Thursday, October 27, 2011

HOW THE ENEMY RECEIVES INFORMATION: As Reported by the Washington Naional Republican 150 Years Ago

An article 150 years ago in the Washington National Republican alerted readers to  the Confederates' use of northern newspapers as their principal intelligence source on Union military activity.  Incidentally, the Washington National Republican went out of its way to call out The New York Herald, which was closely aligned with the Democratic Party.  However, the Washington National Republican's complaint was not so much that potentially sensitive military information was being published in northern papers, but that these papers were allowed to make it through Union lines and to the rebels.  In essence, the National Republican held Union authorities responsible for the problem for failing to keep newspapers out of the enemy's hands.   The correspondent certainly would be astonished by today's instant internet publishing.

Confederate troops stationed in and near Fairfax County were able to take advantage of gaps in Union picket lines to obtain northern newspapers, which were scoured for potentially useful information. As the war went on, Union commanders would become increasingly concerned about the operational security issues posed by reporters who could now quickly report Union military movements via telegraphic dispatches.  In 1863, General Joseph Hooker reportedly required correspondents accompanying the Army of the Potomac to attache their name to their stories, apparently one of the earliest uses of a byline in American journalism, in order to provide for some accountability.

 From Upton's Hill in Fairfax County, the Washington Republican's correspondent reported:

"That the rebel lines are better picketed than ours is a notorious fact.   While they were in possession of Falls Church, it is well known they received copies of our leading journals almost daily.  A copy of the New York Herald, a recent date, was found yesterday by a scout near Fairfax Court House, in a house within the rebel lines.  Of course they got no very important information from the papers of late; but the fact that the rebels get them requires attention.  It shows that there is a looseness on the lines somewhere.  The rebels so no communication between the families on their lines without a guard; while the families on our lines have easy intercourse with families without the lines, and, of course, through them with the enemy.  Why is it?  Our officers on the outposts, in many cases, don't seem to see the difference between justice to families who are so unfortunate as to be situated near the lines, and duty to our country...."

Ironically, other articles that ran alongside this story were detailed accounts of vessels, and the number of guns, to be employed in an upcoming Hampton Roads campaign.  The National Republican's editors rationalized their decision to publish this information by noting that the enemy surely already knows of it as the New York papers indiscreetly printed it.

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