New-York Tribune

Covering Wars Before Before the Advent of “Fake News” and the 24-Hour News Cycle

In an era of “fake news” and 24-hour news cycles, it’s worth a look back at how the press covered things back in the days of the Pony Express, snail mail and telegraph—without television, radio, the Internet. 

One good way to do that is to examine coverage of the Civil War through a set of dozens of yellowed and fragile copies of Horace Greeley’s Weekly and Semi-Weekly New-York Tribune residing in the Municipal Library. Those editions condensed the decidedly pro-Union Daily Tribune and were mailed to tens of thousands of readers from Maine to California starting at $2 a year and eventually going up to $4 annually.

The January 9, 1863 edition of the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune.

Not surprisingly, war news dominated most editions—which were generally eight pages. But there was local news from New York on education issues, a Queens County Fair, a fire in Buffalo, the latest Cattle Market prices, advertisements for such things as Holloway’s ointment—“for sabre cuts, gunshot wounds and all other wounds”—and, in late 1862, ads for “cheap editions” of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” at $1.50 for five cloth-bound volumes.

The Library’s collection picks up in September 1862, just before the major battles at Antietam/Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg. Many of the dispatches are from “staff correspondents,” but there also are stories from newspapers in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, written in the somewhat formal or stilted language of the time, which include references we would find racist today. Several issues contain large maps of troop movements and battles.

The September 13, 1862 edition reported: “We continue to extract the pith of rumors and opinions concerning the position, conduct and prospects of the Rebel army” in Maryland, and added, “Our Washington dispatches say that a fight is expected at Frederick (Md.) where the Rebel main body is thought to be.” It went on to quote “two men from Frederick” who say, “There are but few Rebel troops there … the Rebels are in a state of great destitution; many of them are shoeless and are only kept in the ranks at the point of a bayonet.”

Another dispatch quoted Union soldiers as saying they believed “an immediate attack on Harper’s Ferry was intended. Some of the soldiers (said) they reckoned there were about 12,000 Union troops at the Ferry with at least 2,500 negroes worth a million dollars.”

The December 16, 1862 edition of the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune included a map of “the new state of West Virginia,” which would not officially become part of the Union until June 20, 1863.

The September 19 edition included a dispatch on a “fierce and desperate battle at Antietam “between 200,000 men (that) has raged since daylight …it’s the greatest fight since Waterloo.” The correspondent breathlessly added: “If not wholly a victory tonight, I believe it’s a prelude to a victory tomorrow.”

The prediction proved to be true, as the Union Army, led by Maj. Gen. George McClellan routed the Rebels in one of the fiercest battles of the Civil War in which 22,717 men were killed, wounded or reported missing. The paper called it a “brilliant victory,” and added: “All agree that no battle, since the rebellion broke out, has engaged more men or been fought with more desperation … Our (Union) soldiers behaved like heroes.” The dispatch also noted, in a back-handed way, the dedication and resolve of the Confederate Army: “It is not for love, much as they profess it … it is for hate, in part, of the d—mned Yankees.”

Several days after Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation – to take effect Jan. 1, 1863—freeing 3.1 million enslaved people. The September 26 edition included a dispatch filed two days earlier on a massive celebration in Washington, D.C.

“The serenade in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation tonight called out a large and enthusiastic throng,” the Tribune reported. “Nobody expected a long speech from the President, so nobody was disappointed with the brevity of his remarks … He had issued the proclamation with a full knowledge of what he was doing and would stand by it.”

The January 9, 1863 edition of the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune had a large front page map of the battlefields in Kentucky and Tennessee that the paper called “by far the most accurate and complete of any yet published.”

In non-war news, the September 23 issue also wrote of “Our Indian difficulties.” The dispatch reported on a letter from Dakota Sioux Chief Little Crow to Gen. Harry Hopkins Silbey “in which he wants to know in what way can he make peace” to end the fighting in the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in the Minnesota River Valley in which Sioux warriors raided settler villages. But the war went on a little while longer. Afterward, 38 Dakota tribe members were hanged the day after Christmas 1862.

On October 31, 1862, the Tribune reported on the Union Army’s failure to capture control of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, a key Confederate pipeline. “It is now known that the late expedition up Broad River to break up the Charleston and Savannah Railroad was not a success. In plain words, the Union forces were defeated … We cannot judge, at this moment, of the nature of the affair, but it does seem strange that so apparently simple a matter of the obstruction of this road is so long delayed.”

The newspapers of November of that year detailed the push toward the Great Battle of Fredericksburg, which would result in one of the costliest Union defeats of the war. On November 7, the Tribune reported that, “dispatches from General McClellan’s headquarters say that the advance of the Army of the Potomac up the Valley on the left side of the Blue Ridge, is being pushed forward with all dispatch. Gen. Pleasanton occupied Upperville Monday afternoon after a spirited engagement with the enemy lasting four hours.”

On November 28, the paper reported that there was “no fighting yet at Fredericksburg. The Rebels are bringing up their entire army evidently to contest the passage of the river by (Gen. Ambrose) Burnside. The dispatch laments that the Union army was not being aggressive enough. “Our army seems to be waiting until the whole force of the Rebels shall arrive to get into line of battle.”

The December 16, 1862 edition of the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune reported on the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The December 12 edition reported that preparations for the Great Battle had begun. “A large portion of the city (was) destroyed.” But the news quickly turned grim for the Union army. A December 14 dispatch reported the ominous news in a large headline and 11-deck sub-headline: 


The story, which took up four full columns, reported: During last night and this afternoon the Rebels have considerably extended their works and strengthened their position. Large bodies of troops are now to be seen where, but few were to be found yesterday.” In total, 12,700 Union soldiers were killed, compared to 5,300 Confederate casualties.

Several weeks later, the Tribune reported a “great and glorious” Union victory at Murfreesboro, Tenn. “The Rebels ran away in the night... their Army utterly demoralized.”

“The Draft Riots of New York, July 1863,” from The Diary of George Templeton Strong, NYC Municipal Library.

“The Draft Riots of New York, July 1863,” from The Diary of George Templeton Strong, NYC Municipal Library.

The Library’s collection of these papers has a gap between January 27, 1863 and August 30, 1864, which encompassed the Draft Riots in New York City. The Civil War in New York City, by Ernest A. McKay tells of the riots, which erupted from July 11–16, 1863 when white mobs opposed to the draft rioted, pillaged, hanged at least one black man, and trashed Tribune offices. “Windows were broken at Tribune offices and some furniture was destroyed.” McKay then recounted the “disgraceful burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum” on Fifth Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets. “A wild horde, mainly of Irish,” ransacked the building. “Hundreds of rioters ran through the four-story building stealing anything in sight.” 

“The Draft Riots of New York, July 1863,” from The Diary of George Templeton Strong, NYC Municipal Library.

That gap also included the Battle of Gettysburg. However, the Daily Tribune in early July 1863 told the tale which, presumably was in the semi-weekly editions. On July 3, 1863, the Daily Tribune recounted the “severe battle near Gettysburg … the battle opened yesterday morning by severe skirmishing … the fight continued throughout the day with variable results.” On July 7, the daily paper heralded “The great victory … Our whole army in motion from Frederick, Md. A courier from Gettysburg to-day reports that Gen (George Gordon) Meade’s army this morning advanced 6 miles beyond the battlefield.” More than 50,000 men were killed in the three-day battle, the largest number of the entire war and a key turning point of the Civil War.

The Library’s collection picks up in late 1864, after the Battle of Atlanta and leads up to the Battle of Nashville, which was fought in late December 1864. Proclaiming a “great victory,” the Tribune’s December 23 edition reported the Rebel army was in “full retreat” after the Union side attacked the Rebels’ rear guard, capturing large numbers of prisoners.

“The 4th Corps crossed the Harpeth River at Franklin on Sunday morning. (Gen. George) Thomas is pursuing the enemy to Duck River. We have nearly all (Gen. John Bell) Hood’s artillery and his army is really fully demoralized.” The December 27 issue elaborates: The Rebels’ retreat from Franklin to Duck River beggars all description. Hood told his corps commander to get off the best way they could.”

The March 24, 1865 edition previewed the expected “great combined attack in Mobile” (the Mobile Campaign), which would be fought from March 25 to April 12, and resulted in a Union victory. It was the last great Civil War battle. The collection ends just before General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA, on April 9, 1865.

The New York Herald, which ultimately would merge with the Tribune summed up the surrender this way in large, bold-faced headline: “THE END.”