Imagining the Worst

News Article Dayton Daily Empire 14 Oct 1864History gains more meaning when coupled with some imagination. For example, consider the effect of a typical news item on its readers in the autumn of 1864. Imagine yourself in a small city, perhaps in Ohio. A son or nephew or friend or brother had months ago “jined the cavalry,” and he wears the Union blue on the frontlines someplace in Virginia. Weeks ago, the last time you heard from him, his health was good, and his regiment was in the Shenandoah Valley. Like everyone in your community, you had scanned the long, long casualty lists printed in the newspapers through the summer and dreaded finding a particular name. The arrival of news from the front, even news of victories by Union troops, inspired feelings of anxiety. That summer and autumn, every day was a dangerous day for a soldier on the front lines. Even in victories on the battlefields alarming numbers of men fell dead or maimed. In the absence of definite news about the safety of your soldier, no news was arguably better than vague news. Vague news only plowed furrows in a fertile imagination and sowed seeds of worry and fear.

Most Americans, North and South, received war news late and in fragments. In the North, the Big City newspapers, particularly those from New York, paid correspondents to follow the armies in the field. The journalists telegraphed their dispatches to the main office and the news reached the crowds on Broadway while the ink on the latest edition was still wet. Readers in far flung destinations had to wait until other newspapers could reprint the stories from the pages of the New York Herald or the Tribune or the Sun or one of the papers from Washington, Philadelphia or Boston. Five days after the battle at Tom’s Brook, word of the affair was still trickling to small town Main Street.

A typical example of the second-hand news story appeared in the October 14 edition of the Dayton Daily Empire in Ohio (above). Cobbled together from two different accounts in two New York newspapers, the apparently heavily edited, error-riddled synopsis of the battle of Tom’s Brook filled about six inches of a single column and offered only a sketch of the fight. The story gave no news of casualties. To modern readers, the bare-bones treatment seems almost cruel in its tantalizing brevity. Ohioans wondering about the safety of some soldier in Custer’s division, in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry for example, could find little comfort in knowing that yet another clash of cavalry had produced more dead, more wounded and more captives, all of them still nameless.

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