Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began On the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Melissa Block speaks with Harold Holzer, author of several books on the Civil War period, about what newspapers said back then — both in the North and the South.
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Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began

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Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began

Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began

Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began

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On the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Melissa Block speaks with Harold Holzer, author of several books on the Civil War period, about what newspapers said back then — both in the North and the South.

: Welcome to the program.

: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

: Let's start with The New York Times on that day leading up to the first shots being fired on Fort Sumter. The New York Times had a brief item from Charleston, talking about intense excitement in the city. And it has a map, actually, of the forts in Charleston Harbor; lots of anticipation leading up to that day.

: Absolutely. And a map itself was a rarity. It was a declaration by the publisher that something special was afoot, indeed, because the newspapers were very gray in those days, bereft of illustration, unless they were the picture weeklies. So the Times is heralding the kind of breathless anticipation that's gripping the whole country.

: You know, there's this fascinating little footnote on the front page of the New York Times on this day - 1861 - that the minister to Guatemala is contemplating introducing the American cotton gin into Central America - which, when you think about the growth of slavery and what fueled that, is fascinating.

: I mean, it's too ironic for words. The cotton gin was the invention that caused any Southern hopes or belief in ending slavery to vanish with the excitement of having the economy doubled and tripled with the introduction of the gin. So here, as the United States prepares to go to war with itself on the issue of slavery, someone is sort of innocently reporting that the cotton gin is being brought to those poor workers in another region.

: And lots of stories from around the country about war departments being overwhelmed with volunteers on both sides - Union and Confederate.

: But yeah, this is a show. The Charleston ladies and gentlemen are on their rooftops, waiting for this moment. They all know that General Beauregard is on hand, ready to lower his sword and commence the firing. And by the way, with all due respect to the press, General Beauregard has given the honor of firing the symbolic first shot to a newspaper editor, Edmund Ruffin - which is sort of fitting because you can say that newspapers really helped fire up the agitation up to this moment, so why not pull the switch?

: There's an intriguing item here in the Baltimore Sun, on the front page - a story out of Chicago, talking about 100 fugitive slaves in Chicago fleeing to Canada. And there's a description of them getting on a train, and great cheering and the waving of hats as they head north.

: And I think what was being witnessed was a demonstration of relief. They wanted - as much as the fire-eaters in the South, African Americans wanted this war to commence. They knew that this man, Lincoln, had said the tug has to come, and better now than later. So they were ready.

: Well, let's end in the South. I'm looking here at the Daily Dispatch from Richmond, Virginia; April 12, 1861. Price: one cent. Really not much at all about what's going on in Charleston - the front pages consumed with the Secession Convention in Virginia. Virginia has not yet seceded from the Union.

: Virginia isn't altogether certain that it's going to support secession. And I think, really, Virginia is hoping that the crisis is averted in South Carolina, and perhaps moves to the federal forts in more remote Florida.

: And, of course, that did not happen. The shots on Fort Sumter - and it didn't take long before Virginia did, in fact, secede.

: And then the die was cast, and the war became inevitable.

: Well, Harold Holzer, thanks for looking through the front pages from April 12, 1861, with us. Appreciate it.

: My pleasure. Thank you.

: Harold Holzer is editor, most recently, of the book "The New York Times Complete Civil War."

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