Today, most newspapers make a claim of impartiality, even if people reading them tend to get a feeling of political bias based on their editorials or how they cover stories.
During the Civil War, newspapers wore their political stances on their sleeves.
In 1860, 80 percent of the nation’s 28,000 or so newspapers were “small circulation, partisan journals that promoted the interests of a given political party” and were sustained by members of the party, Traci Henning, curator of education for the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, said at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Brookfield Historical Society.
“Some of these newspapers were so political that you could pick one up and have no question where they stood in politics,” she said.
Such open political stances make for fascinating reads, she said in a presentation on “Civil War Headlines.”
The Mahoning Valley had a couple dozen papers at this time. Some came and went faster than you could turn the pages of the previous edition. Others stuck around a while and still others lasted as long as their political cause was relevant. They frequently changed names, particularly when power switched from one political party to another.
The Mahoning Free Democrat was actually a Republican newspaper, Henning said. The Ohio Republican was a Democratic newspaper, but changed its name to the Mahoning Democrat after Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president.
The Anti-Slavery Bugle was an abolitionist paper that ceased operations with the onset of the Civil War. It was anti-war, but considered armed conflict inevitable. The Mahoning Sentinel was pro-Union, but anti-war.
Before the war, there was “a bit” of coverage of the growing rift between north and south and slavery, but mostly in abolitionist journals, Henning said.
News of the attack on Fort Sumter, the first battle of the Civil War, “didn’t seem very shocking,” Henning said. “They reported this very matter-of-factly.”
Most stories immediately following the onset of hostilities dealt with the raising of troops for the army, and of funds to support their families. Many newspapers reprinted speeches by state and federal officials.
“Most reports really don’t talk about troop movements, casualty numbers, military gains,” Henning said. “The tone is still about supporting the war, bringing an end to the war, whether they’re in support of it or not.”
That starts to change, particularly as the war comes closer to home. The rebel attack on Harper’s Ferry, where a federal arsenal was located on land that was then in Virginia, was big news.
“The reason this was reported so much locally is that this really is not that far away,” Henning said. “Starting to see it (war) come north, a little bit.”
The Maryland campaign in 1862 and the battle of Antietam fall into the same category, but the bloodshed that became a hallmark of the war was being realized.
“Local newspapers are calling it indescribably horrific, indescribably horrible,” Henning said of Antietam, where more than 23,000 men became casualties in a single day of fighting.
Ohio was a big supporter of the war in terms of men, equipment and supporting goods, but the Mahoning Valley moved into the spotlight with the election of Youngstown mining and railroad baron David Tod as governor – a Democrat who supported Lincoln, a Republican.
“When he becomes governor of Ohio, there’s actually no local-man-makes-good kind of articles, it’s very matter-of-fact, ‘OK, Tod’s the governor now,’” Henning said.
Clement Vallandigham of what was then New Lisbon (now just Lisbon) emerges as a leading Copperhead — an anti-war, pro-South northerner making speeches that The Mahoning Herald called “traitorous.”
“He is one of the biggest thorns in Lincoln’s side and in Tod’s side,” Henning said.
Such a big thorn that Lincoln banishes him to the confederacy. Vallandigham then sails to Canada and runs for governor of Ohio, a state he cannot enter.
Ohio papers encourage readers to steer clear of Vallandigham but, “He’s a bit of a folk hero to people locally, to many war-weary citizens,” Henning said.
The wide political divide as seen in men like Tod and Vallandigham was reflected in local newspapers. The Mahoning Register and the Trumbull Democrat carried on a spirited war in print.
“They’re constantly attacking each other,” Henning said.
While time has bestowed mythic status on places such as Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox, the events that occurred there were not front-page news at the time.
“News always started on page two,” Henning explained. “The front page of the newspaper was always fluff. Fluff stories of flowers and how to plant better gardens.”
Henning finds such details fascinating.
“The reason that I like to share this with folks … it’s really a look in the time period,” Henning said of her presentation. “You see how it’s being written, the words that they’re saying, the fact that they’re not hiding their political affiliations whatsoever. I think it’s a really interesting way to research the past.”
Brookfield High School junior T.J. Kirila called the presentation interesting, particularly the details about papers changing names.
“I liked that it was local,” he said. “It was focused on Ohio.”
“All the newspaper articles, they were cool to see,” said junior Kayla Johnson, referring to Henning’s slides.
Kayla said she learned things “that I didn’t learn in school, that they didn’t talk about in school.”
The society next meets at 7 p.m. Feb 14 at Briceland Funeral Services, 397 Route 7 SE.