Friday, January 18, 2013

What I think happened

Usually when I speak about Our War, my audience knows little about the book. My purpose is to describe its content, give listeners a taste of it and answer their questions.

This weekend I’ll be speaking with a different kind of group: a book club whose members have all read the book. I look forward to this because reactions – good or bad, satisfied or critical – are what an author craves.

I plan to start our conversation by sharing background about one chapter in Our War. The chapter tells one of the most startling of the fifty stories in the book. The subject is the destruction by a mob of a southern-leaning newspaper in downtown Concord on Aug. 8, 1861.

The paper was the Democratic Standard. As I write in the book, “Its content made it seem as though the Richmond Dispatch or Charleston Mercury had opened an office in a northern capital.” To most people this was acceptable, if annoying, before the war, but once the war began, some citizens decided that the Standard’s over-the-top support of the Confederacy took on the whiff of treason.

The challenge in writing about the newspaper's demise was considerable. That is because even though Concord was a printing town with three other prominent weekly newspapers, the journalism of the day was far more subjective than journalism today. Political parties financed the newspapers, whose function was to promote the party line, even in their news stories. For the editors, no story was more political, or personal, than the destruction of a newspaper.

My principal sources for Our War were letters and diaries, but I found almost none mentioning the mob attack on the Standard. The only letters I used were written by John B. Palmer, the paper’s feisty proprietor. After the attack, his agenda was to characterize it as a breach of the ideal of free speech, but his letters also contained statements of fact that were useful in telling the story.

In the many contemporary newspaper accounts of the riot, the problem was separating out the editorial biases of the editors and reporters.

Amos Hadley was editor of the Independent Democrat, which was actually the Republican paper in town. The soldiers of the First New Hampshire had just returned to Concord, their three-month enlistment up. Some of them were involved in the riot. Hadley made his bias known when he wrote that soldiers “do not return from fighting Treason in the South, to love and respect Treason in the North.”

Years later, Hadley also wrote the main account of the riot in James O. Lyford’s history of Concord. His view of the Democratic Standard as treasonous, and his desire to uphold Concord's reputation for civility, colored this account, too.

William Butterfield edited the New Hampshire Patriot, the mainstream Democratic paper in Concord. A well-liked figure in town, he was caustic and severe in print. He walked a difficult tightrope in 1861, as did most Democrats, attempting to oppose the war while supporting the soldiers.

Butterfield played the race card often but without quite level of hatred and disgust spewed by the Democratic Standard just down the street. His posture on the mob attack was defensive. If it could happen to the Standard, might it not also happen to the Patriot?

The Patriot’s coverage of the attack had two subtexts. One, the Standard had published nothing treasonous; its destruction was a foul assault on free speech. And two, the riot had been caused not by a spontaneous uprising by soldiers and citizens but by a long-stewing plot perpetrated by leading Republicans in town – the establishment.

After reading many accounts of the riot in partisan newspapers, I concluded that Republican attempts to justify it were rationalizations and that Democratic attempts to blame leading citizens for it were interesting but unproven.

My purpose was not to join these debates but to show what happened on Concord’s Main Street on Aug. 8, 1861. Fortunately, the papers of both parties from around the state – and of Concord’s old Whig paper, The Statesman – had plenty of eyewitness accounts by journalists. In writing my chapter, I tossed out many assertions that I could not otherwise verify and wrote around facts I could not establish.

There are questions about the riot I wish I could have answered, but as my historian friend Michael Birkner likes to say, “History is what we think happened.” Maybe more firsthand accounts will emerge in time, but for now I think I got the story right.

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