On Illegal Leaks and Fake News
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
By the time the Civil War broke out, news had become a saleable commodity, with the New York Associated Press (AP) acting as the leading broker that enjoyed a close relationship with the Lincoln administration. President Lincoln dispensed with the practice of relying on newspaper editors and instead used AP as the news conduit. The flow of news, however, was tightly controlled by the War Department: AP received only information that had been cleared by military censors.
Although the system overall worked reasonably well, there were glitches which resulted in loud scandals. In June 1862, Charles C. Fulton, the head AP agent in Baltimore and the editor of the Baltimore American, was arrested for publishing an unauthorized account of the Seven Days’ Battles which the War Department considered a serious leak of military intelligence. Following public outcry, Fulton was released after forty eight hours and immediately published an account of his ordeal, much to the delight of Confederate and the Union opposition press.
On the morning of May 18, 1864, two morning New York newspapers published an AP wire asserting that President Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the draft of 400,000 into the Union Army. The news, which indicated that the Union side was losing the war, crashed the New York stock exchange sending stock prices tumbling down and raising the gold. The news, however, was fake, planted by two gold speculators well familiar with AP’s delivery system. This “bogus proclamation” incident became the only known instance when Lincoln actually issued an order to suppress the newspapers.
As seen in Eckert’s letterpress books, on August 1, 1864, AP again found itself in a predicament. On July 31, Fulton transmitted to New York a report which he had received from a source in Fortress Monroe. The first part of the report, which contained the news of the loss of the Battle of the Crater of July 30, had been cleared by William Bender Wilson, the head of the Baltimore office of USMT. However, Fulton tacked on an additional bit of news: his Fortress Monroe source also “says Gen. Grant has arrived from City Point at 9 a.m. & was met at Ft. Monroe by President Lincoln who arrived from Washington at 10 o’clock both embarked on the Baltimore & after going in direction of Cape Henry steamer returned towards Norfolk there avoiding all interruption during interview at 3 p.m. President returned to Washington. General Grant returned to army.”
This meeting was not supposed to be publicized. A private meeting with the commander of the Union army coming on the heels of the shocking loss of the battle of the Crater could be seen as a sign of panic. As soon as Eckert got wind of the report, he ordered Daniel H. Craig, AP general agent, to suppress the news.
According to Craig, it was too late, as he had already sent out Fulton’s report “all over the country fifteen minutes before the order to suppress it came to hand. We are now trying to suppress it but I have no idea we shall necessarily.” He also tried to minimize his role in the leak: “There is intense excitement & anxiety here & all over the country & the substance of the news was undoubtedly known to Wall St. an hour before we got our own report and that is always the case when there is important news.”
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 91: Center right (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49338)
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 92: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49339)