currents

Sullivan County’s Civil War

Fought with newspapers, not guns

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 7/7/21

MONTICELLO, NY — Down South, Sullivan County fought the Civil War with guns and musket balls. Back home, it fought for public opinion with newspapers.

It’s easy to think of newsprint …

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currents

Sullivan County’s Civil War

Fought with newspapers, not guns

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — Down South, Sullivan County fought the Civil War with guns and musket balls. Back home, it fought for public opinion with newspapers.

It’s easy to think of newsprint propaganda as a relatively modern thing. But it’s probably as old as newspapers themselves, and if anything, matters were worse in the olden days.

“Most of the papers of the day had an agenda, and they didn’t try to hide it,” Conway said in a June talk at the Crawford Library in Monticello.

“It’s the perspective of what was going on with newspapers of the day,” he said in a separate interview. “Newspapers were pretty much it [for news] and they gave identity and a sense of place.”

There was one Union but a variety of people. A Democrat? You had a paper. A Republican? You had your own paper. Different flavors within a party? They had papers too. And why would you read a different paper when you had your own friendly one to read?

Thanks to the telegraph, newspapers were able to get information about the war quickly to the folks back home, according to a post from the McDonald Collection at Oregon State University. But they were also “the propaganda machines of the day.”

So, some news sources were more focused on mudslinging rather than on explaining what was going on. This means that 19th-century papers “are of questionable accuracy sometimes,” Conway said. “There was so much editorializing back then,” and it wasn’t always in the actual editorial.

Propaganda, meet the front page

Consider a story by John Mullally, editor of the New York City-based Metropolitan Record, which Conway quoted in his February 8, 2019 “Retrospect” column.

Mullally’s story ran at the top of the front page—just where you’d expect to find important breaking news. It outlined how Lincoln consulted the ghosts of famous American political figures on the outcome of the war. (The spirits castigated him for committing unconstitutional acts, and it ended with Lincoln being found guilty of violating the constitution.)

Newspapers in Sullivan County

There were many papers, of course (at least one paper for each political affiliation, after all), but in his talk and in the interview, Conway focused on the Watchman.

It may have been called the Republican Watchman, but it was a Democratic paper. Starting out as the Sullivan County Whig, it became the Watchman in 1828, Conway said. That was before there was a Republican party; the name referred to the Republic as a whole. The actual Republican paper was the Sullivan County Republican.

There was also the Jeffersonian Democrat, the Sullivan Whig, the Union Democrat (for the pro-Union Democrats) and probably many more.

A multi-sided conflict

For the most part, “the county was solidly behind the war,” Conway said. The 143rd Regiment (aka the “Sullivan County Regiment”) “was almost fully raised here.”

According to the New York State Military Museum, it fought under David DeWitt from 1862 to July 20, 1865. The regiment lost 221 men: 43 were either killed in action or died of their wounds later and 178 died of disease.

“Republicans almost to a man were behind Lincoln and the war. Democrats were fractured along the lines of the war,” he said. Those who wanted peace were called Copperheads. In Monticello, they were a “more vocal presence.”

Copperheads focused on a “strict construction” interpretation of the Constitution, meaning they concentrated on what they believed the founders intended. That included being pro-gold standard. Plus, “they didn’t feel that the federal government could prevent states from seceding,” Conway said. They took the arguments in the Constitution and twisted them into a different thing. And yes, that could include racism, either overt or subtle. “Within the Copperheads, there was a faction that became much more anti-abolition.”

Two of the Copperheads’ most prominent supporters here were James Eldridge Quinlan and Archibald C. Niven. “That gave them a lot of credibility,” Conway said.

Quinlan, of course, is famous for his “History of Sullivan County”; Niven was in the House from 1845-1847 and served as county district attorney.

“The build-up [of rivalries] predated the war,” Conway said, “but when Lincoln instituted the draft,” the Copperheads came out solidly against it, arguing that it wasn’t constitutional.

As all sides dug in, Quinlan’s Watchman ran the Mullally story on Lincoln’s ghostly trial as if it were news, right on the front page.

And it got worse. “There was much more vile stuff” written, Conway said. “It’s hard to believe today. We grew up thinking that Lincoln is like a deity.” But while the Copperheads made some legitimate points—there were reasonable concerns about the suspension of habeas corpus, for instance—“Lincoln spent a lot of time agonizing about whether he could do those things under the Constitution,” Conway said in the library talk.

It didn’t matter. Opponents seized on the president’s decisions, and newspapers printed baseless accusations and innuendo about him as news.

“He was hated,” said Conway. “We can’t really grasp how much he was hated.”

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