Story of the Civil War Depended on What Paper You Read
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865, his murder didn’t make page one in any newspaper published in the region.
Instead, there was “a lot of local news, a lot of op-eds [on the front pages]. There was a farm story on one of them,” says Traci Manning, with more than a little amusement.
Manning is the curator of education at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. How and where regional newspapers played Lincoln’s assassination was part of a lecture she gave recently at the Tyler History Center about how local newspapers covered the Civil War.
“One of the big differences is that newspapers back then did not try to hide their political bias,” she said.
In the early 1860s, the Mahoning Valley was home to four newspapers, all published weekly.
“Most of the newspapers around here had Republican leanings at the time. Only one was a Democratic newspaper but it was called the Republican Sentinel,” she told her audience. “They never make it easy for us historians.”
To make things more confusing to readers – then and now – the papers frequently changed their names.
The Mahoning Register, based in Youngstown, began publication as the Mahoning Free Democrat in 1852, changed its name to the True American in 1855, and finally to The Register in 1859.
The Mahoning Herald, based in Canfield, changed its name to Mahoning Weekly Herald in 1863 and later that year to the Canfield Weekly Herald.
The Mahoning Sentinel, also based in Canfield, changed its name five times in 13 years.
Only the Western Reserve Chronicle, published from the 1840s to the 1920s, kept its name intact.
“What we see is these newspapers become the main source of news,” Manning said. Records from the Library of Congress show the nation had 28,528 newspapers that published between 1850 and 1870, although the accuracy of that number is questionable because papers constantly changed their names.
Upon Lincoln’s election in 1860, the Republican Sentinel ran an opinion that included:
“The election of Lincoln, and the troubles and distrust which it has brought on the country, are events which the people of Ohio, both as individuals and as a State, are likely to have cause to long remember.”
With Lincoln’s victory came rumblings of Southern secession, an issue on which the Mahoning Sentinel claimed to have no opinion, although it wanted no part of any war.
“We have no disposition to volunteer our bodies as targets for anyone to shoot at, especially to please a host of Republicans,” the editors wrote.
However, when war did break out and Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, many in the region didn’t share the Sentinel’s sentiments.
A story published in the Mahoning Herald May 2, 1861, reports on a “patriotic meeting held at the courthouse in Canfield.”
Those who attended, it reported, raised $15,234 – about $434,000 in today’s money – during the meeting to support the war effort.
In 1862, General Robert E. Lee began moving his Army of Northern Virginia north to threaten the Union states, and the number of casualties started to climb.
On Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, of which, the Mahoning Herald had this to say:
“No sooner had President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, a measure which above all others will quickly crush out rebellion, than every pro-slavery blockhead sent up a howl that rings in the ears of the nation, more fiendish and hell-like than is possible to describe.”
The following November, David Tod, a wealthy industrialist from Youngstown, was elected governor of Ohio as a Democrat.
Tod broke with his party by becoming a supporter of Lincoln and keeping the union intact.
He explained his reasoning during a speech printed later in the Western Reserve Chronicle.
“I spent my time to defeat Lincoln, I spent my money, and I nearly spent my life to defeat him. But no sooner did I hear the news from [Fort] Sumter, that the flag, then upheld by Lincoln had fallen, then I thought I was the most ardent supporter he had.”
Perhaps the biggest turning point in the war came in early July 1863 with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Ulysses Grant, and the defeat of Lee’s army at Gettysburg.
Of the news, the Western Reserve Chronicle wrote: “The sky grows brighter and the cause of the Republic is indeed encouraging.”
However, the Mahoning Weekly Register completely denied the news, running a story it credited to the Richmond (Virginia) Enquirer that stated: “The battle of Gettysburg was a complete rout of the Union forces.”
It went on to claim Lee had captured 40,000 prisoners and that Grant’s army had been “cut to pieces.”
The history society’s Manning pointed out that not only were those reports completely unfounded, but that “none of the article is true, because the Richmond Enquirer didn’t report any of that.”
Shortly after, a story in the Mahoning Herald on the dedication of the battlefield at Gettysburg, reported that Lincoln’s address “stirred the deepest fountains of feeling and emotion in the hearts of the vast throng before him, and when he concluded, scarcely could an un-tearful eye be seen.”
Lee surrendered at Appomattox April 9, 1865, all but bringing the war to a close. Less than a week later, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and escaped. Although the story was not carried on the front page, the Mahoning Herald reported:
“It devolved upon us, in common with millions in America and millions beyond the broad Atlantic, to mourn that our beloved Lincoln, the friend of the oppressed and the favorite of heaven, is now no more. Abraham Lincoln the great, the brave, the good, has bid adieu to scenes below. President Lincoln, who under Providence, has been the savior of this country, the guardian of her rights and the avenger of her wrongs, has paid the last debt of nature and is now enrolled among the sheeted dead.”
Pictured: Traci Manning holds a bound book that contains pages from Civil War-era newspapers.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.