Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

UnCivil Words: Fake news and the partisan press–then, today.

Fake news, hyper-partisan media and the desire of some government officials to curb freedom of the press all seem to be hallmarks of our modern, fractured society. To many people, these problems are the worst they have seen in their lifetimes and have reached a low in our nation’s history.

But historians know better. All they have to do is harken back to the Civil War era. This was not just a matter of North vs. South. The partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the North was bitter and deep, even as the nation was struggling for its very existence. Harrisburg was not immune. Debates surrounding slavery and the role of blacks in society drove controversies that make today’s political divide pale in comparison.

A prime example is the Harrisburg Patriot & Union, the forerunner of today’s Patriot-News. The Patriot & Union was a rabidly pro-Democratic newspaper that was read across Pennsylvania, but which was particularly popular in Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties. As the unabashed mouthpiece of Pennsylvania conservatives, it was the Fox News of its day.

During the Civil War, the Patriot & Union was published once a week, but it came out three times a week when the General Assembly was in session. According to an article by the late local historian Richard L. Dahlen, the newsstand price was 2 cents and an annual subscription was $5. A typical issue ran four pages.

Its two publishers, Oramel Barrett and Thomas C. MacDowell, were implacably hostile to President Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party and abolitionists. Their editorials urged a conciliatory attitude toward the Confederacy that would preserve the Union by leaving slavery intact.

In August 1862, the paper even went so far as to undermine the Union war effort. Barrett and MacDowell published and distributed a flyer for a fictitious rally to recruit black soldiers. They were presumably trying to discourage white enlistment by disseminating the false belief that whites would be forced to serve alongside African Americans.

This flyer came out at a critical juncture in the war, when Union casualties were mounting and the Lincoln administration was calling for hundreds of thousands of additional troops. For Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, this blatant threat to the war effort trumped freedom of the press, so he ordered arrests. Barrett, MacDowell and two of their writers were taken into custody.

Before a military commission could be arranged to try the case, the four prisoners agreed not to discourage future enlistments and were released after being held for 16 days. Upon their return to Harrisburg, the four men were greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters.

Unfazed by their imprisonment, Barrett and McDowell took a harsh line toward Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Their paper called it “an outrage upon the humanity and good sense of the country, to say nothing of its gross unconstitutionality.” Barrett and MacDowell predicted it would lead blacks to “massacre white men, women and children till their hands are smeared and their appetites gutted with blood.”

Like many Democratic newspapers of the era, the Patriot & Union also issued a scathing condemnation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On Nov. 24, 1863, five days after Lincoln gave his now-legendary speech, the paper wrote, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

The same editorial also blasted Secretary of State William Seward.

“He did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the Negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism,” it stated.

In a spirit of “better late than never,” the Patriot-News’ editorial board published an official retraction on Nov. 14, 2013, almost 150 years after Lincoln’s speech. The editors began their retraction with echoes of Lincoln.

“Seven score and 10 years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives,” it said.

Walter Stahr, author of a recent biography of Edwin Stanton, and who spoke at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in November, said that many newspapers of the Civil War era copied other papers, which tended to “blend” the coverage. By reading the Patriot & Union, Harrisburg-area residents could view material from Democratic newspapers around the country, particularly the influential New York World.

“One could compare it to the practice of re-tweeting today,” Stahr said. “And just as today, that which is re-tweeted is the most extreme.”

Barrett and MacDowell both departed before the war ended. But as Dahlen’s article explained, their successors exaggerated Union military failures and ignored successes, giving the paper’s readers a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the war’s progression. By late 1864, with Union victory almost assured, it had lost credibility with many diehard Democratic readers.

It remains to be seen whether such will be the fate of today’s version of the hyper-partisan press.

Richard L. Dahlen’s article on the
Patriot & Union can be found by searching at

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