Since the country’s inception, political parties in the United States normally used favored press organs as outlets for news releases and policy pronouncements. When Abraham Lincoln took up residency at the White House following the 1860 presidential election and the Civil War erupted, however, he chose not to follow that practice.
As Louis M. Starr points out in “Bohemian Brigade: Civil War Newsmen in Action,” rather than having a favored newspaper, Lincoln made himself accessible to war correspondents as well as Washington reporters. This was the beginning of a free-for-all style of news collection that has persisted ever since.
Lincoln apparently chose this approach because of a desire to elicit support from all quarters, rather than relying on a single newspaper that touted the party line. One of his secretaries, William O. Stoddard, described how reporters waited outside Lincoln’s office, and Abe welcomed them cordially and enjoyed meeting with them.
As mindboggling as it may seem today, all it took for reporters to see the president was to walk into the White House and on to the private room which adjoined Lincoln’s office. They did not have to go through security or obtain permission from a staff member.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles noted in his diary how deplorable it was that Lincoln “permits the little newsmongers to come around him and be intimate.” Welles thought he did this because of his “great inquisitiveness,” and desire “to hear all the political gossip ….”
Lincoln relaxed in the reporters’ presence, and asked them as many questions as they did him. Although it was understood that the president’s remarks should not be attributed to him in print, Starr relates that Lincoln’s homely figures of speech and anecdotes were often the subject of discussion and merriment in hotel lobbies and government corridors.
With the war going badly in 1861 and 1862, reporters often noted the pall of melancholy that enveloped Lincoln. They used terms such as cross, discouraged, dismal, gloomy, and in a low frame of mind in describing his mood from time to time.
When bad tidings from the battlefield arrived in the telegraph office, Lincoln sometimes admonished reporters not to say anything about it. On the other hand, when the news was positive, he happily helped them transcribe the information so they could meet publishing deadlines.
Reporters were sometimes taken back by the easy access they had to the president. Once Lincoln attempted to put an apologetic journalist at ease by telling him, “You gentlemen of the press seem to be pretty much like soldiers, who have to go wherever sent [by your editors].”
Starr explains that, despite his ready access to reporters, Lincoln avoided giving them his full confidence. The one exception was a member of the Washington press corps named Noah Brooks. The two men befriended each and socialized together; with Brooks considered as a replacement for John Nicolay as senior presidential secretary.
Reporters seeking passes to accompany army units in the field sometimes found ways around War Department limitations by going to the White House and appealing their case directly to the president. More than one was fortunate to acquire a special “red letter” pass, which bore Lincoln’s signature in red ink.
Lincoln opportunistically sounded out reporters arriving back in Washington from an assignment in the field about their impressions of military officers. In one case, he inquired of reporter Henry Wing about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. When Wing related that Grant had won the almost unlimited confidence of his men, Lincoln gratefully replied that he had told him what he wanted to hear. Lincoln eventually appointed Grant general-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
Although George Alfred Townsend from Georgetown, Del., who was a New York World reporter, never met Lincoln personally, he was on hand at the White House to chronicle the aftermath of the president’s assassination in 1865. Lincoln’s staff recognized his talent as a correspondent, and permitted him to be in the East Room of the White House while the president’s body was being prepared for public viewing.
Townsend’s in-depth coverage of the post-assassination period was a testimonial to the esteem reporters held for the president, and their gratitude for his accessibility during four years of civil war.
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.