Of Submarines and Censorship
One of the common criticisms of the Lincoln administration during the Civil War is its efforts against members of the press and publishers who, in its view, were actively working to undermine the Union war effort. It helps to keep in mind, though, that pursuit and intimidation of the press by government or military authorities was nothing new in the 1860s, nor was was it confined to the perfidious Yankees. The conflict between the press, and those in authority, goes back as far as notions of the press being an independent of government, and of government needing support of the public — thus the incentive to try and exert control over the press. Those in authority will always seek to influence how they’re projected in the media, and sometimes this takes the form of raw intimidation.
I was reminded of this in re-reading Tom Chaffin’s 2008 book, The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy. Chaffin picks up this thread in mid-October 1863, after the submarine sank for the second time in training, on this occasion taking her entire crew (including her namesake, Horace L. Hunley) to the bottom of the Cooper River, in front of scores of onlookers both afloat and on shore:
This latest submarine boat disaster was hardly a secret in and around Charleston. But the city’s two major newspapers, acting with the same self-censorship they had exercised after the boat’s initial sinking, avoided any immediate mention of the Hunley. By now, local editors were well aware of the sort of published revelations that were likely to win them a reprimand from local military officials. Indeed, on October 18, three days after the Hunley’s second sinking, the Augusta (Georgia) Daily Constitutionalist published a revealing and disparaging story, by a correspondent identified only as “W,” on torpedo and submarine boats. The story implicitly referred to the Hunley’s recent mishap. “These crafts,” W concluded, “have been more injurious to our people than to the enemy, and thus far have proved to be a humbug.” The following day, Beauregard–exercising the sort of “boldness,” so admired by General Grant, by which the Confederate military “silenced all opposition and all croaking”-ordered his chief of staff, [Brigadier General Thomas] Jordan, to write a letter to the Constitutionalist’s editor. Jordan’s missive complained about the offending story’s comments on the “Submarine Torpedo Boat,” as well as its references to new changes in the armaments at Fort Sumter. Such information, Jordan wrote, “is surely of benefit to the enemy, and it has been particularly the wish of the Commanding General that this matter be kept from their knowledge.” Jordan then came to the intent of his letter-brute press intimidation. “In view of these facts, he [Beauregard] trusts that you will have no objection to furnish him with the name of your correspondent ‘W’ and at the same time, he must request that you will in [the] future abstain from publishing any thing [sic] the knowledge of which would possibly be of the least service to the enemy.”
Whether it’s 1863 or 2013, a free press is always the bane of those in power. Always.
____________Image: The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, by Conrad Wise Chapman. Via the Museum of the Confederacy.