Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2 Dec. 2020
Review by David W. Bulla, Augusta University
Lincoln's Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War
By Carl J. Guarneri
Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2019. Pp. xii, 515. ISBN 978–0–7006–2846–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

The New York Tribune had become the most important American newspaper by the start of the Civil War. Under the editorship of Horace Greeley, its daily edition sold in New York and a weekly edition was mailed around the country. But Greeley had competition for running the Tribune from managing editor Charles Anderson Dana. While Greeley was often traveling around the country, Dana was overseeing a corps of reporters and setting the direction of the editorial opinion page that was so vital to the entire operation. Dana, educated (briefly) at Harvard, was a member of the Brook Farm transcendentalists community and a chronicler of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. His brilliant hiring and mentoring of political reporters on the war seemed always to put the Tribune a step ahead of its main rival, James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald, in deciphering what the Abraham Lincoln administration and the military would do next.[1]

Greeley, too, was often at loggerheads with Dana, a strong abolitionist who spearheaded the Tribune's "Onward to Richmond" editorial campaign early in the war, urging President Lincoln and the Union Army to attack the Confederates and put a quick end to the conflict. Dana had injured the Tribune's reputation after the First Battle of Bull Run with an editorial demanding that Lincoln make major changes in his cabinet. His paper's weekly circulation dropped by twenty-six thousand readers. Dana cared less about covering battle results than about how politicians, especially Lincoln, interpreted the news and maintained public support for the Union war effort. Dana shrewdly evaded wartime censors by relying less on the telegraph than did the rival New York Herald. And, too, the Tribune had more accurate reporting of battles. For example, it scooped the Herald in telling the North that First Bull Run had devolved into a rout as Union soldiers scurried home to Washington.

Like many others, Dana was particularly frustrated in the first year of the war by the dilatory leadership of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Greeley, initially content to let the hotheaded Southerners leave the Union (a position Dana abhorred), thought Dana's aggressiveness was out of line and that it was costing the newspaper both readers and advertisers. Accordingly, he sacked him in early 1862, with six months' severance pay. In fact, Greeley and Dana's successful efforts to get inside information was boosting circulation figures. Yet, suddenly, the man running the day-to-day operations of the nation's top newspaper was gone.

In Lincoln's Informant, historian Carl Guarneri (St. Mary's College of California) covers all of this territory well, but the book's real attraction is its account of what Dana did after his time at the Tribune. Instead of taking a job with another newspaper (there were several suitors), he went to work for the new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, and therefore indirectly for Lincoln himself. Hence, his book's title. At first, Stanton gave Dana a minor role as an investigator with the War Department, where he dealt with petty crimes and frauds committed by quartermasters and contractors. Lincoln was pleased with Dana's intelligence work utilizing skills he had honed as a veteran journalist. In spring 1863, Dana reported to Stanton and Lincoln about cotton trading by military officials along the Mississippi. This prompted the president to revoke trading privileges in occupied Confederate territory.

When word reached Washington that Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant might have a drinking problem, raising questions about his competence to take Vicksburg, Stanton made Dana a special commissioner and sent him to investigate in April 1863. Dana's approach was to go native as a participant-observer in Grant's camp. The general thought Dana was there to investigate the poor pay system that delivered money to soldiers far too slowly. The troops, for their part, resented having anybody from the national capital spying on them. One artillery chief wanted to toss Dana into the Mississippi. Grant, however, was savvy and ordered his men to give Dana any information he wanted. He also had Dana sleep in a tent next to his own. The former journalist soon came to befriend Grant, whom he found to be confident, modest, and honest. He did discover that Grant drank, especially when he grew bored during lulls in the action, but he reassured the president and war secretary that they could trust the general.

Lincoln was much relieved, since Grant, unlike McClellan, not only liked to take on the Confederates, but tended to win when he did. Dana eventually persuaded Lincoln to put Grant in charge of all Union forces in the West. The general grew to trust the former Tribune editor's view of the Vicksburg operation, and Dana provided Stanton and Lincoln with intelligence on it. While in Mississippi, he also met William T. Sherman, who quickly informed him that he despised the press. But Dana's lasting impression was of Grant's humility and accessibility. He reports about a night in spring 1863 when Grant slept in the grass of a plantation, using his saddle for a pillow. George Meade's victory over Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and Grant's at Vicksburg gave the North much needed positive war news. Dana played a key role as intelligence officer in the latter, Guarneri notes, because Lincoln and Stanton "were often in the dark about the realities at the front" (154).

Guarneri traces Dana's intelligence work through the end of the war, when he restarted his journalism career as editor of the Chicago Republican in 1865. His forte was providing timely, accurate information—the new model of journalism that the war helped form. The Republican surged past Wilbur F. Storey's Chicago Times to the second spot in the city's circulation wars behind the Tribune. As Guarneri notes, Dana came to support Grant for president as Andrew Johnson faded from public favor. He also co-authored Grant's campaign biography.

Eventually, Dana returned to New York as editor of the Sun, where he favored exposés and sensationalist pieces. He fell out with Grant for refusing to appoint him as New York customs collector, a federal post. The Sun then crusaded against government corruption, including the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Though Grant claimed he was the target of unparalleled press criticism, Lincoln experienced far worse. The New York Times began to call the Sun editor "Charles Assassin Dana" for his withering commentary on the Grant administration (395). Dana also was seen as a traitor for siding with the Democrats in the postwar years; but this was no different from Greeley, who challenged Grant in the 1872 presidential election as a Democrat. Toward the end of Dana's life, he granted a series of interviews to Ida Tarbell about his Civil War experiences. McClure's magazine published these as Dana's memoirs with mentioning Tarbell's authorship.

Carl Guarneri's new book clarifies the close ties between journalism and political and military power, bridging the gap between the partisan journalism of the antebellum era and the new journalism of the century's closing decades. This exemplary biography of a remarkable Civil War-era journalist should be carefully pondered by all serious students of nineteenth-century journalism.

[1] Though Dana had not been a Lincoln man during the nominating convention of 1860, preferring Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, he and Greeley shared a disdain for William Seward.

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