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A Cautionary Tale for Journalists

The summer issue of MHQ, The Quarterly Journal of Military History has a cautionary tale for journalists in a time of war.  In this case, it was Thomas Knox, a reporter for the nation’s leading newspaper, the New York Herald defying an order from William Sherman barring any correspondent from sending an account to his publication from his seat of operations outside of Vicksburg, Miss. 

Almost needless to say Knox did send a dispatch. Well, actually he had to send two — to get one through.

 In John Haymond’s article in the journal, the reporter’s original story had been seized in the military mails at Cairo, Ill., hundreds of miles from Manhattan.  Undeterred, Knox sent a second story describing Sherman as “exceedingly erratic,” reviving old ghosts about the general’s mental state and possible madness. Was Vicksburg turning into another disastrous Fredericksburg?

Sherman issued another general order, this one convening a court-martial of Knox for “being a spy” and passing on information useful to the Confederacy. Or the far lesser charge of disobeying an order. And yep, if convicted of the spy an aiding the enemy. The sentence could be death. Knox was found guilty on the disobeying an order charge.

Knox and the paper and its business and political allies appealed to President Abraham Lincoln to not only throw out the verdict but allow the correspondent back into Sherman’s operational area.

Lincoln threw the matter back to Sherman’s boss, Ulysses Grant.  The buck didn’t stop with him.  Grant shuffled the request back to Sherman.  The only way Knox was getting back near Sherman was if he enlisted.  Knox at one time said to Sherman he “had to supply the public demand for news, true if possible, but false if your interest demanded it.” (Quote also appears Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, 143, note 1).

Not only do we have a reporter making a case for “false news” if it sells, but we have a general court-martialing a civilian.  He had the military commission option to handle the matter. I have spent a great deal of time on military commissions then and now being the option for Guantanamo detainees in a book I am working on.

The real point is. “Sherman’s decision to prosecute a newspaper correspondent raised troubling questions about the line between the army’s legitimate need to control operationally sensitive informational and vital constitutional protections that guaranteed freedom of the press, even in time of war.”

Certainly echoing today — if not from the Pentagon, but from a thin-skinned White House and a president wanting to “open up our libel laws.” Ah yes, a 21st century rewrite of John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, but first someone would need to give the president at least three bullet talking points so he would know who Adams was, how laws are written and last but not least take libel out of state hands and put in federal hands.

Kudos to Haymond!

 

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