The Most Fearful Ordeal: Original Coverage of the Civil War

The Staff of the New York Times, Author, James M. McPherson, Introduction by St. Martin's Press $35 (420p) ISBN 978-0-312-33123-8
If journalism is the first draft of history, Civil War journalism is a very rough draft indeed. This anthology of New York Times articles from the era amply catalogues the profession's many shortcomings and its few strengths. Included are reports from most of the major battles and campaigns, along with coverage of war-related political and domestic events like the Emancipation Proclamation, the New York City draft riots and Lincoln's assassination, and commentary by historian McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom. The Times battle dispatches demonstrate the blinding effects both of the fog of war--the paper regularly inflated Confederate numbers by a factor of four and announced the death of Stonewall Jackson 10 months ahead of time--and of a fog of bias that rarely distinguished between facts and Union propaganda. Coverage of the disastrous Union defeat at Chancellorsville, for example, extols Northern generals'""brilliantly audacious"" leadership, celebrates an insignificant night skirmish as""the most grand and terrific thing of the war"" and spins the battle as""in our favor, but not decisive,"" while a dispatch from Gettysburg concludes with Christ summoning the Union dead to Paradise. More reflective are the pieces on slower-moving events off the battlefield, including a terse and moving narrative of John Brown's execution, mordant accounts of the death-bed vigil over Lincoln and the grim procession to view his body, and a trenchant obituary of Jefferson Davis analyzing the Confederate president as the embodiment of the South's failed society. Although such flashes of insight and perspective are rare, the collection as a whole illuminates the volatile, jingoistic climate of public opinion that the war engendered. 60 b&w photos, 6 maps.
Reviewed on: 06/01/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
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