How the South Gathered News During the Civil War
By R. J. Brown
Although it played an important role in the Confederacy, not much has been written about the Southern press. In many ways editorial reactions were the same in the North and South during the Civil War. For example, Southern editors were highly critical of military strategies, and journalists such as Robert Barnwell, editor of the Charleston Mercury, attacked the Confederate administration just as violently as Lincoln was being attacked in the North. War aims were not as much of an issue as they were in the North, however, nor was there anything quite corresponding to the Copperhead press.
When the war began, the South had no system for preparing or transmitting news of public interest to replace the severed connection with the New York Associated Press. An Augusta editor began sending out a brief daily summary to be telegraphed to a few papers willing to pay for the service, but this was never widely used.
In 1862, the papers of Richmond tried to establish a more effective organization. Publishers realized that to meet the expense of covering the war, they would have to work together. They also saw that in order to place correspondents where they were needed, they would have to pool resources. It was evident that the Richmond papers could not achieve these results by themselves.
Following a series of conferences, Joseph Clisby of the Macon Telegraph summoned the editor of every daily in the South to attend a meeting at Augusta on February 4, 1862, The association of the Richmond Press had just been organized, and the plan was to expand the idea by organizing a Press Association.
On the whole, the Press Association served its clients well. When General P. G. T. Beauregard began to hold up dispatches, the Press Association approached him and presented that the Association's aim was to obtain accurate reports for the good of the public, consistent with military security, the General was impressed but somewhat concerned. As a result, a compromise was worked out -- reporters were instructed NOT to send opinions or comments on events. (The Northern style of correspondent's reports were filled with opinions and comments.) They were further warned to sift rumors and to offer no information that would aid the enemy. The objectivity of the Press Association stories has been regarded as constituting a "complete revolution" in journalistic writing.
Newspapers that seldom had access to regular wire news budgets were now able to keep readers up to date on the war. Short, but complete, reports supplanted the rambling, confused accounts of prewar days.
The development of the Press Association was a big step in the progress of Southern journalism. The surviving 43 daily papers in the South were all members of the Press Association. The editorial weight of this group was impressive. Dispatches were transmitted over the Military Telegraph Lines, the army system, at half price. There was also a satisfactory arrangement with the private Southern-Western Telegraph Company.
There were perhaps 800 newspapers being published in the 11 states of the Confederacy in 1861, of which about 80 were dailies. Hand presses were in use in most of these newspaper offices and circulations were small. The Richmond Dispatch, with 18,000 subscribers when the war broke out, was outranked only by the largest New Orleans dailies. And as important as the Richmond papers were in the journalism of the Confederacy, the Dispatch had more readers than the Richmond Enquirer, Whig, and Democrat combined. The Enquirer was the organ of the Jefferson Davis administration until 1863 when the Sentinel was established for that purpose. Richmond also spawned a Southern Illustrated News in 1862 to fill the void left by the unavailability of Harper's Weekly. At its peak the Illustrated News had 20,000 subscribers.
The two most prominent correspondents for the Confederacy were Felix Gregory de Fontaine, who signed himself as "Personne" in his dispatches to the Charleston Courier, and Peter W, Alexander, who primarily identified with the Savannah Republican, but whose 'P.W.A." signature was also found in the Atlanta Confederacy, the Columbus Sun, the Mobile Advertiser, the Richmond Dispatch, and the Times of London.
Other prominent correspondents for the Confederacy were Samuel C. Reid Jr. of the New Orleans Picayune and other papers, and James B. Sener and William Shepardson of the Memphis Appeal.