “specials.” When Confederate shots erupted in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, a special positioned himself near U.S. Army Maj. Robert Anderson on the rampart of Fort Sumter. The scene he drew graced page 1 of the New York Illustrated News on April 20. (War scenes usually took about two weeks to appear in print.) The accompanying article described a “gallant Major as he vainly scanned the horizon for the expected supplies and reinforcements, upon which depended the continued occupation of the fortress, but which, alas, he was never destined to receive.” Union forces surrendered after 34 hours.

Although newspapers weren’t yet able to reproduce photographs, says Christoffersen, they could use information documented in photographs to make engravings. The Illustrated News points out that its portrait of Anderson was sketched from a photo taken at the fort.

The British Workman

British Workman
(Newseum Archives)

Even foreign publications of the time were partisan in their war coverage. In November 1861, the British Workman, a monthly, published an engraving of a slave auction peopled with animated bidders and frightened slaves. In the top corner is written “Registered for Transmission Aboard” indicating the periodical was intended for American eyes.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Cleveland Plain Dealer
(Newseum Archives)

On December 24, 1861, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a political cartoon on its front page. “The Confederate Government in Motion” shows a rolling crocodile labeled “Davis’s Great Moving Circus” carrying five seated men. “Satire was big at this stage,” says Christoffersen. “The implication of this cartoon seems to be that the Confederacy was on the run.” In truth, it had relocated its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, not to Nashville.

(Southern cartoonists took jabs at the North as well. The National Portrait Gallery is displaying rare caricatures of Lincoln by Adalbert J. Volck of Baltimore through January 21, 2013.)

The Confederate State

The Confederate State
(Newseum Archives)

As the war progressed, newsprint grew scarce in the South because of a Union Navy blockade. The Newseum exhibit features two Confederate newspapers that were printed on wallpaper that was still available, using the blank reverse side. The Confederate State, which looks blotchy because the wallpaper pattern shows through from the back, was published in New Iberia, Parish of St. Martin, Louisiana on September 20, 1862. Its motto was a quotation of Davis: “Resistance to Tyrants in Obedience to God.” Stars and Stripes published in Jacksonport, Arkansas, printed its December 1, 1863, issue with a vivid wallpaper border showing alongside the front page.

Harpers Weekly

Harpers Weekly
(Newseum Archives)

The popular Harper’s Weekly, based in New York, was pro-Union, as can be seen in a June 18, 1864, illustration of emaciated prisoners of war. The caption read: “Rebel cruelty—our starved soldiers. From photographs taken at United States General Hospital, Annapolis, Maryland.” The men had been released from Belle Isle camp, in the James River in Richmond, and later died.

The Press in the Field

The Press in the Field
(Newseum Archives)

Mid-war, in 1862, sketch artist Thomas Nast joined Harper’s, which was selling for the war-inflated price of six cents an issue. Nast, who later gained fame for his bold caricatures of such politicians as Boss Tweed, drew an elaborate two-page triptych, “The Press in the Field,” published April 30, 1864. The center panel shows a correspondent on horseback talking to soldiers back from battle. A bearded man (possibly Nast himself) sits atop the left panel holding a sketchpad. Below him a correspondent interviews emancipated slaves while an artist records the scene. At right the correspondent interviews another man.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Inquirer
(Newseum Archives)

Newspapers provided elaborate coverage of Lincoln’s assassination and funeral. On April 15, 1865, the Evening Express in Washington published an extra that reported his death at “half-past 7 this morning”; a black border surrounds the news columns. Ten days later, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed images of Lincoln’s casket in Independence Hall and the interior of the railroad car that transported his body.

Christoffersen said museum-goers often are surprised that the papers are 150-year-old originals. During the mid-1800s, newspapers had a high rag content, which meant they didn’t decay as much as papers with more wood content a few decades later.