Thursday, May 25, 2006

More Suggest Reading: A little Civil War Journalist History

And you thought it was only modern journalists...

Despite the Tribune's militancy on the Kansas question, Greeley, often away from the office, displayed a tendency toward appeasement. He was constantly complaining about Dana's "radicalism," fearing that a strong anti-slavery position toward Kansas risked losing the Southerners among the Tribune's national readership. Mr. Williams quotes Greeley writing from Washington in 1856 to warn Dana against "plotting treason and inciting insurrection." There was a maddening inconsistency about Greeley, who had sided with Stephen Douglas in the late 1850s but sat approvingly with Lincoln on the platform at Cooper Union in New York when Lincoln gave his famous 1860 speech against slavery and dividing the nation.

Before Fort Sumter, Greeley's newspaper was prepared to accept the secession of Southern states, on the grounds that it was disinclined to war. Once war was declared, though, Greeley became an "instant supporter," as Mr. Williams puts it. "When President Lincoln called up seventy-five thousand state militiamen, Greeley called for five hundred thousand." Yet when the fighting proved rough, Greeley began wringing his hands like a veritable John Kerry. Mr. Williams thinks it "fairly likely" that, after the rout of Union forces at the first battle of Bull Run, Greeley suffered a nervous breakdown.[snip]

By the summer of 1864, Mr. Williams writes, "the time was right for a peace settlement to become a national political issue, to divide the Republican Party, and perhaps to overturn the Lincoln administration." When a political schemer named George Sanders beckoned the hapless editor of the Tribune to help arrange safe passage for Confederate agents to Washington, Greeley "took the bait." It was Greeley at his most despicable. At one point Lincoln likened Greeley to "an old shoe--good for nothing new, whatever he has been."

Greeley's reputation never really recovered from what some saw as a flirtation with treason. In mid-April 1865, with the war all but over, Greeley nonetheless wrote an anti-Lincoln editorial and was preparing to run it, Mr. Williams writes, "on the very night that Lincoln was shot." The editorial was never printed.

In the war's aftermath, Greeley, acting out of what Mr. Williams labels a "sense of Christian charity and fairness," spent a good bit of his dwindling political capital trying to raise bail for Jefferson Davis. Mr. Williams quotes President Johnson, Lincoln's successor, as calling Greeley "a sublime child . . . heart and no head . . . like a whale ashore."

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