Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review of Craig - "KENTUCKY'S REBEL PRESS: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis"

[Kentucky's Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis by Berry Craig (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:173/215. ISBN:978-0-8131-7459-4. $45]

The American press's participation in the antebellum sectional debates over slavery and the conduct of its partisan organs during the 1860 election and secession crisis have both been richly explored in the historical literature. However, Kentucky historian Berry Craig argues that Border State newspapers have been comparatively neglected in this otherwise rich body of scholarship in favor of those plying their trade in the northern and southern states. His new book Kentucky's Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis seeks to address this perceived deficiency.

According to Craig, there were around sixty Kentucky newspapers in operation at the time of Lincoln's election to the presidency and nearly half of them represented the views of the States Rights Party. For the most part, these twenty-eight papers editorially supported the candidacy of John C. Breckinridge in 1860, and many of them espoused outright secession for Kentucky (or at least expressed great sympathy for the revolutionary gestures of the Deep South) once it became clear that a dreaded "Black Republican" administration would run the federal government for the first time. With Kentucky's nationalism deeply ingrained through pride and long-standing tradition, the author is clearly cognizant of how incongruous it might seem to find so many of the state's newspapers willing to countenance disunion.

The study begins with a very brief survey of the state of newspaper journalism in Kentucky during the years leading up to the Civil War. Unsurprisingly, the Bluegrass press operated in much the same manner as elsewhere, with many papers working in close alignment with particular parties, political causes, and politicians. Its members wielded editorial prerogative to puff up favorites and blast enemies with equal aplomb and often demonstrated highly variable adherence to truth finding.

Apparently, it is the case that more than a few Kentucky newspapers have been completely lost to history, with no known surviving copies of any issue. However, that is certainly not generally the case, and the book usefully profiles a good number of important pro-Confederate newspapers from across Kentucky. Together, the Louisville Courier, Kentucky Statesman (Lexington), Columbus Crescent, Frankfort Yeoman, Hickman Courier, Paducah Herald, Cynthiana News and Covington Journal seem to offer today's reader a fairly representative sampling of the pro-secession rhetoric that Kentucky citizens were exposed to during the secession crisis and beyond. Many cities and towns had more than one paper, with local editors dueling from both ends of the ideological divide. Some readers subscribed only to those papers closest aligned with their own personal views while others took a wider approach. Given that Confederate sympathies ran deepest in the Jackson Purchase, it is no coincidence that many of the papers referenced in Craig's study were located in western Kentucky towns. Of course, it is often useful when studying a partisan press to juxtapose it with the opposition, and a large part of Kentucky' Rebel Press is devoted to following the fiery, and often entertaining, ink battles fought between the secession-sympathizing Louisville Courier and George Prentice's pro-Union Louisville Journal.

The contrasting political and social perspectives of both sides, as recounted in the book, will already be familiar to many Civil War readers. While secession and Union ranks in Kentucky were both populated with anti-Republican men sharing similar conservative pro-slavery views, they differed fundamentally on how best their perceived interests would be served. States Rights newspaper editors believed that the Lincoln administration posed a clear and present danger to slavery where it already existed, and only an alliance with the southern Confederacy would secure their slave property and prevent inevitable federal emancipation and imposition at gunpoint of black social and civil equality with white Kentuckians.

Kentucky's Unionist newspaper editors also held Lincoln and Republicans in low regard, but felt that slavery and white supremacy in society and politics were best preserved within the existing Union, where these vital interests would be sustained through existing laws, the court system, and the traditional separation of powers. The mere election of a Republican president was not sufficient grounds in their view for taking the drastic step of secession. The book's bent seems to suggest that Craig joins most modern scholars in elevating socio-political concerns over economic ties between Kentucky and the North as the predominant force behind Unionism in the Bluegrass State.

The book also provides a series of informative biographical sketches of some of the more compelling personalities behind the newspapers profiled inside. While the long-term duel and relationship between proslavery Unionist George Prentice and Courier publisher Walter N. Haldeman predominates, many other lesser-known figures associated with the pro-Confederate press in Kentucky are brought forward (among them Len Faxon, John Noble, Samuel Major, Thomas Monroe, A.J. Morey, and several others). After Union military authorities moved quickly to suppress the "rebel press" in September 1861, a few of the most notorious editors were jailed for a period of time, some went south to join the Confederate Army, and others either closed shop or changed their tone. Interestingly, some of their most bitter professional enemies in the Union press lobbied for their release from imprisonment on free speech grounds.

Craig's study effectively charts the operational lifespan of Kentucky's rebel press from its origins during the 1860 election through its fatal weakening upon neutrality's ending in September 1861 (though one might argue that its ultimate demise didn't occur until early 1862, when shielding Confederate forces were forced out of the state completely). Initially, the Breckinridge press did not support immediate secession, but this cautious stance gradually transformed when Deep South states started to leave the Union. After the shooting war began, the pro-Confederate press, still unable to convince Kentucky voters to embrace secession, reluctantly supported neutrality as the next best option. As the book demonstrates, the critical moment came in August when Kentucky voters again decisively rejected States Rights candidates. This air of finality was reinforced the following month, when both armies flooded into the state after the Confederates unilaterally occupied Columbus and the state legislature demanded that only the Confederates leave.

A consistent theme throughout the book is the secessionist press's continual misreading, either willfully or through delusion, of popular support for their cause. The author admits that useful Civil War era newspaper circulation numbers are folly to estimate (let alone pin down) and the impossibility of retroactively applying scientific polling will always render unattainable any really authoritative assessment of the level of support for secession in Kentucky during the critical 1861 period covered in the book. However, as the author repeats, the commonly cited series of 1861 state election results (all of which occurred before Kentucky came under federal occupation) and the great disparity in volunteers between sides (which certainly could have been affected by the presence of Union bayonets from late 1861 onward) remain strong arguments for the state's fundamental Unionism.

The author also adds an interesting coda to his narrative with a final chapter looking at the postwar resurgence of the rebel press. Kentucky's embrace of the "Lost Cause" has been well documented in the literature (most recently by historians Aaron Astor, Anne Marshall, Christopher Phillips, B.F. Cooling, and others), and Craig cites the commercial success of returning pro-Confederate press editors. Perhaps most striking was the case of Haldeman's reestablished Courier, which rapidly overtook its old foe the Journal in circulation and purchased the competition in 1868, launching the combined Louisville Courier-Journal.

Ultimately, Kentucky's Rebel Press cannot help answer the age-old question of whether an open press most often drives public opinion or is representative of it, nor does the volume really contribute any particularly fresh insights into the limits of free speech during wartime, but Craig's study certainly does serve a very useful purpose as a history of Kentucky's pro-Confederate press and its decidedly unsuccessful campaign to take the Bluegrass State out of the Union.

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