How wars are reported

My day job, inasmuch as I have one, is being a postgraduate student at Liverpool University, researching the effects of the American Civil War on the British raw cotton trade. In the past few months, this has meant reading every issue of the Liverpool Mercury between 1860 and 1865 – an estimated six thousand pages of newsprint.  

Within these pages, I have been reading about a bitter civil war in Syria, the activities of the Druze militia, the armed intervention of France in the conflict, the arrest of priests on charges of sexual abuse, the mercenary attitude of Americans, disagreements with France, comments on human rights, disturbances in the Falls Road and the Shanklin Road, and a dozen other things I could still be reading about if I picked up a more recent paper. Plus ça change.

I have also been reading about the American Civil War, day by day, as it progressed. This is the first time I have read about a major war as it happened, rather than through the lens of hindsight and history. Even with the wars of my lifetime, while I may have read about them every day, those days have been stretched over many years, and what remains as a recollection cannot fail to be coloured by the knowledge of how the wars ended, and by history’s interim verdict upon them.

The narrative of the American Civil War that is, I would guess, prevalent in Britain (although it will be different in America) is that it was fought to end slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln was a political giant, a man blessed equally with principle, courage and tenacity. The first proposition is contentious. It would take a book to debate it, so let me just say that, while the secession of the Confederate states was to do with slavery and little else, civil war was not an inevitable consequence of secession. The second proposition may not be contentious now, but it certainly was at the time.

The Mercury was a liberal newspaper. It unfailingly supported the British Liberal Government of the day and, on every domestic issue, reflected classic mid-Victorian liberal values. It was resolutely opposed to slavery. It must therefore, one might think, have been a staunch supporter of Lincoln and the North. Not a bit of it.

Throughout the war, the Mercury declared itself to be neutral, but that would not have been the impression of its readers. The paper was never actively pro-Confederate, but it was vitriolically anti-Union. It perceived the war as one of aggression and aggrandisement on the part of the North, and moreover as a war that could not be won. ‘The people of the Northern States are at last slowly awakening to the truth … that disunion is an accomplished and irreversible fact,’ the paper stated in August 1862. In October, it concluded that the Northerners would ‘stagger on in the useless struggle, in which they have not the remotest chance of success.’

In August 1864, Lincoln was portrayed by the Mercury as little more than a mass murderer: a worse tyrant than ‘Napoleon in the height of his arrogance,’ while his party is referred to as the ‘blood-drenched Republican faction.’ And so it went on, until it became undeniable that the paper had been wrong in every one of its predictions and assessments.

Early in the war, the Mercury declared that it could not trust Northern propaganda, so it chose to trust Southern propaganda instead, which was no more reliable. In late 1863, the paper stated that there had been twelve major battles in the war so far, of which the South had won nine, and three had been stalemates. This presumably meant that the Union victories at Antietam, Gettysburg and Vicksburg were all draws, while its capture of New Orleans didn’t count at all. At one point in the war, the paper had three American commentators, all of them based in New York, and all of them expressing extreme Southern views.

It might be thought that Liverpool was exceptional because of its trading connections with the Southern states. But The Times, which shared precisely the Mercury’s general political stance, and which the Mercury was fond of quoting, was in full agreement. In January 1863, it denounced Lincoln’s emancipation plan, claiming that the President was acting not for ‘freedom, justice, and mercy,’ but for ‘conquest, oppression, and massacre.’

Truth was an early casualty of the war. The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was twice wrongly reported as dead. Lincoln was said to have been assassinated four years before he was. New Orleans was reported captured several months before it was taken, and Richmond fell several years before it did. General Sherman was reported dead in New Orleans in June 1863, and was next reported to be preparing to lead the march through Georgia a year later.

Entertaining though all this is, it surely raises pertinent questions as to how wars are reported now, and whether we can trust either the reports or the judgments in today’s papers any more than the citizens of Liverpool could trust what was written in the Mercury in the 1860s. I don’t see that we can.

Communications are vastly improved, of course, so the instances of factual misreporting must be reduced, although still not absent. But reliable judgments are as elusive as ever. Warfare is inherently unpredictable, and the human race has no proven record of learning from experience. I have little confidence that judgments on the conflicts of today, including my own, will prove any less ridiculous than those of the Mercury.

But most people, and all newspapers, find it impossible to confess to ignorance. Statements are made with vehement certainty where there can be no certainty. The Mercury was not entirely stupid to declare that the North could not win the war: it was probably what most people in Britain believed, and many in America. It just proved to be wrong. If we could all be more honest in admitting our ignorance, perhaps we would be better at avoiding our ceaseless mistakes.