The Civil War in the New York Times

The New York Times Complete Civil War, 1861-1865
Edited by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing, 2010, $40

It is no stretch to say the New York Times was the nation’s most powerful newspaper during the Civil War. The paper’s youthful founder and editor, Henry Jarvis Raymond, had inroads not only to the White House and members of Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet but also to power brokers on Capi­tol Hill and in New York’s state government in Albany—a level of access that would seem unfathomable to today’s journalists. Consequently, the Times did more than just report the war’s battles and events for its legions of readers. Behind Ray­mond, it played the un­abash­ed role of cheerleader for Lincoln and the war effort, and did its best to boost the morale of a Northern populace wearied by endless reports of battlefield losses, incompetent generals and abominable casualty counts.

Thanks to this wonderful new book by historians Harold Holzer and Craig Symonds, modern readers can experience the nation’s seminal conflict much as the paper’s readers did at the time. Holzer and Symonds are perfect stewards for this ambitious endeavor, providing an utterly fresh view of the war through the lens of one of its signature contributors while also paying homage to what may have been the nation’s golden age of journalism.

The book reprints chronologically more than 600 articles and editorials that appeared on the pages of the Times before, during and after the war—everything from John Brown’s hanging and Preston Brooks’ “cowardly assault” on Senator Charles Sumner to Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession and the troubling era of Reconstruction.

“The first challenge we faced,” the editors write in their introduction, “was selecting from among a truly breathtaking archive…those [stories] that most accurately revealed the course of events and the shift in attitudes provoked by those events. In the end, we chose some 650 articles, editing some of the longer ones down to their central argument. The surgery necessary to do this was painful, but we are convinced that what remains represents the central essence of The Times’s reporting of the Civil War.”

For those daunted by the prospect of reading articles originally printed on the narrow-columned broadsheets of the era, not to worry. Holzer and Symonds have arranged the material in a more appealing modern format, adding appropriate drawings and photos as well as insightful editorial commentary where needed. And in case the articles printed in the book aren’t enough, the editors have included on a searchable companion DVD all “104,960 eyewitness accounts and articles” published by the Times during the period.

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