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New book analyzes impact of Kentucky’s ‘Rebel Press’ on public opinion during the Civil War

Throughout the Civil War, the influence of the popular press and its skillful use of propaganda was extremely significant in Kentucky. Union and Confederate sympathizers were scattered throughout the border slave state, and in 1860, at least twenty-eight of the Commonwealth’s approximately sixty newspapers were pro-Confederate, making the secessionist cause seem stronger in Kentucky than it was in reality. In addition, the impact of these “rebel presses” reached beyond the region to readers throughout the nation.

In Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis, historian Berry Craig analyzes the media’s role in both reflecting and shaping public opinion during a critical time in US history. Craig begins by investigating the 1860 secession crisis, which occurred at a time when most Kentuckians considered themselves ardent Unionists in support of the state’s political hero, Henry Clay. But as secessionist arguments were amplified throughout the country, so were the voices of pro-Confederate journalists in the state. By January 1861, the Hickman Courier, Columbus Crescent, and Henderson Reporter steadfastly called for Kentucky to secede from the Union.

Before Kentuckians marched off to a bloody battle in the Civil War, Bluegrass State publishers and editors waged a bloodless, though heated, war of words. Kentucky’s press reflected the deep division in the Commonwealth, as several towns had rival Union and Confederate papers. Readers seemed to care more about the force and ingenuity of a paper’s prose—the more pointed the better—than about its accuracy. Polemical and even prevaricating editors and publishers were common in nineteenth-century America, especially in Dixie. Confederate papers were about as numerous as Union papers, yet they were unable to coax most Kentuckians to take up the secessionist cause. The fact that they could not do so perhaps adds weight to the argument that the press mainly mirrors, not drives, public opinion.

This compelling and timely study also showcases journalists who supported the Confederate cause, including editor Walter N. Haldeman, who fled the state after Kentucky’s most recognized Confederate paper, the Louisville Daily Courier, was shut down by Union forces. Exploring an intriguing and overlooked part of Civil War history, this book reveals the importance of the partisan press to the Southern cause in Kentucky. In addition, Kentucky’s Rebel Press raises questions that persist today—whether media reflects or shapes public opinion if the government should ever censor dissent in a democracy, and if journalism can ever be truly objective.

Some of Kentucky’s Rebel Newspapers:

The Kentucky Statesman was a secessionist, semiweekly paper established in 1849 in Lexington. Several other papers championed the Confederate cause, often in towns that had Unionist papers as well.

The Frankfort Yeoman was established in Frankfort on February 13, 1840. The pro-Breckinridge and pro-secession paper normally came out three times a week, but it was a daily when the general assembly was in session. Samuel Ire Monger Major Jr., the young editor of the Yeoman, riled the editor of the rival Union press, Commonwealth, until the two dueled in 1857.

The Hickman Courier was established in 1859 by George Warren and became one of the first Kentucky papers—if not the first—to endorse secession. The press was destroyed in a fire in 1861, and not revived until 1865.

The Louisville Courier circulated statewide, and it was Kentucky’s leading Confederate paper and the state’s only secessionist daily. Walter Newman Haldeman published the Courier in Louisville from its founding in 1844 until federal authorities shut it down in September 1861.

The Cynthiana News and Covington Journal were both established in 1848 and published by Samuel Davis. These papers tilted toward supporting secession while simultaneously supporting John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist presidential candidate in 1860.

Berry Craig, professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, is the author of numerous books, including Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase.

From University Press of Kentucky

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