Bombastic Yet Insightful: Georgia's Civil War Soldier Correspondents

Article excerpt

Writing from Vicksburg, Mississippi, in early 1863, "Amnon," a correspondent with the Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel, declared that the North's siege of the city was doomed to fail. The Union Army was being "decimated" by death and desertions, he boasted, and if troops tried to attack the Confederate stronghold, it would become a "slaughter pen" filled with Yankee dead.' Two months later, however, a more subdued and chastened correspondent gave his readers back home in Georgia a vivid picture of the toll Federal bombing had taken on the strategically important city. The shelling had become so constant that residents of Vicksburg were indifferent to the constant attacks. "Amnon" described one elderly man who calmly sat on the front porch every day while Union shells flew over head. Despite the threat to his safety, the man never moved.2

The reporting of "Amnon" during the siege of Vicksburg was characteristic of the letters Georgia's soldier correspondents supplied to their hometown newspapers during the American Civil War.3 Written in the bombastic, inflated style of the era, many of the letters not surprisingly were little more than boastful propaganda proclaiming the superiority of the Southern cause and the bravery of Confederate troops. Yet other letters had a real human interest quality, contained excellent descriptive features, and provided valuable insight into the war.

Historians have virtually ignored the reporting done by the South's soldier correspondents, even though it constituted the majority of original news printed by many Confederate newspapers during the Civil War.4 Struggling financially, few Southern editors could afford to hire paid, full-time correspondents to cover a war of the vast scale that the Civil War presented. Instead, many editors made arrangements with hometown soldiers to send back letters describing their wartime experiences.

This study examines the soldiers' correspondence that appeared in the newspapers of one state, Georgia.5 More than forty soldiers corresponded with the state's newspapers at various times during the war. Some of the men, going by such names as "Private," "Bayonet," "Ready," and "Ogelthorpe," sent back only a handful of letters and were never heard from again. But other soldiers, such as "J. T. G." of the Columbus Enquirer, "Tivoli" of the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, and "Toutle-Monde" of the Savannah Republican, sent back regular correspondence for years.

Soldier correspondents were important because they provided much of the original reporting found in Georgia's wartime press. In relating the stories of hometown men fighting in faraway places, these volunteer correspondents provided readers with their own brand of "local" news, the sort of news that had not been emphasized by the state's newspapers before the war, yet had taken on added importance as newspaper reading increasingly became a part of daily life.6 While soldier correspondents had no formal training, they regularly used such reporting techniques as interviewing and firsthand observation. And the vivid, descriptive style of their letters was in line with the increasing realism found in writing during the nineteenth century. In these ways, soldier correspondents unknowingly, but significantly, were helping to influence the future direction of news coverage and reporting by Georgia's newspapers.7

The practice of American newspapers using letters from individuals as news goes back to the earliest days of the country's press. Reporting had yet to evolve as a profession, and enterprising editors looked everywhere they could for copy. Private letters from informed individuals to other private citizens occasionally were made available to editors who were glad for any bit of news. The writers of these letters frequently were referred to in print as "our correspondent,' even though they were not paid for their writing.8 Likewise, soldiers had been used by American newspapers to provide copy in all of the nation's wars prior to the Civil War. …