June 1863

Dealing with “disloyal” newspapers in Illinois

Some early black troops from Illinois


On June 1, 1863, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Department of the Ohio which included Illinois, ordered the Chicago Times to be “suppressed” for the “repeated expression of disloyal and incendiary sentiments.” In part because of the personal intervention of President Lincoln in revoking the suspension, the Times incident is perhaps the most famous of many actions taken by the government and by private citizens against Illinois newspapers deemed to be “disloyal” during the Civil War. It was far from the only one, however.


Government action against newspapers
The closing of the Chicago Times was not the first move to quiet newspapers thought by some to be pro-Confederate in their sympathies and therefore dangerous to the Union cause. Many Democratic editors stood with Senator Stephen A. Douglas in declaring support for the Lincoln administration in its effort to preserve the Union. Some of these editors became less enthusiastic as the war ground on and emancipation and civil liberties became hot issues. Some newspapers criticized the Republican administration and its policies from the first news of Fort Sumter.


Perhaps the first Illinois paper to feel a backlash against an antiwar editorial policy was the German-language Peoria Demokrat, described by its Republican rival, the Transcript, as “an acknowledged enemy to the Government, and an open sympathizer with the secessionists.” In October 1861 the Demokrat was banned by the postmaster general from the U.S. mail, crippling its circulation.

The Peoria paper was one of a dozen northern newspapers kept out of the mail because of their alleged anti-Union sentiments. Called by a Congressional committee to explain his action in such cases, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair responded that freedom of the press did not include license “to thwart the efforts made to preserve the integrity of the Union.” While his department did not claim power to suppress disloyal publications outright, “it could not be called upon to give them circulation.”

Military officers sometimes followed the postmaster general’s logic. While not actually closing a newspaper an officer could prevent a paper’s circulation by banning it from his jurisdiction. Such was the case with the Quincy Herald, which in July 1862 was forbidden circulation in northeastern Missouri. The action was approved enthusiastically by over 40 “loyal residents” of Hannibal who condemned the Herald for its “disloyal teachings.”

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Newbold, commanding in Jonesboro, Illinois, apparently did not share the distinction between banning a newspaper from circulation and suspending publication completely. On May 15, 1863, he closed the office of the Jonesboro Gazette, considering it “wholly unfit for circulation in this already disaffected portion of the state.” The paper did not publish again until March 1864.

In other cases newspapers were closed due to the arrest (actual or threatened) of their editors. On August 8, 1862, during a crucial period of recruiting new volunteers for military service, editors Michael Mehaffy and Frank O’Dell of the Paris Democratic Standard were arrested by authority of the War Department, charged with discouraging enlistments. The Standard’s Republican rival, the Beacon, reported that a crowd of about 200 gathered at the courthouse, leading to “intense excitement.” U.S. marshal Phillips warned that he could call “any number of armed men by the click of the telegraph…. This seemed to have a very sedative influence….” The Democratic Standard offices remained closed and the two editors were sent to Washington’s Old Capitol Prison.

Citizens and soldiers take part
On August 22, 1862, private citizens played the major role in silencing a “disloyal” press. From the war’s first weeks many in Bloomington had complained of editorials in the Times that blamed extremist Republicans for the coming of war, for incompetence in fighting it, and charged the Lincoln Administration with gross violations of the Constitution. The rival newspaper, the Republican Pantagraph, refuted the charges and labeled the editors of the Times as traitors. By September 1861 a public meeting at the courthouse drafted resolutions calling on the Times to close down voluntarily.

The two newspapers continued the war of words well into 1862. The final storm broke on August 20. A squad of soldiers “escorted” the editors of the Times to the courthouse where they were forced to swear an oath of allegiance. When one of the men soon remarked that a forced oath was not binding, “a rush was made upon the Times office, the contents thrown in the street and burned.” The Pantagraph, saddened by the violence, expressed hope that “the excitement of the moment has died away, and that no other demonstrations of a violent character will be made.” Further violence was not necessary—the Times did not publish again.

On occasion soldiers took a lead in closing newspapers without orders from superior officers. On August 30, 1863, soldiers in search of deserters raided the office of the Olney Herald, scattering its type. It was reported that Brigadier General Jacob Ammen, in command of the troops, put the soldiers under arrest and fined them for their action. Owners of the German-language Belleville Volksblatt found no such justice. On May 14, 1864, the office was attacked and the press and types destroyed by members of the 9th Illinois Infantry. It was the second time the paper had been attacked for its anti-Lincoln Administration views. In March 1863 civilians had raided the shop, smashing windows and scattering the type.

The most spectacular closing of a paper by soldiers took place during the presidential campaign of 1864 when some members (said to be Lincoln supporters) of the 22nd Illinois Infantry destroyed the office of the Chester Picket Guard. The heightened tension caused by the presidential contest led the Alton Democrat to suggest that unless Lincoln supporters in Chester make up one-half of the financial loss involved in the destruction of the Picket Guard, the Republican Randolph County Democrat should be destroyed as revenge. A public meeting was held, restitution money pledged, arrangements made for the Picket Guard to publish, and the protection of the Republican newspaper office guaranteed. According to the nearby Waterloo Advocate, “all parties adjourned, feeling that it is much better to meet and settle difficulties in an amicable manner than to resort to force.”

Interested in learning more?
A general discussion of the Lincoln administration’s relationship with the press—loyal and less-than-so—is found in Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press (1951). The closure of the Chicago Times has been the subject of much discussion. Articles include Roger Waite, “Civil War Censorship and the Suppression of the Chicago Times,” For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association 6:4 (Winter 2004): 4-8, online ‎and Craig D. Tenney, “To Suppress or Not to Suppress: Abraham Lincoln and the Chicago Times.” Civil War History 27 (1981): 248-59. Postmaster General Blair’s 1863 justification of banning newspapers from the U.S. mail, titled “Postmaster General’s Authority over Mailable Matter,” can be found online via Google Books. The story of the Paris Democratic Standard is covered in Peter J. Barry, “Amos Green, Paris, Illinois: Civil War Lawyer, Editorialist, and Copperhead.” Journal of Illinois History 11 (2008): 39-60.
Peter J. Barry, “Amos Green, Paris, Illinois: Civil War Lawyer, Editorialist, and Copperhead.” Journal of Illinois History11 (2008): 39-60.