The Midwestern Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War

by Debra Reddin van Tuyll (Volume editor) Mary M. Cronin (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 306 Pages
Series: Mediating American History, Volume 21


The Midwestern press is probably the best example of the "typical" American press of the Civil War era. Its denizens were not the huge metropolitan dailies of New York and Philadelphia, nor were they the struggling weeklies of the western territories. They did not feel the hard hand of war as the Southern press did in its struggles to obtain enough paper and ink to continue printing. Instead, Midwestern publishers and editors mostly continued on, business as usual, with some disruptions as staff members joined up to fight the war for the Union, or were drafted.
Democratic newspapers experienced the most war-related trauma as neither political nor military leaders understood the concept of the loyal opposition and sought to shut down non-Republican newspapers or those that supported peace efforts.
Debra Reddin van Tuyll and Mary M. Cronin explore the history of the Midwestern press as it examines the political, social, and economic roles of the press. This work will be useful as a supplemental text in undergraduate or graduate journalism history classes and can be used in history classes that deal with the Civil War or the nineteenth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Debra Reddin van Tuyll and Mary M. Cronin)
  • 1. The Midwestern Community of Newspapers (Debra Reddin van Tuyll)
  • 2. “Reports Deemed Reliable”: Newsgathering, Distribution, and Audiences (Mary M. Cronin)
  • 3. Worthy of the City and Age in Which We Live: Roles and Functions of the Midwestern Civil War Press (Katrina J. Quinn)
  • 4. Politics, Partisanship, and the Midwestern Press (Michael Fuhlhage)
  • 5. Lincoln Rising: Press Coverage of a Political Dark Horse (David W. Bulla)
  • 6. Loyalty, Dissent, and Press Freedom in the Midwestern Press (David W. Bulla)
  • 7. Covering the War: The Midwestern Press During the Civil War (James M. Scythes)
  • 8. Viewing the American Civil War’s Home Front Through Midwestern Eyes (Simon Vodrey)
  • 9. “How Shall the History of the Recent War Be Written?”: The End of the War in the Midwestern Newspapers (Melita M. Garza)
  • Epilogue (Debra Reddin van Tuyll and Mary M. Cronin)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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By Debra Reddin van Tuyll and Mary M. Cronin

In the pre-dawn hours of April 12, 1861, South Carolinians under the command of Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard began unlimbering artillery to use against Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Although an anxious public had worried that warfare might be inevitable following President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, news of the attack was electrifying. The response to the crisis was not just national; it was regional and local, as well. Efforts to raise the men, money, and equipment needed for war did not fall exclusively on leaders in Washington, D.C., or those in the pro-abolitionist Northeastern states. As William C. Davis has stated, “the Civil War was a midwestern war, too.”1

Motivated in part by patriotism and a desire to preserve the Union, politicians, religious figures, and journalists encouraged men to go to war and helped mobilize the raw recruits. Most Midwesterners, including the region’s newsmen, believed wholeheartedly in the preservation of the Union. But, as Thomas R. Baker, in his study of Iowa during wartime, explains, “unionism . . . represented something much more complex than simple patriotism.” Iowans, he states, recognized that the United States was the world’s only successful democracy. And a strong Union “represented progress to Iowans”—and to other citizens in the United States. Secession, therefore, was more than a political challenge; it was a direct assault on that progress.2

Minnesota’s Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was in Washington, D.C. in April 1861, was the first Union governor to offer soldiers to the Lincoln administration following the attack on Fort Sumter. His patriotic gesture occurred a day before the president’s April 15 call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months to put down the rebellion. And Midwestern newspapers—even many Democratic ones, including the Detroit Free Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer—supported that call because it was guided ←1 | 2→by the goal of preserving the nation.3 The Weekly Ottumwa Courier (Iowa) echoed common sentiment in its April 24 editorial:

From the pine forests on the Penobscott, to the far off turbid waters of the Missouri, but one voice is heard, but one purpose expressed, and that is, to defend, to sustaid [sic], by men, by money, the Union of the States. In less than one short week, from the bosom of peaceful communities, has sprung an army of 75,000 men, armed, equiptted [sic] and marshalled for the fray, with a reserve of half a million or more ready to follow when the call of duty shall summon more to the field.4

“The Republic will be preserved,” the writer declared.

Throughout the years of conflict, Midwesterners, including individuals in the border state of Missouri, contributed hundreds of thousands of men—willing volunteers and more reticent conscripts alike—to the war for the Union. Some of those men viewed the war as an “exciting interruption” in their lives, while others cited the preservation of the Union, patriotism, masculinity, Christianity, and, in some cases, money, as reasons for going off to war.5 The region’s soldiers—both hardy frontiersmen and urban tradesmen and professionals—were engaged in combat from the war’s first major battle at Bull Run until its cessation. But those Midwesterners paid a tremendous price. For example, of the 80,000 Wisconsinites who marched off to battle, 11,000 would not return, felled by disease and warfare. Similarly, of 90,000 Michiganders who enlisted (50% of the state’s military-aged population), 15,000 would never see home again.6 Individual battles also caused unthinkable losses. Approximately 2,400 Iowans were killed, wounded, or captured at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), while only 47 of 262 members of the First Minnesota were still standing following the fighting on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg.7

Being pro-Union, however, did not mean that all who fought, or all who covered the fighting, were either anti-Southern or anti-slavery. Many in the Union, particularly those in the southern regions of the Midwestern border states, were reluctant to see slavery end and certainly did not want competition for jobs from Black workers. A healthy number of Midwesterners and Midwestern newspapers were supportive of Southern rights and wanted to see slavery continue to be protected legally.

Midwestern home front efforts were equally important in bringing about an eventual Union victory. Three weeks after the war’s first shots were fired, the Chicago-based Prairie Farmer called on farmers to “Plant! Plant!” in support of the war effort. They did so. Midwestern farmers grew the grain and raised the hogs and cattle that fed Union soldiers, while the region’s horse breeders helped keep the Army moving by providing more than 150,000 ←2 | 3→horses and mules to the military. Sturdy miners toiling in iron and copper mines in northern Michigan helped hew necessary raw materials for warfare, while Midwestern women sewed uniforms, gathered material for the soldiers, participated in sanitary fairs, kept the farms running, and nursed sick and wounded soldiers.8

Before, during, and after the war, newspapers played a central role in the ongoing public debates about the nation’s future direction. Once war appeared inevitable, press members vigorously editorialized on the necessity of conflict by framing arguments for and against the war and, later, encouraged home front activities. This book examines the roles that nearly 1,000 newspapers and 1,800 editors, publishers, and other newsmen (and women) played in serving the information needs of Midwestern readers during the American Civil War. The volume addresses press coverage of the fighting, but it goes beyond that to explore the news industry itself during the years of Civil War. The book’s authors explore newsgathering, distribution, and readership issues; the role that a still highly partisan press played in rallying readers to the cause of the Union or of the Confederacy (including encouraging material support for the troops); the role and purpose of the mid-nineteenth century press; press coverage of the fighting; the often-dangerous partisan environment that led to legal and extra-legal restrictions on the press; and coverage of home front issues.

Although most of the fighting occurred in the Southern states, non-combatant civilians did not remain untouched by the war. The region’s newspapers reported on guerilla raids that occurred in border regions, urban race riots that exposed white residents’ diverse and divisive views about African Americans, and frontier settlers’ concerns about attacks by Native peoples on whose ancestral lands they were now farming. But Midwestern newspapers also encouraged agricultural education and industrial development in a region that was largely agrarian, expounding on business issues, and providing literary matter in a region where books were few.

The volume also includes a discussion of journalist characteristics and personalities because those editors and their news preferences helped shape news coverage. While the book’s chapters collectively demonstrate the importance of the press during wartime, the volume’s authors reveal that the Midwestern press and its citizens, like those in other sections of the North and South, were not monolithic in their thinking. The region’s non-native citizens were a mixed lot, hailing from the North, the South, the border states, and numerous foreign countries, including Germany and Ireland. Their religious, cultural, and social values impacted their world view, which, outside of the region’s few cities, often centered on immediate community concerns. ←3 | 4→But, as Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson have argued, national Antebellum events, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, forced national concerns upon that local mindset and resulted in much of the growing political and ideological turmoil being “played out within the region and fired its people with a powerful sense of being actors in this important drama.” As a result, Aley and Anderson state, the region’s residents often had first-hand experience with the issues, policies, and personalities that ultimately led to open warfare.9

This work follows—and is guided by—the model of co-editor Debra Reddin van Tuyll’s earlier study of the structural-functional role of the Southern press during the Civil War. Like that work, the present volume is grounded in the idea that journalism is intimately tied to the social, political, cultural, and economic functions of society and, thus, serves as a forum for discussing issues related to those functions, including the U.S. Civil War. Journalism is a product of its time and place, but it also influences its time and place. Furthermore, as the legendary journalism historian James W. Carey argued, the history of journalism [includes] the history of reporting. Carey states that the history of journalism IS the history of reporting. Every function of a newspaper works to support its core function: reporting the news.10

The volume is also informed by David Paul Nord’s concept of the community of journalism. Nord argues that “communities are built, maintained, and wrecked in communication” such as that which newspapers provide. Newspapers, especially those from the nineteenth century, Nord explains, served as public forums that allowed Americans to find their identities, build camaraderie, and convey community values. While Nord agrees that more static forms of communication—including religion, ritual, or habit—have contributed to building American communities, the true “vortex” of community building has occurred in “formal, public, printed communication, including journalism.” Newspapers also provide tools that readers can use to build communities—advertising, opinions on public issues, and partisanship.11

This work, therefore, is grounded in the idea that culture and communication are the building blocks of communities. Those were the building blocks, we argue, that Midwestern newspapers provided for the construction of the region during the U.S. Civil War. Print culture in Antebellum America was robust. That alone gave it the power to build communities. Americans were reading about the same events and issues across the nation, perhaps with a different regional take or spin, but perhaps verbatim in the form of a reprint from another newspaper. Antebellum Americans were newspaper readers extraordinaire. They craved information, and they craved a public forum ←4 | 5→where they could read about and discuss the multitudinous issues of the day. Those debates were not the civilized political discourse of the twenty-first century but were raucous and raw, instead.12

The present volume begins with an examination of the news industry and its editors on the eve of the conflict. It also explores how news coverage both helped build communities and contributed to the growth of nationalism; however, before proceeding, some information concerning how economic, political, social, and legal factors affected newsgathering in the early 1860s is necessary for an understanding of the material in the chapters which follow.

Warfare and the Challenges of Newsgathering and Reporting

War news became a prized commodity among Midwesterners in part because so many of the region’s men marched off to battle. Information about the war’s first salvo at Fort Sumter spread quickly via the telegraph to distant locales. Midwestern editors in several urban centers, including Chicago, Cincinnati, and Madison, Wisconsin, ran details of the bombardment in their April 13 issues.13 The speed at which these metropolitan editors were able to inform their readers that the war had begun suggests, at first glance, that press members in the region’s growing cities were relatively well positioned to cover the conflict. Several decades of Euro-American settlement in the Midwest had produced thriving agricultural and industrial communities replete with the literate public and growing merchant class that editors needed for their publications to prosper. Continued emigration during the conflict provided editors with an ever-growing readership.14 The communication and transportation infrastructure necessary for newsgathering and distribution also was in place in much of the region. Thousands of miles of intra- and interregional railroads, canals, and post roads had been established by 1861, steamships and riverboats plied Midwestern rivers and the Great Lakes, and the telegraph had been in operation since the late 1840s.15

But initial appearances can be deceiving. External factors, including financial burdens and labor constraints, impeded Midwestern newsgathering during the years of the Civil War. Both the Panic of 1857 and a second financial downturn in 1861 hit the upper Midwest and its editors particularly hard. Prices rose faster than wages and many banks failed. The onset of hostilities delivered another financial blow when the upper portion of the Mississippi River was closed to trade in August 1861. The closure reduced the flow of information arriving from the South, as well.16 The 1861 crisis led many publishers to trim their costs by reducing the size of their publications at a time ←5 | 6→when demand for news was immense. Other newspaper owners, especially in smaller communities, were forced to merge or suspend publication.17

Partisan politics also contributed to the financial hard times that the press was experiencing. Both Democratic–and Republican–leaning newspapers flourished before the war, appealing to the region’s mixed group of settlers who hailed from the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southern states, and numerous foreign countries.18 The war’s onset produced a wave of patriotism that impacted many long-standing Democratic newspapers, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Those journals’ circulations declined as their editorial opposition to President Abraham Lincoln and the war grew more strident. Even small towns with substantial Democratic populations saw their newspapers impacted. Local Democratic leaders in Carthage, Illinois, forced editor G. M. Childs of the Carthage Republican to resign in 1861. Despite its name, the newspaper was an outspoken Democratic sheet, but Childs’s diatribes against the war and the president were too much for his own party, whose leaders worried about the political ramifications of that rhetoric.19

Union military suppression of the press—the subject of a chapter in this book—silenced many Democratic newspapers throughout the Midwest, as well as Confederate-supporting newspapers in the border state of Missouri. Pro-secession journals in St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, as well as publications in such small communities as Warrensburg, Osceola, Oregon, Washington, and Platte City, were silenced in Missouri. Union military officials, including General Milo Hascall, engaged in what historians have called “a systematic assault on opposition voices” to silence or control anti-administration speech in the North.20

In a region where competitive newsgathering had been the norm in urban areas since the 1840s, financial considerations at the start of the conflict led many editors to temper their desires to fill their publications with the most-timely information possible. Telegraphic news was expensive, not every community was wired, and the information that was transmitted, including Associated Press news bulletins, usually appeared in the form of tightly written news briefs which, especially at the start of the war, contained little news of interest to Midwestern readers.21


VIII, 306
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
The Midwestern Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War Debra Reddin van Tuyll Mary M. Cronin American Civil War journalism newspapers journalists journalism history history
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. VIII, 306 pp., 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Debra Reddin van Tuyll (Volume editor) Mary M. Cronin (Volume editor)

Debra Reddin van Tuyll is Professor Emerita at Augusta University Press. She is the author of nine books, most of which deal with the Civil War-era press. Her co-edited work, Knights of the Quill: Confederate Correspondents and Their Civil War Reporting, was a finalist for the 2011 Tankard Award for the Best Book in Journalism, and she was the 2019 winner of the Kobre Award for lifetime achievement in journalism history. Mary M. Cronin is a Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University. She is the author of five other books, most of which examine nineteenth-century press issues.


Title: The Midwestern Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War