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At War With the Press

By Ernest P. Furgurson
4/27/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Many generals considered reporters ‘the scum of creation,’ but George Meade ran one out of camp backward on a mule.

With some justification, Civil War reporters are typically portrayed as a merry band of boisterous, hard-drinking bohemians, blithely navigating their way through the horrors of combat, always willing to lie, cheat and spy on one another just to be first with a story. Not unlike today’s war correspondents, they garnered the ire and distrust of many of the generals and soldiers they covered, but they were still allowed to perform their jobs without too much interference. And thanks to their timely accounts, published in daily newspapers everywhere, citizens were allowed to glean an enhanced understanding of the nation’s bloody four-year struggle.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Edward Crapsey, however, was one correspondent who was unable to escape the war without incurring a few formidable scars—at least to his ego. The unfortunately named Crapsey had the ill luck to be covering the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864, and at one point landed on the wrong side of the army’s hot-tempered commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade.

General Meade was already furious with the press for ignoring his contributions during the Union’s relentless drive toward Richmond that May. Although Meade was officially his army’s commander— Ulysses S. Grant was general-in-chief of all Federal forces—the New York, Washington and Philadelphia newspapers that arrived in camp on a daily basis frequently blared paeans to “Grant’s Army” and “Grant’s March.” Meade in turn repeatedly fumed against them in letters to his wife, including comments such as: “The reporters who make public opinion are the scum of creation and there is not one of them whom any gentleman would associate with….Is it not heart-sickening to think that one’s reputation depends on such a lot of scum?”

The crowning blow came as the Army of the Potomac recovered from its bloody repulse at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. A few days after the defeat, the Inquirer published an article by Crapsey implying that Meade, following the bloody clash with Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in the Wilderness a month earlier, had recommended his army turn back toward Washington. Meade sent a guard to arrest Crapsey and demanded to know where he had learned such drivel. When the correspondent replied it was simply “the talk of the camp,” Meade erupted that the accusation was a “base and wicked lie!” At that moment the general was undoubtedly angry enough to have the Inquirer reporter hanged, but Meade’s provost marshal offered a less drastic, yet still humiliating, alternative.

A sign saying “Libeler of the Press” was placed around Crapsey’s neck, and the reporter was propped backward on a lop-eared mule and ridden through the camp, his passage heralded by a drum-and-bugle rendition of “Rogue’s March.” According to one private who witnessed the spectacle, Crapsey “was howled at, and the wish to tear him limb from limb and strew him over the ground was fiercely expressed” wherever he went.

Meade’s retribution may have made him feel better at the time, but in the long run it hurt him worse than it did Crapsey. When the reporter, subsequently banned from contact with Meade’s army, told his friends in Washington what had happened, they swore revenge. Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette was angry enough to write that Meade was “as leprous with moral cowardice as the brute that kicks a helpless cripple on the street.” Reid wisely decided not to file that dispatch, but he and his colleagues agreed that thenceforth they would not mention Meade in any of their reports unless it was to announce that he had suffered a defeat.

So it went with Civil War generals and the press—and so it has gone ever since. Contention is built into the relationship between the military and the press. Generals are interested in protecting their own reputations as well as military secrets. Correspondents want to tell their readers what’s going on, and the degree to which they succeed inevitably influences not only their own professional prospects but also the careers of the generals they cover. Yet both sides will swear they are serving the national interest.

In 1861 the role of the war correspondent was still a new concept. When the guns first sounded at Fort Sumter, no official rules or traditions had been established governing the relationship between generals and the press. Fourteen years earlier the Baltimore Sun had used an elaborate system of telegraph, railroads, steamboats, stage coaches and “sixty blooded horses” to rush to Washington the bulletin that Winfield Scott had captured Vera Cruz, thus beating not only its competitors but also the government’s own official report. That journalistic coup meant the news reached Washington in two weeks—unprecedented for that era.

Since then, telegraph coverage had spread north and south, with nearly instantaneous station-to-station transmission. But attitudes toward “real- time” reporting had yet to catch up to the spread of new technology. By the time the Civil War started, professional soldiers failed to appreciate the public’s right to know what was happening, which meant they were loath to admit reporters to their ranks. For their part, press correspondents and editors were slow to realize that news of impending operations, especially if sent by wire, could move fast enough to have an effect on a battle’s outcome.

Working together in the course of an ongoing conflict remains a painful process for both sides. Winfield Scott said early in the Civil War that he would rather have a hundred spies in camp than a single reporter. Benjamin Butler claimed the government could not accomplish much until it had hanged half a dozen spies and at least one newspaper correspondent. William T. Sherman blamed press reports of troop movements for the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, and a month after that battle the War Department issued General Orders No. 67, which declared that correspondents risked being hanged as spies if they dispatched potentially damaging information without the commanding general’s authority. When newspapers questioned Sherman’s sanity, he called reporters “spies and defamers…infamous lying dogs.” Even at war’s end, a New York Tribune correspondent couldn’t help repeating the sentiment, “A cat in hell without claws is nothing to a reporter in General Sherman’s army.”

Despite what Sherman and some other generals asserted, it was impossible for them to prove that news – papers reports had directly resulted in any lost battles for the Union. No correspondent was hanged during the war, though many were banished from army camps and otherwise strictured.

Meade’s humiliation of Crapsey, however, was merely a public outburst reflecting a simmering private grievance that did indeed affect the climactic battle of the Union’s 1864 Overland Campaign. Meade’s letters and conversations with other officers make it clear that his petulance toward Grant and the press, based on a woeful misunderstanding, was a key factor in the lopsided setback at Cold Harbor.

The seeds of that debacle were planted in March 1864, when Grant, the newly appointed general-in-chief, came to see Meade at his winter quarters near Culpeper, Va. Grant informed Meade that, unlike his predecessors, he would make his headquarters in the field—traveling alongside Meade.

Grant was in effect looking over his shoulder as they embarked on their spring offensive toward Richmond. Meade’s first reaction to this was more wistful than angry. As he wrote in a letter to his wife, from that point on she would read about “the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.” He did not yet realize how true his prediction would be.

From the day the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, through the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor and all the clashes in between, The New York Times published 123 stories and editorials mentioning Grant, usually topped with bold black headlines in large type. During that same period, only 15 articles cited Meade, and those usually appeared in smaller type. That treatment was typical of the Northern journals that covered the army as it fought its way south, including Meade’s hometown papers in Philadelphia.

The baggy-eyed, patrician Meade was known to be touchy—quick to take offense at any perceived insult, whether intentional or accidental. He expected respect: He was, after all, the victor of Gettysburg, so far the only general ever to soundly defeat Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet he was confronted with stories like the one published in the Washington Republican and reprinted in the Philadelphia Bulletin, about how Grant was “in the saddle all the time, day and night, directing general movements in person. Grant is evidently embarrassing Lee.”

Meade knew that was balderdash, that despite Grant’s many merits he was seldom forward with the troops. But gradually Grant was becoming more and more involved in the details of the army’s movements. Meade did not know that officers in Grant’s retinue were urging the general-in-chief to take direct control, in order to save time and confusion in passing orders through another level of command— and to get around dealing with the grouchy Meade. Grant listened but refused to make the change, mainly because it would stir a political ruckus only six months before the critical 1864 presidential election. He said, “I will always see that [Meade] gets full credit for what he does.”

But he did not. Although Grant was in charge of the campaign, he did not determine what the War Department said about it. Charles A. Dana and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton did. Assistant Secretary Dana was the former managing editor of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. It was Dana, not Greeley, who had ordered the repeated headline of “Forward to Richmond!” that pushed President Lincoln and his generals into rash advances early in the war. Those advances met with some demoralizing defeats. When Dana and Greeley split over war policy, Dana was hired by Stanton, who assigned him to Grant’s headquarters. Nominally, Dana was there to oversee the army’s pay service, but he sent daily reports to Washington assessing Grant’s performance. At Grant’s side since before the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863, Dana became a sincere admirer.

Based on Dana’s reports, Stanton issued regular war communiqués in the form of telegrams to Maj. Gen. John A. Dix, commanding the Department of the East in New York. Atop those communiqués the newspapers frequently carried headlines trumpeting “Grant” and seldom mentioning Meade. Reading them day after day, Meade told his wife: “[T]he papers have counted me out entirely….I presume therefore we might as well make up our mind to this state of affairs.”

As Meade’s morale declined, so apparently did his enthusiasm. Just before the Battle of Cold Harbor, The New York Times arrived in camp with an editorial praising “the marvelous skill with which [Grant] has maneuvered the army.” In Grant, the writer saw “the flashing of genius and the triumphs of intellect.” Meade quickly wrote to his wife: “The papers are giving [him] all the credit of what they call success. I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong.”

At Cold Harbor something did go wrong. Convinced that Lee’s troops had to be exhausted and demoralized by the massive casualties suffered over the previous month, Grant ordered a head-on attack against the well-entrenched Confederates. Because of his overconfidence—and because of a lack of detailed orders throughout the chain of command, as well as uncertainty about the terrain and the Confederates’ intricately laid defenses—the result was a disaster. After the first onslaught was thrown back, Grant and Meade ordered their troops to resume the attack three more times, until at last the men were unable and unwilling to try. It would be the worst defeat in Grant’s illustrious career; he wrote later that it was the only attack he ever regretted ordering.

It cost the lives of several thousand Union soldiers, but Meade had gotten his wish. Although Grant, Dana and Stanton were slow and reluctant to admit what really had happened, history does place blame for Cold Harbor on the shoulders of the Union general-in-chief and not Meade.

In this instance, however, history is only half-right. The decision to launch that all-out attack was Ulysses Grant’s, but since his role was to make broad decisions and George Meade’s was to flesh them out in orders to the corps commanders, Meade failed as miserably as Grant.

The rest of Meade’s career suggests that he did not fail because he was an inferior general in terms of intelligence, experience or willingness to fight. His own words, and those of other officers on the scene, suggest that he failed because he allowed his disgust with how he was treated by Grant and the press to influence how he did his job.

Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, one of the army’s five corps commanders, wrote that two days after the battle he asked Meade how he could have given such orders at Cold Harbor. According to Smith, Meade answered that he “had worked out every plan for every move from the crossing of the Rapidan onward, and that the papers were full of the doings of Grant’s army, and that he was tired of it, and was determined to let General Grant plan his own battles.” In other words, Grant left the details to Meade, and Meade left the details to Grant.

None of this would have happened if Grant had not made the initial mistake of superimposing himself over Meade in the field, creating what Maj. Gen. John Gibbon called an “arrangement…condemned in all war-like operations, where one poor commander is declared to be better than two good ones.” As John Ropes, probably the most knowledgeable military analyst of the postwar years, explained, “It was for one of them to order what the other was to do, and as the other did only what the first had ordered, many things were ordered which could not be done, and many things were done which ought not have been ordered.”

A week after that battle, Meade was still grousing about Grant’s “want of delicacy of feeling & sensibility.” To his wife, the Army of the Potomac commander wrote that it seemed Grant was “not conscious that in all his dispatches of the operations of this army which he knows has been handled by me he has only once and then accidentally mentioned my name,” meaning future historians would hardly know that he had been present with the army.

The irony—indeed the tragedy—is that Meade believed all along that it was Grant who was sending those daily reports to Stanton that omitted his name. True, Grant could have done what he promised and made sure Meade got full credit in Dana’s dispatches, but for some reason he did not. Perhaps he was just too busy, or maybe he was as annoyed with Meade as Meade was with him. Perhaps he was even thinking ahead to the White House; Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War and his hero, was then fresh in the nation’s mind.

Not until June 11, eight days after the disaster at Cold Harbor and more than five weeks after the Overland Campaign began, did Meade find out how wrong he had been about Grant and the press. He told his wife that in conversation with Grant he had “accidentally” learned that Stanton’s communiqués were based on Dana’s reports. Grant informed him that he himself had never sent a dispatch to Stanton since crossing the Rapidan. “I was glad to hear this,” Meade wrote, “because it removed from my mind a prejudice I had imbibed, on the supposition that Mr. Stanton was quoting Grant, and arising from the fact that I have mentioned, that in all Mr. Stanton’s despatches from Grant’s headquarters my name was never alluded to; for which I had held Grant responsible, without cause.”

It was a remarkable letter. Even to his wife Meade would not admit that had he known this sooner, he would not have become “determined to let General Grant plan his own battles.” He might then have done his full duty by coordinating the Battle of Cold Harbor, thus giving Grant’s mistaken decision a better chance of success.

So the Army of the Potomac moved on, and the war dragged on for another 10 months. Because of the correspondents’ boycott organized as revenge for his humiliating Edward Crapsey, Meade’s name appeared in the papers even less than before.

Edward Crapsey also moved on. After the war ended he became a reporter in Manhattan and also wrote a book, The Nether Side of New York; or the Vice, Crime and Poverty of the Great Metropolis, acknowledged as one of the first great examples of investigative journalism. He never wrote a memoir to tell his side of the run-in with Meade. But then neither did the general, who died in 1872.

 

Veteran Washington, D.C., journalist Ernest P. Furgurson is the author of Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. For more information on his work, see “Resources,” P. 71.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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