Conference Archives

2005 Abstracts


Robert L. Spellman, “Perjury to Protect the First Lady:  Covering up a News Leak in Lincoln’s White House”

On December 3, 1861, the New York Herald published a stunning exclusive on a message of President Abraham Lincoln prior to its delivery to Congress. Seeking to politically damage Lincoln, radical Republicans in the House of Representatives launched an investigation to identify the source of the Herald  story. Henry Wikoff, author of the story was held in contempt of congress and jailed when he refused to disclose his source. What followed was a cover-up of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s indiscretion in being Wikoff’s source providing him access to the message. Brig. General Daniel Sickles masterminded a scheme in which John Watt, the White House gardener, gave perjured testimony that he was the source. Wikoff falsely confirmed Watt’s story. Probably with full knowledge of the cover up, congressmen accepted the story. Later, Watt was shipped off to a sinecure in Europe after he attempted to blackmail the White House.

Steven Cox, “Rebel With a Cause:  The Chattanooga Daily Rebel”

The Chattanooga Daily Rebel was a newspaper printed in Chattanooga and other parts of the South during the Civil War.  It was created by Francis M. Paul, a North Carolinian who was working at the time as the Principle Clerk in the Thirty-third General Assembly of Tennessee.  He came to Chattanooga initially to store the state archives there, keeping them safe from Union troops in Memphis.  “Franc” Paul began printing the Rebel in August of 1862 and shortly thereafter hired Henry Watterson as editor.  Watterson would go on to be a successful editor, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize while working for the Louisville Courier-Journal.  Using a string of wartime correspondents, the Rebel printed news of Civil War events, and also included editorials written by Paul and Watterson.  Humorists also contributed to the paper, making northerners and Union politicians and officers the brunt of their sarcasm.  The paper was openly critical of Confederate General Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, and this resulted in a rocky relationship between the General, the editors, and the newspaper.  Nevertheless, the paper was popular reading by Confederate troops.  After Chattanooga fell to Union troops the Rebel relocated to Georgia, and later, Selma, Alabama, where its printing press was captured and destroyed, marking the end of the paper. The Rebel advanced the careers of Paul and Watterson, who were young journalists at the time and who would go on to become prominent Southern journalists.

Wallace E. Eberhard, “Old Soldiers Never Forget:  Brice’s Cross Roads, Andersonville and Gessner’s Campaign to Unseat General Sturgis”

In early June 1864 a Union Army expedition of 8,000 set out from Memphis to find and destroy the Cavalry forces of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest somewhere in North West Mississippi. Led by an experienced Union officer, Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis, the force marched through stifling summer heat until they clashed with Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads south of Tupelo.

Sturgis force was outmaneuvered and Mauled by Forrest, Sturgis seemed unable to come up with an effective defense plan or counterattack. Some witnesses said he was drunk; at a minimum he was unable to cope with the rapidly shifting battlefield. A retreat became a rout with more than two thousand federal troops killed, wounded or captured. An estimated 1,400 were marched off to prison camps, most of them to the infamous Andersonville, where more died before they were repatriated. Union Soldiers never forgot that day, and continued to blame Sturgis for a disgraceful defeat that left them prisoners while he escaped safely to Memphis.

When Sturgis was appointed governor of the Soldier's Home in Washington in 1881, they were outraged. One of the survivors, now Dr. Gustavus Gessner back home in Fremont, Ohio, began to organize an effort to unseat in from the post as unfit to care for soldiers he had – in their opinion – abandoned in dishonhorable defeat.

This paper reviews the multi-faceted campaign organized by Gessner including letter writing, publicity in newspapers across the Midwest and a petition drive to Congress. It also looks at the underlying reasons for their lingering distrust of Sturgis and the use of the media of the day.

Mary Lamonica, “Dear Swinton:  New York Times Correspondents’ Confidential Letters from the Front Lines, 1863-1865”

Although the history of American Civil War correspondents is a well-trod field of study, one source of information-private letters that reporters sent to editors-has rarely been used by scholars seeking to provide a more complete picture of the actions of the journalist. The letters also are historically significant because they reveal something unique: correspondents views of the war and their concerns during actual time of warfare. By contrast most of of our scholarship on U.S. Civil War reporters is based in part on memoirs and articles penned after a conflict. The letters, therefore, add to public knowledge about the conflict by providing a personal detailed look at how two correspondents for a news paper of growing prominence at the time carried out their reporting duties during the final year of warfare.

The letters which accompanied their newspaper reports, were not meant for publication. Instead, they served primarily for intelligence for Editor John Swinton- to let him know what was transpiring in the field, as well as what military maneuvers might be occurring in the coming days and weeks. They also afforded the reporters themselves the chance to air their own personal concerns, including pay, supplies, overwork and competition.

The personal nature of the correspondence offers a chance to gain a greater understanding of the motives and actions of two of the war’s reporters, particularly in light of the changing nature of both news and editors’ and the public’s expectations of reporters, rather than inferring motives and actions form the correspondents’ actual news accounts of their later memoirs.

Paul Ashdown, “’From Almost as Early as I can Remember’:  James Agee and the Civil War”

James Agee (1909-1955) won the Pulitzer Prize for his posthumously published autobiographical novel Death in the Family. Collections of Agee’s poetry, short prose and film reviews were published in 1960, and Lets Now Praise Famous Men, an extraordinary work of documentary journalism first published in 1931, was reissued to great acclaim. Born in Knoxville in 1909, Agee had a life-long interest in the Civil war, but he differed from other Southern writers like Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and the Nashville Agrarians in his embrace of  modernism. Agee interpreted the Civil War as a relative truth, what he called “pure imaginative fact” which he primarily found in the photographs of Mathew Brady and the cinema of D.W. Griffith. While Agee wrote obliquely about the Civil War in A Death of a Family and Let Us now Praise Famous Men, his clearest expression of what the war meant came in his unfilmed screenplays. Mr. Lincoln, a television film first broadcast serially on the CBS network’s “Omnibus” attracted an average audience of 10,750,000 viewers out of a potential U.S. audience of 35,000,000. In a segment broadcast at the conclusion of the series, Agee debated Columbia University history professor Allan Nevins who claimed Agee had “tampered with the Truth… He has taken a myth … and presented it to a great American audience as if it were verified truth: Agee admitted as much, but argued for relative truth in his poetic interpretation on Lincoln’s life.

Kimberly Walker, “Broken Shackles:  How Frederick Douglass Used the Freedoms of Press, Speech, and Religion in the Cause of Freedom for the African American Slave, 1847-1863”

Frederick Douglass was the preeminent African American spokesperson of the nineteenth century.  Douglass, a former slave, became one of the leading abolitionists of his time.  Even as a slave, he learned the power of the spoken and written word.  As editor of The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and Douglass’ Monthly, he advocated the legal and uncompromising end to slavery in America.  Though often a harsh critic of the American political system, ironically, the nature of that system afforded Douglass the opportunity to influence public attitudes regarding slavery.  Very astutely, he combined his journalistic prowess, Christian ethics, and powerful oratory to take advantage of the American freedoms of press, religion, and speech to ignite the abolitionist movement. 

Perhaps his greatest impact on the civil rights of black people in the nineteenth century is evidenced by his editorials featured not only in his three papers, but in other abolitionist publications and several northern dailies.  Through his editorials, Douglass reached wider audiences, particularly in the North and abroad, thus making him an effective change agent as well an ardent spokesman against slavery and racial oppression in America.   The focus of this treatise is to examine major editorials from those publications during the years of 1847-1863 to define Douglass’ role in the anti-slavery movement. 

Crompton Burton, “'Please Don’t Let Them Hurry Me':  General George B. McClellan and The New York Times

Under mounting political pressure and weary of delay in seizing the initiative against Confederate forces in the east, President Abraham Lincoln relieved General George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862. McClellan’s controversial dismissal and military career continue to spark lively debate among historians and biographers. While much ground has already been covered in documenting his meteoric rise to command and precipitous freefall to retirement just fifteen months later, valuable new perspectives on his leadership, his grasp of the complex dynamics involved in prosecuting a war on behalf of a democracy and missed opportunities to consolidate support against his political opponents are revealed through study of his relationship with the press.

Previous study of McClellan and the newspaper has been largely confined to the limited use of citations to buttress observations of the ebb and flow of public opinion and political intrigue during his tenure of command. In short, while we know something of his treatment in the press, we know less of his treatment of the press. By exploring how McClellan sought to influence or manipulate particular journals of the day to his personal and professional  advantage and by focusing upon the remarkable staying power of support from arch-Republican Henry J. Raymond and The New York Times, it is possible to learn more of the complicated times in which the general found himself struggling to meet challenges never before encountered by an American military commander. Perhaps more important, it is also possible to gain greater understanding of his significant limitations in meeting these unique circumstances and, just as on the battlefield, his inability to identify opportunity when presented to him.