Friday, July 10, 2015

July 10, 1861 - Civil war censorship

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South will be published July 21. As it happens, that is also the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or, if you will, First Manassas. While Consul Bunch in Charleston began laying the groundwork for secret talks with the Confederate government
(which he loathed), his friend William Howard Russell, the great war correspondent for the
Times of London, was in Washington D.C. examining preparations for the battle everyone knew would be coming soon in northern Virginia. 

Here, in an excerpt from Russell's My Diary North and South, is his take on censorship imposed by the commander of Union forces in the name of what's known today as "national security." Russell says his fellow reporters claim they will obey, but won't, and the government will not keep its promises either. Russell argues that a free country has to give the press free rein.

July 10. ... The Government have been coerced, as they say, by the safety of the Republic, to destroy the liberty of the press, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and this is not the first instance in which the Constitution of the United States will be made nominis umbra [a shadow of its reputation]. The telegraph, according to General Scott's order, confirmed by the Minister of War, Simon Cameron, is to convey no dispatches respecting military movements not permitted by the General ; and to-day the newspaper correspondents have agreed to yield obedience to the order, reserving to themselves a certain freedom of detail in writing their despatches, and relying on the Government to publish the official accounts of all battles very speedily. They will break this agreement if they can, and the Government will not observe their part of the bargain. The freedom of the press, as I take it, does not include the right to publish news hostile to the cause of the country in which it is published ; neither can it involve any obligation on the part of Government to publish despatches which may be injurious to the party they represent. There is a wide distinction between the publication of news which is known to the enemy as soon as to the friends of the transmitters, and the utmost freedom of expression concerning the acts of the Government or the conduct of past events ; but it will be difficult to establish any rule to limit or extend the boundaries to which discussion can go without mischief, and in effect the only solution of the difficulty in a free country seems to be to grant the press free license, in consideration of the enormous aid it affords in warning the people of their danger, in animating them with the news of their successes, and in sustaining the Government.

Engraving of William Howard Russell from "Harper's Weekly" courtesy The American Library in Paris

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