July 11, 1861: Scott curtails the press

Winfield Scott
Gen. Winfield Scott

A New York Times correspondent was outraged at General Scott’s efforts to control telegraph communication about troop movements. War measures would curtail freedom of the press in the North severely. This change was probably more deeply felt than it was in the South, where censorship had been practiced routinely for most of the 19th century. I have recorded some instances of censorship by mob action; abolitionist literature had been prohibited in the south even via the U.S. mail.

This editorial, though, protests mainly that the measures taken will be ineffective, as telegraph through New York was only a small part of the communication lines available to Confederate sympathizers.


SHUTTING DOWN ON THE PRESS.

WASHINGTON, Thursday, July 11, 1861.

The telegraph has informed you that the Government through Gen. SCOTT, has prohibited correspondents, from sending anything over the wires relating to the movements of the United States troops. Upon a consultation with the commanding officer, we were informed that this order would be construed to cut out of all dispatches anything rotating to the arrival or departure of men and the munitions of war; to an enumeration of the forces of the Government; to any information relative to supplies, and to the contemplated operations of either division of the Army. Substantially, therefore, you will see we are estopped from any publication relative to the Army which would in the slightest degree interest the public, unless we forward such information by mail, which does not reach New-York until about twenty-four hours after such information might be transmitted over the wires.

The ostensible object of this exercise of power is an alleged necessity of depriving the rebels of their sources of information. Gen. SCOTT, in defence of the measure, was so frank as to admit that the special correspondents of the Metropolitan journals were so quick of perception, and so shrewd at guessing, that they were able to frustrate his plans and detail his operations, with substantially as much accuracy as if they were seated on his lounge, and discussing with him the progressive (excuse the misnomer) movements of the campaign. If such be the facts, and the rebels, through the information thus obtained, are enabled steadily to frustrate the schemes of our General-in-Chief, the Government does well to open a vigorous campaign against the Press, and with mighty blow to sever the connections between their correspondents and their respective persons. It might have been more becoming a powerful Government, it might have been more in harmony with the spirit of the age, if the Administration had expressed to those representing the Press of New-York at the National Capital, its wish that they should refrain from publishing any information calculated to benefit the rebels, which the rebels could not readily obtain elsewhere than in the New-York papers. I think I can speak for all, when I say for myself, that such a request would have been promptly obeyed.

I should be the last to complain of the new regulation, and would willingly submit to the exercise of power, were it to subserve the public good, and likely to secure the ends which the Government has in view. But no such good is to follow. It is stopping a spiggot, and allowing the bunghole to remain open. While the New-York Press is not permitted to publish details of Army operations, no such prohibition is extended to the local Press of Washington, which, to the extent of its capacity, daily records the information which I am prohibited from sending to the readers of the TIMES. The rebels at Washington can as well send the Star as the TIMES to their associates in crime at Manassas, or Fairfax, or Richmond. Besides, the City of Washington is largely inhabited by those sympathizing with the rebels, and many of this class are now employed in public offices, and even in the department over which Gen. SCOTT presides. This is not mere assertion. It is so true that the House of Representatives has raised a Committee charged to purge the Bureaus of the Government of those who are hostile to its existence — traitors in thought and deed. These people can as well watch the movements of troops and the public operations of the Army as the correspondents.

It is not many days since the wife of an officer in the rebel army was the companion of an officer in our Army during a visit to the camps and intrenchments on the Virginia side. It is no disparagement to the officer to say that the lady was quite as competent as himself to judge of the efficiency of the men, and the strength of the works they were jointly inspecting. It would be doing the lady injustice to suppose that the information thus obtained was not specially and speedily communicated to her husband in the rebel ranks, and so made serviceable to the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces. Within speaking distance of where I am now writing, resides a lady who has three sons and a son-in-law in the rebel army. The mother, wife and sisters of these men make no concealment of their sympathy with the rebel cause, and their disloyalty to the Government. They watch the movements of our troops with the industry and zeal of a newspaper reporter, and with a like intelligent understanding of what they see. In the adjoining house lives the wife of another officer in the rebel ranks. These women are in daily communication with their relations, sending and receiving letters with more regularity and certainty than the mails are transmitted between this city and New-York.

These instances, as I have said, are within the sound of my voice. It is not likely that they are isolated cases. They probably are but instances common to every part of the city. If they are not known to the authorities, it is their own fault. Nor is this all. The Government itself is daily permitting common carriers to convey letters and information to the rebels. I have before me the envelope of a letter which was sent last week from New-Orleans. It bears the post-mark of a prominent Express Company, and was duly conveyed through the Rebel States to the post-office at Louisville, and there mailed. It contains on its face the evidence of the route it has traveled, and the means of transportation. The same enterprising Company will carry a letter to Manassas, or to Fairfax, or to Norfolk, or to Richmond, or to Pensacola, or to any other rebel post. Through this channel the rebels have quick dispatch for the information which their co-rebels collate in the streets of Washington, and on the very threshold of the War Department. So long as this channel is open — so long as traitors live in the atmosphere of the capital, and rebels live upon the Treasury of the United States, is there a shadow of justification for the interposition of the obnoxious Government orders?

I know it is a waste of time and labor to protest. It is probably idle to show that the evil is not cured by the remedy which the Government has applied. But I could not refrain from showing the readers of the TIMES that the order which deprives them of early information serves no purpose beyond their annoyance. LEO.

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