William T. Sherman's Campaign Against Civil War Reporters

by Stefan Lund | | Friday, September 10, 2021 - 09:03

Before Major General William T. Sherman made his name as “Burnin’ Sherman,” the patriotic pyromaniac and terror of Georgia, he took out his over-the-top hostility on a smaller target: a newspaper reporter named Thomas Knox. Sherman was notoriously antagonistic towards the traveling correspondents that newspapers dispatched to the army.  He called Americans’ desire for up-to-date information a “suicidal weakness,” or at best a “silly proclivity for news.” He referred to reporters in general as “paid spies,” and Knox in particular as an “infamous dog.” Many, both in Sherman’s time and since, have attributed Sherman’s hostility to articles in the Cincinnati Commercial that claimed Sherman had lost his mind. These articles contributed to a popular impression that the general was unstable and possibly insane. Sherman’s antipathy towards the press as an institution, however, ran far deeper than lost reputation due to one paper’s rumormongering. He held the entire informative mission of reporters and their papers in contempt. He believed that while “strong, intelligent” men like him were busy trying to win the war, weak and greedy reporters infiltrated their armies, collected lies, rumors, and military secrets, and then published them for the reading pleasure of North and South alike. Sherman felt powerless at the hands of these reporters. As he explained to his wife Ellen,the government’s policy seemed to vacillate based on the shifting whims of the newspapers, and he felt he and his men were “mere shuttle-cocks flying in between.”[1]

In the winter of 1862-63, Sherman decided to take matters into his own hands and tried to bar reporters from his army entirely. The result was an unprecedented trial that solidified Sherman’s status as the foremost enemy of the press in the Union military. On December 18, 1862, as Sherman’s army prepared to depart Memphis to capture Vicksburg, the general issued General Orders No. 8, barring any civilians from accompanying the forthcoming expedition, and prohibiting any member of the military from writing a report of the coming battle for publication. Half a dozen correspondents flouted this order, however. These correspondents snuck aboard the boats that carried Sherman’s men south down the Mississippi River and reported the outcome of the battle to their papers, describing how Sherman’s assault on the bluffs north of Vicksburg had been turned back and he and his men had retreated in defeat. That January, as Sherman cooled his heels in northern Louisiana, reports of his unsuccessful assault began to appear in major national papers. He decided to make an example of one of the reporters who had defied his orders and stowed away on the riverine expedition. He settled on Thomas Knox of the New York Herald as his antagonist.[2]

Sherman quickly brought three formal charges against Knox: giving intelligence to the enemy, espionage, and disobeying orders. Knox would be tried by a court martial, a legal proceeding created for administering military justice to a member of the armed forces, and wholly inappropriate given Knox’s status as a civilian member of the press. There seemed little reason to target Knox over any other reporter. His report, while critical of Sherman’s leadership, was not an outlier. Franc Wilkie of the New York Times wrote a similarly harsh report but escaped Sherman’s wrath. It may have been Knox’s defiance that pushed Sherman to target him. When Sherman first asked Knox to justify his uncharitable report, Knox had explained himself by alluding to Sherman’s well-known hostility to the press, saying, “I had no feeling against you personally, but…we [reporters] must in self-defense write you down.” The fact that Sherman charged Knox with espionage, which could carry the death penalty, has led some to conclude that Sherman wanted Knox dead.  His correspondence at the time, however, points to other motives. Just days before he initiated the court martial, Sherman wrote to his friend Admiral David Porter, “I am going to have [Knox] tried as a spy, not because I want the fellow shot, but because I want to establish the principle that such people cannot attend our armies, in violation of orders, and defy us.” He wrote much the same thing to his brother John in the U.S. Senate just days later: “My purpose is not to bring Knox to death or other serious punishment, but I do want to establish the principal that civilians shall not…attend a military expedition, report its proceedings and comment upon its officers.” Sherman sought a legal precedent that would allow him to expel correspondents from his army, while Knox, not knowing this, had to prepare for what could be a life-or-death trial.[3]

The court martial ended up being something of a pyrrhic victory for Sherman. Though he did secure a guilty verdict, the court rejected most of his charges, found Knox merely guilty of disobedience, and ordered him to leave the army. Numerous other officers thought Sherman’s crusade against the reporter was obsessive and a bit weird. Knox had secured an able lawyer,who succeeded in having one charge of espionage dismissed entirely, and successfully called into question almost every piece of evidence Sherman offered. Colleagues of Knox stationed in Washington appealed his case to the president, hoping to get him to overrule Knox’s expulsion, but Lincoln demurred. While he claimed sympathy with Knox, he was reluctant to publicly embarrass generals who had success in the past. “At present our generals in the field are more important to the country than any of the rest of us,” Lincoln opined. He agreed to request that General Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman’s friend and superior, overturn the verdict, but he would go no farther than a request. Grant passed the buck, saying he would only allow Knox back if Sherman would agree. Knox surely knew that Sherman would not, but he made a formal request anyway. “Come with a sword or musket in your hand,” Sherman replied, “and I will welcome you as a brother.” As long as Knox remained a representative of the press however, “my answer is, Never.” Knox remained a journalist, but he obediently kept his distance from Sherman.[4]

Sherman certainly had the most intense antipathy to the press among Union generals, and he makes for a colorful quote, but many of his colleagues had their own run-ins with the reporters assigned to cover their armies. George Gordon Meade infamously banished a reporter from his army and made him ride out of camp on a mule wearing a sign that read “Libeler of the Press.” Ulysses S. Grant imprisoned a reporter by the name of Warren Isham after he reported the presence of ten heavily armed (and, as it turned out, entirely fictitious) rebel ironclads on the gulf coast. Sherman’s plan to bend the military justice system to his will and establish a ruling to bar reporters in the future was certainly more ambitious than the punishments doled out by his military associates, but in his desire to exert control over the reporters in his midst he was an entirely ordinary Civil War general. These incidents reveal just how vulnerable the newspaper correspondents of the Civil War were to the whims of the men who ran the army.[5]

Images: (1) William T. Sherman (courtesy Library of Congress); (2) Thomas W. Knox (courtesy The New York Public Library Ditigal Collections).


[1] M.A. De Wolfe Howe, Home Letters of General Sherman (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 238 (“paid spies”), 240 (“shuttle-cocks”), 247 (“suicidal weakness,” “silly proclivity” and “strong, intelligent”); Robert N. Scott, ed., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Government Printing Office: Washington, 1899), series 1, volume 17, part 2, 587 (“infamous dog”).

[2] Exhibit C, Court Martial of Thomas Knox—Citizen, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army), Record Group 153, LL 554, National Archives and Record Service, Washington. Knox’s account of the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou appeared in the January 18, 1863, edition of the New York Herald.

[3] Wilkie’s account of the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou appeared in the January 18, 1863, edition of the New York Times, see also John F. Marszalek, Sherman’s Other War: The General and the Civil War Press (Memphis, TN: Memphis State University Press, 1981), 121-122; OR, series 1, volume 17, part 2, 896 (“write you down”); OR, series 1, volume 17, part 2, 889 (letter to Porter); Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin ed., Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 388-390 (letter to Sen. Sherman). Based on a January 28, 1863, letter biographer Robert O’ Connell believes Sherman “plainly wanted [Knox] convicted as a spy and given a death sentence,” but he does not reckon with Sherman’s subsequent letters to his brother and Porter, O’Connell, Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (New York: Random House, 2014), 117.

[4] For a full account of the court martial see Marszalek, Sherman’s Other War, 117-153. The charges and verdict can be found in the OR, see OR, series 1, volume 17, part 2, 889-892. Albert D. Richardson, The Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1866), 317-323, Lincoln quoted on 320. OR, series 1, volume 17, part 2, 893-95 (Knox and Sherman correspondence).

[5] On Isham’s difficulties see Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years with Grant, ed. Benjamin P. Thomas (New York: Knopf, 1956), 4-14. On Cropsey’s humiliation see Jennifer M. Murray’s Nau Center blog post, https://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/george-gordon-meade-and-cropsey-affair.