For the 44th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Michael Fuhlhage about the undercover tactics of Northern reporters working in the South and the role of newspapers as open source intelligence in the lead-up to the Civil War.
An assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University, Michael Fuhlhage is the author of Yankee Reporters and Southern Secrets: Journalism, Open Source Intelligence, and the Coming of the Civil War (Peter Lang, 2019).
This episode is sponsored by the Wayne State University Department of Communication.
Teri Finneman: 00:09 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the Wayne State University Department of Communication. Curious enough to question. Brave enough to share it with the world. That’s Warrior Strong.
At the dawn of the Civil War, Northern correspondents reporting in the South took extraordinary measures to avoid detection. The first was to avoid being identified as a journalist. The second was to avoid being identified as a Northerner. In his new book titled Yankee Reporters and Southern Secrets, author Michael Fuhlhage explores these undercover tactics and the role of newspaper information as open source intelligence.
In the days before the FBI, the Secret Service and the CIA, newspapers and journalists served a critical role in gathering information that was also useful to the military in the run up to the Civil War. Yankee Reporters and Southern Secrets reveals how members of Congress and officials of the incoming Lincoln administration used reporter-gathered intelligence about the ideas, plans, and actions of figures in the secession movement.
Michael, welcome to the show. Why were you interested in examining the Civil War period for one and then, in particular, the role of newspapers as vehicles for military intelligence during this time?
Michael Fuhlhage: 01:43 Well, someone once told me that all research is autobiographical, and this is probably an example of that. So that period’s been fascinating to me since grade school in my childhood in Missouri and Kansas. The story of a fight against slavery was a big part of my civics education. I was 10 years old when my family moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Tonganoxie, Kansas. In Tongie, the Border War was a huge thing, and I think that was the case for all the unified school districts and, you know, the public schools in Kansas. So my school would take us to see a play called the “Ballad of Blackjack,” which was all about Bleeding Kansas. It was a really sanitized, simplified story where the abolitionists zealot John Brown was held up as a hero. The Missouri version of that play, I’m sure, would have portrayed him as a terrorist.
02:29 Of course, that was the prelude to the American Civil War, and I’ve been visiting old Civil War battlefields ever since. Well, I was a newspaper editor and reporter for a dozen years before I went into academia. And I’d seen the ways that federal officials relied on newspapers as proof that funding and other resources needed to be directed to address problems. And lots of journalism history describes the themes of newspaper content or provides case studies of coverage of an event, but it often lacks explanation of the ways that this content is used. So I was intrigued by this question. How does news find its way into the hands of people who have the power to solve problems, such as pollution, educational performance, and addiction? How does ideology spread? How do stereotypes develop over time? And to me, it’s all a matter of information flow. So this book was an outgrowth of research and doing with a really talented group of graduate students at Wayne State University.
03:28 And this research explores the question of how information flowed during the secession crisis. At first, we set out to collect a sample of newspapers from across the North and the South in the run up to the Civil War in order to analyze the origin and flow of information about secession across regions. But there was so much of it that we decided to build a database of articles that’s now in the thousands. So that was a natural start to categorize them, according to the kind of information that they contained. And this is where the role of newspapers, as vehicles for military intelligence, comes in.
We found thousands of articles that suggested military preparations, political wrangling, in the slave states to create infrastructure of independent nation states. Speculation about what it would take in economic terms to stand independently or in a slavery-based Confederation of Southern States. And so on. What we found confirmed a story that George Forrester Williams told after the war. He was editor at the New York Times. Henry J. Raymond saw signs of militia organization in the South as early as the summer of 1860, and he was seeing this all via newspaper exchanges from the Southern States. So he went to check it out and he confirmed just that. So that’s what sent me down this rabbit hole.
Teri Finneman: 04:45 That’s great. So delving into the introduction of your book, why did the U.S. government need to rely so much on newspapers for military intelligence?
Michael Fuhlhage: 04:56 Simply put, there was no intelligence community to speak of in the North at the start of the Civil War. There wasn’t a Secret Service, at least officially. You sometimes heard people use the lowercase “secret service” phrase to talk about any clandestine gathering of information. But in that time, intelligence could have realized – we could have referred to any kind of information that anyone picked up anywhere. Now that we have a CIA and an FBI and an NSA, which we didn’t have back at – back during the Civil War years, we understand intelligence to mean not just information, but information that has been verified and vetted. But as for a Secret Service, uppercase, we didn’t have one officially until after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. So that’s not to say that we didn’t already have intelligence.
05:53 The military has always relied on intelligence, which defined as advanced knowledge about the enemy that relied on undercover spies and uniform scouts who gathered information via observation and surveillance. But they were attached to general staffs and not organized into a single organization until the middle of the Civil War. So the first military intelligence outfit wouldn’t be created until 1863. That was the Bureau of Military Information run by Colonel George Sharpe. Sharpe believed in getting information from every possible source, including newspapers, tapping telegraph lines, intercepting semaphore messages, as well as using spies and scouts, surveillance and observation. But even Sharpe’s bureau was held back by a General Ambrose Burnside, who didn’t believe in this all-source approach to intelligence. General Joseph Hooker embraced it, nurturing it into an efficient corps that served Ulysses S Grant when he took over as commander of the Union forces.
Teri Finneman: 06:53 So you mentioned Abraham Lincoln a little bit ago. Your book focuses on the time around Lincoln’s election in November 1860 to June 1861, which is when Tennessee became the final state to join the Confederacy. Why were you interested in this time frame?
Michael Fuhlhage: 07:09 My broader research question at the beginning was how did information about the secession movement flow from Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in November 1860 to Tennessee’s secession as the 11th and final slave state to join the Confederacy in the summer of 1861? I was intrigued by questions that John Nerone had raised in American Journalism about how information went viral at a time that predated the rapid fire social media of our own times, namely the mid-19th century heyday of the telegraph. Thinking about the technological and craft development of journalism in the 1800s, I wanted to look at information flow about a topic in a time when the nation’s communication and transportation systems were approaching maturity in the sense that they were starting to knit the entire nation together from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Little did I know that the confluence of that would have me looking instead at the ways they contributed to the nation falling apart.
08:05 I was interested in how reporters and editors shaped coverage of labor, which was a natural outgrowth of my previous work on the prehistory of stereotypes about Mexicans and other Latinos and Latinas in news media. Slavery was the biggest labor issue of the period and the Civil War was the biggest story of the century. In the beginning, I was simply interested in exploring how secession information erupted at the epicenters of the secession crisis with Robert Darnton’s model of the communications circuit as a guide, I built out from analysis of content to exploring the motivations and actions of journalists, some undercover, and the ways that their reports were used to guide decisions and actions.
Teri Finneman: 08:45 So let’s talk a little bit more about the news industry. What was it like in the mid-19th century?
Michael Fuhlhage: 08:51 It was still largely dominated by a partisan press model. Newspapers got their money from political supporters, so every county seat had at least one newspaper for each of the major political parties. Newspapers in this vein existed to serve the interests of party leaders and to promote political causes and ideas. Cheap daily penny press newspapers in the commercial model were limited to a few metropolises like New York and Boston, Philadelphia. To an extent, later in the penny press period, Cincinnati and then we didn’t really even have a penny press newspaper that, you know, ran daily. It was cheap enough for everybody to buy their own copy until the Picayune launched in New Orleans.
Teri Finneman: 09:34 And then to follow up on that, explain the significance of the rise of correspondents during this time.
Michael Fuhlhage: 09:41 Well, the roving correspondent of the secession crisis and the Civil War represented the next evolutionary step from traveling correspondents whose topics included westward expansion and of course the Bleeding Kansas struggle and travel logs about foreign places where people could only dream of going. Those predecessors gave audiences entertainment that was considered respectable because there were conveyed what was regarded as useful knowledge and useful information. Fiction and poetry were seen as wasteful and even sinful unless they provided moral instruction. They weren’t considered useful and were in fact regarded as time wasters. But travelogues combined character with a narrative element and interpretation through the correspondence point of view that did provide useful knowledge. And I think that that gave legitimacy to the idea of correspondents as distinct from reporters who just trucked in just-the-facts reporting to including interpretation. That interpretation was important because, you know, in the role of the correspondent, because interpretation implies a point of view. And there you have Northerners who are looking at Southerners as another and trying to deduce what their motivations were and trying to figure out whether they were a threat.
Teri Finneman: 11:00 We hear a lot today about self-selection of news and people only wanting to read the news that fits to their beliefs. And you also discuss how self-selection of news was very common back then and that the South limited circulation of Northern papers with anti-slavery views. Talk more about the implications of the censorship for that time.
Michael Fuhlhage: 11:21 It all began with postal censorship. Southern states began to ban what they termed quote “incendiary reading material” unquote, by which they meant anti-slavery and abolitionist books and periodicals. After the New England abolitionists flooded the Southern mail with leaflets and pamphlets denouncing slavery, that was in the 1830s, postmasters were ordered to remove anti-slavery material from the mail and deliver it to local authorities. Surveillance lists of addresses were developed and that was the start of the surveillance of publications. By weeding out dissenting political material, pro-slavery attitudes were enabled to harden. By the time the Democrats picked a presidential candidate in 1860, the slave states were an ideological hot zone where secessionism became fevered without Unionists’ counter-spin in the form of pro-Republican newspapers as an alternative for readers to secessionism went viral from December 1860 through the summer of 1861
Teri Finneman: 12:22 You also discussed how the Confederacy could not have come into being without newspapers. I noticed this in my own research of how the press reported on Confederate First Lady Varina Davis, but tell us what makes you think this.
Michael Fuhlhage: 12:37 Well, here’s a first presumption: nations form around shared identity. So to split off and form a new nation, secessionists had to promote the idea that the North had become so culturally different from the South that the South could know it could no longer be safe and could never expect for the rights of its citizens to be protected. As the North became more radical, by more radical, they meant adopting the idea that was once fringe and started to be commonly accepted: that slavery was not just damaging economically, but that it was a moral and spiritual wrong that needed to be curtailed. So to be an abolitionist was as radical as a person could get in the United States immediately before the war. Abolition threatened the underpinnings of the Southern economy and Southern culture. For a nation to form a shared identity and a new ideology,
13:34 it must be spread. The Southern press did just that. It carries secession from the epicenters of the movement in Charleston and Montgomery and New Orleans and spread it to smaller towns via exchange newspapers and mailed pamphlets. So you would get a critical mass within larger urban centers. And then those ideas that Northerners certainly viewed as radical started to find their way into newspapers that were only weeklies in, say, county seats and that exposed readers in those smaller, more remote places to those ideas. And that’s how the ideology of Southern nationalism spread.
Teri Finneman: 14:21 In your book, you talk about how dangerous it was for a Northern reporter to work in the South due to its extensive surveillance system designed for slavery. Tell us more about that.
Michael Fuhlhage: 14:33 Enough Northern correspondents used their news reports to describe secessionist activities they’d witnessed by late 1860 that those who followed them in 1861 were singled out by secessionist leaders as suspected spies.
14:47 A culture of surveillance had evolved in the South as a means of keeping out abolitionist agents of the Underground Railroad. You might help slaves to run away and, to assure that slaves did not plan their own escapes, every white citizen in the South was expected by law to report fugitives and help get them back to their masters. So interrogation of any unknown slave became customary. That expanded to include interrogation of any white person who appeared to be out of place. During the secession crisis, the wrong regional dialect or a complexion that was too pale might suggest that you were a New Englander. For instance, that would get you singled out for interrogation by a vigilance committee, which was a sort of extra-legal, vigilante group, privileged to root out dissenters against slavery and punish them. Hotel clerks, sheriffs, train conductors as well as postmasters were positioned to monitor the comings and goings of strangers and vigilance committee members enforced a policy of, if you see something, say something on the general population.
15:46 So it was very easy for a Northerner who had not left their community in a New York or Philadelphia or Boston or one of the more remote and rural New England states to stick out in a crowd. And that would lead to a visit from a vigilance committee. What they would do is they would ask, who are you? Where are you from? What is your business here? And if whatever you told them didn’t check out or if they decided based on that information that you didn’t have legitimate business being in that Southern town, then a report would be written up, it would be taken to a justice of the peace who would hear the claim. They would decide whether there was enough for the vigilance committee to bring the person in for a trial. The vigilance committee would then go back to the suspected spy or the suspected Northerner or suspected abolitionist and give them 24 hours to 48 hours to come up with some respectable citizen of that community to vouch for them.
17:01 If they couldn’t do that, then well they would be taken to that justice of the peace. He would listen to the evidence. The person would be given an opportunity to answer that evidence. And then the vigilance committee, not the justice of the peace, would decide what needed to be done with them. In the best-case scenario, it would be decided, well, okay, he’s all right after all. Second best case was you don’t belong here. We’re going to get you out of here right now. So what would then happen is the head of the vigilance committee would get on the telegraph to someone at another port or at the next railway station and let them know we’re sending someone who is being shipped back North through your station, have someone to meet them.
17:59 They would then pay their rail fare or pay their passage on a mail packet or a steam ship or some such, and then they would be met at the dock or they’d be met at the rail station by the head of the other vigilance committee. And they would repeat this process until they had sent them either out of the state or out of the South altogether. Worst case scenario is a lynching. You would be disappeared to borrow a phrase from Central American Civil War history and you would just be killed and, and the remains hidden in a swamp or dumped in a river or something like that.
Teri Finneman: 18:40 Oh my goodness. That is just unbelievable to even think about happening. You know. I mean, your book does talk about how there were obviously some Northern reporters who managed to get by and report across enemy lines. Tell us a little bit more about them and how they manage to do that.
Michael Fuhlhage: 19:02 Well, the ones that succeeded used a variety of tactics that would be considered ethically shady in mainstream journalism today. These tactics included secrecy, fabricated identities, deception about their employment, reliance on foreign nationality to apply neutral and declarations of affinity for the Southern cause and slavery there. As far as getting information that they gathered back out of the South, they in some cases used some techniques that resemble modern trade craft in the spying intelligence community. I’ve written a lot about this in chapter six about how news reporters in the North mobilized into what I call an ad hoc secret service. Well, the first undercover reporter of the war was George Forrester Williams of the New York Times, and he got this assignment after Henry J. Raymond spotted indications of militia organization in a few of the Southern newspapers that were received in the Times newsroom through the postal service.
20:12 He wasn’t sure whether this was just propaganda, whether it was just bluffing and he wanted someone to go down and check it out. So the reason you pick George Forrester Williams was that, that first off, he had proved himself to be a good observer and a good writer. Second, he wasn’t a citizen of the United States. He hadn’t grown up in the U.S. Instead, he’d been born in Gibraltar. He had an English accent. His manners were English. His mode of dress remained English, and Raymond thought that it would be best to send someone who appeared naturally to be from outside the United States as an undercover reporter. So they devise this clever ruse. Raymond sent instructions to someone in London to put together a new suit of clothes and pack all of them into a suitcase and ship it to Haiti.
21:19 Williams. Yeah. Williams goes down to Haiti, and he picks up his ready-made disguise kit. And then he hops on a ship to take him to Galveston, Texas. So from Galveston, he starts just circulating among the general population. And he announces that he’s a British citizen on a tour of the American South. And people in the South, at least among the secessionists, were eager to curry the favor of the great powers of Europe. So they saw an opportunity to show what they thought were all the best aspects of the South and attempted to demonstrate that slavery was in fact a humane institution and look how cultured we all are. And he managed to find his way through most of the Southern states, and he did find evidence that confirmed militia organization and sent that back up to Henry J. Raymond at the Times.
22:34 What was, what’s tricky about piecing together that story is that what we have is his reminiscences in a trade publication from the 1880s called The Journalist, which very few libraries have it. I had to get it on microfilm at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Go Mizzou. And what I found in that gave me enough information to run text searches in the New York Times to confirm that, yeah, what he said that he did, he had actually done. And that articles from August through September of 1860 carried just the kind of information that Williams said that he had gathered before the war. Another example was Frank Wood of the New York World. The way that he got by was by simply professing affinity for the Confederacy while he was in South Carolina.
23:37 He was there in December 1860. In January. In February 1861. He also carried a letter with him, a letter of introduction from the editor of the World who professed that he was in support of slavery. So, you know, that was enough for him to get by. And he wrote flattering things about the people that he observed. So by ingratiating himself, he managed to maintain his access. George Salter, aka Jasper, of the New York Times concealed his identity, and he used a fly-on-the wall approach to reporting in Charleston and in Savannah, Georgia. The guy that I wrote the most about probably though was Albert Deane Richardson of the New York Tribune. And he implied or he deployed a lot of tactics that would have made a modern station master proud. He lied about his identity.
24:35 He assumed a cover story of a New Mexico trader who didn’t even have a dog in the fight. He was able to maintain that facade because he’d actually traveled in Colorado and New Mexico, was familiar with mannerisms and regional dialect from those places. That all held up until he got too cocky and he started taking imprudent risks. He had a technique where he would write encoded messages and then he would rip those apart and he would send each piece to a different trader on Wall Street and, you know, Manhattan Island in New York. And then they would relay those pieces to the Tribune where they would be pieced back together. And his managing editor would decode what he had written. So it was a really elaborate kind of setup. I suspect that some of those tactics he picked up from people that he knew who were station masters on the Underground Railroad. But that’s going to be something for a future book biography of Richardson.
Teri Finneman: 25:37 Oh, that’s great. So going off of that, what are some more examples of intelligence that these journalists were reporting in these newspapers?
Michael Fuhlhage: 25:48 Well, let’s see. The first thing to remember is that today we usually talk about military intelligence, but there are other varieties of intelligence as well. So in the states that became the Confederacy, secession was first a political issue, then it turned into a military issue. Yankee reporters covered both aspects.
As the Southern states debated the secession question, Yankee reporters described the harassment of suspected Northern sympathizers who were hounded until they fled to the North. Chasing Unionists out of the South meant fewer dissenters against the secession going to the ballot box in the winter and spring of 1860 and 1861 when these states were deciding whether to secede in Charleston, South Carolina. Undercover reporters from the New York Tribune and New York Evening Post reported on harbor fortifications as they were being built to defend against Union attack from Galveston, Texas, on through Virginia, the undercover correspondent for the New York Times, George Forrester Williams, confirmed that militias were forming and drilling as early as the summer of 1860 in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. A reporter for the New York World described the numbers, weapons and skill level of militia troops that he observed drilling in December, January 1860, before the Confederacy even formed.
27:08 He also gained access to the South Carolina legislature after it seceded and went into closed session and recorded on legislation to fund a coast guard, coast defenses, firearms, cannons and the ammunition. I think this goes back to the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, you know, military tactician, and he said advanced knowledge of the enemy is one of the most important things that you can have. And that includes watching what preparations they make for war in order to anticipate whether an attack is going to come, when it might come, and what kind of an attack it might be.
Teri Finneman: 27:45 Reporters at the time weren’t as professionalized as they are today. So can you provide any insight into how accurate their information was for the military to even be using as open source intelligence?
Michael Fuhlhage: 27:59 Well, the best evidence of that probably comes from records of the Confederate secretary of war and the Union secretary of war from the National Archives and Records Administration. One thing that I was really interested in was all right. So to raise that impertinent question, so what, so what that this information was being reported in the press? Did anybody act on it? It’s more difficult to piece together, you know, the timeline and the decision making process of whether a given political or military official acted on a specific piece of information. But what we do know certainly is that they followed what was going on in the press. And generals in both the South and the North gave orders to their scouts to gather as many newspapers from the other side of the lines as they possibly could.
28:59 Robert E. Lee had a standing order to always gather the press from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and New York. So they were certainly using that material to piece together what the intentions of the enemy might be. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was a Confederate commander, his scrapbooks are actually available in the Library of Congress. And I looked through them there. They are two enormous bulging scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings. And in some cases, notations about which information should be followed up on. So at a minimum, we can say that these leaders were using that information as sources of leads that needed to be investigated. But in other cases, there was material from the Northern press that revealed a conspiracy to take the cannons from the Allegheny arsenal outside of Pittsburgh and ship them down to Galveston where there was no possible use for them because they didn’t have the kind of emplacements that were necessary in the fort to hold those guns.
30:22 The conclusion among leaders in Pittsburgh who noticed this going on was that they were intended to be used in other Southern forts during the rebellion and a telegraph from a Union partisan in Pittsburgh to the secretary of war triggered a chain reaction that resulted in stopping the shipment of those guns. So that’s probably the most solid evidentiary chain that we have of an item appearing in the press being spotted, being relayed to someone who had the power to act and then someone acting on that information.
Teri Finneman: 31:05 Now that you’ve written this historical book about how governments use press reports for intelligence, what kind of advice do you have for war reporters today who are trying to be transparent about what’s happening but also need to be careful about giving the opposition too much information?
Michael Fuhlhage: 31:22 Generals were most nervous about information that would compromise their ability to act on initiative and capitalize on the element of surprise. It’s up to civilian leaders to make the decision to go to war, but once that decision is made, they need to equip and support their military to do the job with thoroughness and honor. So I think it’s still true today as during the Civil War that reporters ought to refrain from identifying and describing the branches, names, weaponry, force strengths, positions, capabilities, and movements of military units until after the battle is complete. That’s the thoroughness part. The with honor part is where journalists have a responsibility to hold the military accountable for violations of international law concerning the humane conduct of war. If innocent non-combatants and refugees were abused, that must be revealed. If resources are being squandered, that’s the people’s business, because civilians fund war that must be revealed.
Teri Finneman: 32:18 And our final question of the show is, why does journalism history matter?
Michael Fuhlhage: 32:23 Journalism history matters because it reveals mistakes that journalists and news organizations made in the past and how to avoid repeating them. But it also shows how innovators succeeded in solving problems that arose from new technology, new business models, and the like. Their solutions can inspire our own here in the present.
Teri Finneman: 32:43 Right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Michael Fuhlhage: 32:47 Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.
Teri Finneman: 32:50 Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, Wayne State University Department of Communication, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow. Good night and good luck.