Academic journal article Journalism History

Necessity and the Invention of a Newspaper: Gov. Zebulon B. Vance's Conservative, 1864-65

Academic journal article Journalism History

Necessity and the Invention of a Newspaper: Gov. Zebulon B. Vance's Conservative, 1864-65

Article excerpt

Starting a newspaper in the nineteenth century was a risky business, and this was especially true in the Civil War South where invading armies, spiraling inflation, and conscription laws were constant threats to physical facilities, financial success, and manpower. Despite this, North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance and the state's Conservative political party found the money and the will to establish a new daily to support the his re-election bid in 1864. Campaign papers were common in the 1800s, but while most shut down following an election, the Conservative continued to publish after Vance won. Records and archives document how it was financed, equipped, and staffed, providing an unprecedented glimpse into what it took to start a newspaper not only in the nineteenth century but during America's bloodiest war.

It would not appear to have been a particularly auspicious time or place in North Carolina in April 1864 to start up any new business, especially one as risky as a newspaper. For one thing, inflation was soaring; as the year opened, it took twenty Confederate dollars to purchase $1 in gold.1 Then, there was the problem of equipping a printing plant in a country whose ports were blockaded by the enemy and whose manufacturing infrastructure did not extend to printing presses or type. Furthermore, reliable, sober printers were mostly either dead or in the army, and hopes for a Confederate military victory had been dimmed, perhaps even extinguished, by the previous summer's defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg and the fall's loss of Chattanooga (again).

In North Carolina, political unrest was escalating. The state's peace movement, fueled by public discontent with the Confederate government, had gained considerable influence in the summer of 1863, and that shift in power led to angry confrontations between pro-peace and pro-war factions. Two newspapers, the Raleigh Standard and the Raleigh State Journal, had been victims of that discontent. Both newspapers were mobbed, the Standard by a unit of soldiers who were incensed by its calls for peace, and the State Journal by a mob of Standard supporters who sought revenge on a pro-war paper. Even before the war, the financial risks of owning a newspaper had made publishing a venture for the stout of heart or the eternal optimist. With the added pressures of the wartime economy, establishing a brand-new newspaper - one whose audience, advertising base, staff, and facilities had to be created from the ground up - would have struck many as the action of a desperate fool.2 Incumbent North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance was no fool, but he was desperate. His friends must have been desperate, too, for they joined him in the venture.

One of those friends, George Little, would have the official role of treasurer for the establishment of the governor's newspaper, but he would serve an important unofficial role as well: archivist. His penchant for record keeping makes it possible to construct the process of creating, staffing, and equipping a newspaper from the ground up in the midst of America's bloodiest war, for he kept thorough, if not entirely complete, files of financial records and correspondence related to the creation of the Conservative. Those records, and others used in this research, are housed at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. The politics that created Vance's profound need for a newspaper and the business of estab- lishing it are the subject of this article. More precisely, this research briefly examines the political reasons for the formation of the Con- servative and then lays out what Little's archive reveals about the business aspects of setting up a newspaper during the Civil War. This look at the intersection of political aspirations with business affairs provides a glimpse into the nature of the financial connec- tions between politics and newspapers in antebellum and Civil War America. Readers also will learn how much money, how much equipment, and how much staff it took to start a paper during the Civil War. …

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