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Historic Newspaper Indexing Project
Funded in part by the Mary K. Bowman Fund for Historical and Fine Arts administered by
the Community Foundation of Washington County MD, Inc.


Highlight Articles from Hagerstown Newspapers

HAGERSTOWN NEWSPAPERS DURING THE CIVIL WAR

Updated 12/1/06
The Nature of the Rural Newspaper

County or country newspapers such as the Hagerstown Mail, the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light (later called Herald and Torch Light), and Maryland Free Press, were the primary manner in which news was carried to the people of rural and small town America.[1] Consequently, these newspapers had an enormous amount of influence and political power as a forum for local news and opinion not easily tapped by urban newspapers. Country papers remained popular until the of beginning of the twentieth century when the mass production of inexpensive standardized newspaper pages finally won out over the appeal for small town papers.[2]

In general, the country newspapers published the proceedings of Congress, foreign and domestic news, and "editorials of a most intensely partisan character."[3] Speeches from the great statesmen were published, sometimes with one speech being continued for several weeks. However, the price of the weekly paper was two or three times more than it is now, resulting in a great many people borrowing editions from a neighbor instead of purchasing their own subscriptions. People were so eager to read the speeches and other news items that the paper was passed around from person to person.[4]

In Hagerstown, for example, the editors of the Herald and Torch Light often wrote editorials explaining the costs incurred in the printing business and admonishing those who did not pay their subscriptions.[5] In addition publishers and printers encouraged people to subscribe to the paper rather than borrow from their neighbors.[6] Many times subscription payment was received in goods and services, farm produce, wood and such.[7]

By 1865 the Civil War had inflated the cost of many items including paper, necessitating an increase in the subscription rate of the Herald and Torch Light newspaper. In addition, the Hagerstown businessmen met as a group to institute a “cash only” business policy because they were no longer able to afford to carry their customers on credit.[8]

The connection between the country editor and his subscriber was not merely a business relationship. The Hagerstown Mail attracted Democratic subscribers while the Herald of Freedom and Torchlight drew Whig and later American Party and Constitutional Union minded readers. Each subscriber advocated and upheld the paper of his choice. He believed what it stated and absolutely refused to give credence to a paper expressing opposing political viewpoints. He urged his neighbors to support his paper. He considered himself to be a personal friend of his editor, and when he went to town he was sure to call upon him, and frequently went bearing gifts.[9]

There were no reporters for the country newspapers as we know them today. Editors depended on their subscribers to bring the news. The editor attended the political meetings and conventions of his party, reporting the event in the next newspaper issue. Events of the opposite party "would be dismissed with a few contemptuous lines..." [10] Editors also depended on a newspaper exchange system to get the news. They would exchange newspapers with other locales including the larger cities and publish news stories word for word, not always giving credit to the source.

The country papers gradually disappeared, unable to generate the necessary revenue to stay solvent. Most of the country weeklies were published on the side by lawyers and other professional men, many of whom could not devote the time necessary to maintain this influence from an earlier era. By the turn of the twentieth century, editors of country newspapers commonly bought the two pages already printed by a syndicated city paper or bought "stereotype plates of ready-set matter," resulting in the loss of the individual character of the country newspaper.[11]

The Press During the Civil War

During the Civil War, the availability of the telegraph and railroads in making newspaper reporting faster resulted in the newspaper censorship of military information becoming an issue for the first time. Military censorship during the Civil War had three stages. The first stage began when the United States Post Office Department was forbidden to send mail into enemy territory because military information could be easily passed by civilians through the mail. By 1862 telegraph companies were also forbidden to pass on non-military messages. On 2 August 1861 General McClellan called a historic press conference of Washington correspondents and extracted a binding agreement from them not to transmit any information of military value. This voluntary censorship plan failed within months due to improper oversight, and the press went back to its former system of gathering the news any way it could.[12]

In February of 1862, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, required correspondents to submit their reports to provost marshals for approval before transmitting them. The censorship dealt only with military matters, and reporters were given guidelines on reporting the battles. As a result of an incident involving a New York Herald Reporter, General William T. Sherman set the precedent that correspondents must be recognized journalists and approved by the commanders in the field.[13]

The final stage of censorship began in 1864 and continued until the end of the war. During this period the northern press was cooperating with the need to protect the Union cause by not printing any militarily sensitive material. For example, General Sherman's march to the sea was accomplished without disclosure of his plans in the press.[14]

Regardless of the censorship in the North and the South, Civil War correspondents had more freedoms than war correspondents do today. Many of the battles were fought in isolated areas where bringing the news to the public could be quite dangerous. The hundreds of correspondents provided reporting unequaled in American journalism. Northern correspondents roamed the countryside even in the South where they ran great risk of being executed as spies if caught. Some were already well known before the war, but others gained journalistic respect as a result of their wartime reporting.[15] George Alfred Townsend of the New York Herald was the youngest Civil War correspondent. As a tribute to his fellow war correspondents, he designed and constructed the first monument to war correspondents in 1896 at Crampton’s Gap in Maryland.[16]

The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light (renamed Herald and Torch Light in 1863) and the Hagerstown Mail were the principal rival newspapers in Hagerstown during the early years of the Civil War. The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light supported the Union cause but had a readership that did not necessarily have an anti-slavery view. The Hagerstown Mail supported the Confederate cause. In September 1862 when the Rebel army came into Washington County and there was fighting at South Mountain and Boonsboro, the editors and staff of The Herald of Freedom and Torchlight fled across the border into Pennsylvania. The 10 September issue was just being typeset. Upon their return, the typesetting was continued under the date of 24 September. The editors stated that they refused to remain in the county as long as the Rebels were present.[17]

The editors of the Hagerstown Mail and Herald of Freedom and Torch Light carried on their own local war through the editorials with those of the Mail being particularly venomous. The anti-Union tone of the Hagerstown Mail was so strong that its editor Daniel Dechert suffered at the hands of the authorities and the local citizens alike and at one point, was imprisoned by the federal government for six weeks. On the night of 24 May 1862, the Mail office was ransacked and destroyed by a mob. The presses were broken and type and other items were scattered over the public Square.[18]

The mob consisted of men and boys who were angry after hearing a report that the First Maryland Regiment (Federal) had been massacred at Front Royal with Colonel Kenly having his throat slit. This was later discovered to be untrue, but as a result of the destruction, publication of the Mail was suspended for about 18 months and did not resume publication until the fall of 1863. In December of 1868, Daniel Dechert's lawsuit against the Mayor and City Council of Hagerstown for damages from the riot went to court. Dechert eventually received $7500 in damages.[19]

A lesser known newspaper, The Maryland Free Press (also known as the Free Press) was first published in Hagerstown in 1862. As an instrument supporting the Democratic view, its editor stated "it is intended that in its tone the 'Free Press' shall be Independent and Impudent, Fearless and Free..."[20] Very little is known about this paper; the early county histories give only a mere mention.


[1] Thomas J. C. Williams, A History of Washington County Maryland (Hagerstown: John M. Runk & L. R. Titsworth, 1906), 436. The terms “country newspaper” and “county newspapers” are used interchangeably in the sources. They refer primarily to daily and weekly papers published in small towns and villages throughout American in the 19th century.
[2] John Tebbel, The Compact History of the American Newspaper (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1963) 247.
[3] Williams, 436.
[4] Ibid., 436-37.
[5] “Increase in the Price…” Hagerstown Herald and Torch Light, 14 December 1864.
[6] “An Article about Ourselves,” Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, 17 December 1862.
[7] Ibid., 436.
[8]“Merchants Meeting,” Hagerstown Herald and Torch Light, 8 November 1865.
[9] Williams, 436.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Edwin and Michael Emery, The Press and America (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978 [1954]), 168.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 169.
[15] Ibid., 170-71.
[16] “The Civil War Correspondents Memorial Arch,” 2/15/02 on Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War
(http://www.civilwarhome.com/Gathland.htm) and (http://www.dnr.state.md/publiclands/western/gathland.html)
[17] “Our Office Unharmed,” Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, 10 September 1862.
[18] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1882), 1148.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 1146.
For availability of any of the early newspapers of Washington County, see The Maryland Newspaper Project: A Guide to Newspapers and Newspaper Holdings in Maryland, (Baltimore: Maryland State Department of Education, 1991), available at the Washington County Free Library.
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