Civil War Censorship: The Arrest & Imprisonment of Wheeling's Democratic Editors

This post is the latest in Zac Cowsert’s series “The Civil War in the Press,” which explores the interactions between soldiers and civilians, politics and the press throughout the Civil War. You can read other posts in the series here.

On Saturday, July 9th, 1864, Captain Ewald Over of the 6th West Virginia Infantry received an order originating from Major General David Hunter. The order directed Capt. Ewald—the military commander of Wheeling, West Virginia—to arrest the editors of the Wheeling Daily Register and shut the newspaper’s offices down. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Captain Ewald and a small cadre of soldiers entered the offices of the Wheeling Daily Register and placed editors Lewis Baker and O.S. Long under arrest. A soldier was posted outside the Register’s office, and the two prisoners were escorted to Athenaeum on the corner of 16th and Market Streets. A small military prison that housed upwards of one hundred Confederate prisoners, the Athenaeum  (christened “Lincoln’s Bastille” by the locals) now confined two United States citizens as well.

 This Sketch for  Leslie’s Illustrated  From August, 1861 depicts the Custom House in Wheeling, WV. On the right is the edge of the Athenaeum, or “Lincoln’s Bastille",” in which Baker and Long were imprisoned in 1864

This Sketch for Leslie’s Illustrated From August, 1861 depicts the Custom House in Wheeling, WV. On the right is the edge of the Athenaeum, or “Lincoln’s Bastille",” in which Baker and Long were imprisoned in 1864

Over the next seven weeks, Lewis Baker and O.S. Long remained imprisoned in the Athenaeum, despite their fervent efforts to secure release. Officially, Baker and Long were never told why they were imprisoned; no charges were leveled against them, they never saw the inside of a courtroom, nor did they ever hear from General Hunter. Unofficially, however, the two men quickly became aware of two possible causes for their detention. “After we had been one week in prison,” Baker reported, “it was intimated to us that if we would consent never to resume the publication of our newspaper, we would speedily be released.” Baker and Long “indignantly rejected” the idea. The editors further discovered that General Hunter had apparently thrown them in jail as “private vengeance” for their scathing critiques of Hunter’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. The editors lambasted Hunter for his removal of a 1788 statue of George Washington from the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute. “Such a piece of vandalism,” they scorned, “is without parallel in modern times.”

 The George Washington Statue was Returned to VMI and is pictured here with several VMI Cadets IN 1866

The George Washington Statue was Returned to VMI and is pictured here with several VMI Cadets IN 1866

The editors thought something even deeper was afoot, however. “The Register is the only Democratic newspaper in West Virginia,” they noted, “and we believe that General Hunter was used as a tool in the hands of certain abolitionists…They desired to crush out all opposition and silence all condemnation of their political schemes.” Determined to secure their release, Baker and Long penned numerous letters to a variety of Union generals, including David Hunter, Benjamin Kelley, George Crook, and finally Phil Sheridan.

The arrest and imprisonment of Baker and Long ultimately revolved around the politics of their Wheeling Daily Register. Although the Register’s editors devoutly hoped that the Union would be preserved, they spared very few kind words for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party managed the war effort. As the editors declared in June, 1864 (a month prior to their imprisonment): “The rebellion will not be crushed in ‘one hundred days,’ nor yet next fall, nor the next, nor even the next, if the statesmanship and generalship of Commander-in-Chief Lincoln shall continue to prevail.”

Lewis and Long’s views reflected that of many Northern Democrats. During the Civil War, the Democratic Party was riven into various factions. A minority of Democrats proved willing to let the South go and opposed continuation of the war effort. These Peace Democrats—often labeled “Copperheads”— earned the scorn and derision of many Union soldiers who often viewed them as traitors. On the other end of the spectrum were War Democrats, who essentially abandoned their former party to offer full-throated support of the Lincoln Administration’s war effort.

Most Northern Democrats, however, balanced a fine line in supporting the preservation of the Union via arms, while simultaneously criticizing how the Lincoln Administration prosecuted the war. As one Democrat noted, “While we all agree in the purpose of utterly annihilating the Lincoln administration and its policy we must also agree in standing by our constitutional government…and in an unfaltering determination to maintain the Union, under the Constitution.” Thus Democrats worked to convince voters that the Union needed saving, but not via the methods of Abraham Lincoln. Lewis and Long brought this brand of Democratic politics to West Virginia.

The Democratic Party critiqued many aspects of the Republican-led war effort: the suspension of habeas corpus, attacks on civilian presses, and the unpopularity of the draft. In particular, however, they keyed in on the issue of emancipation, which Democrats saw as the product of Radical Republican and abolitionist social engineering rather than a legitimate war necessity.

As the only Democratic newspaper in West Virginia during the Civil War, the Daily Register contained many of this criticism of the Lincoln administration, but they especially harped on the issue of emancipation. Baker and Long firmly believed that emancipation and the enlistment of African-Americans would only harden Confederate resistance and prolong the war:

Now, what we insist upon is, that all these measures are an original and entirely novel way to put down the rebellion, or rather to restore a Union—the end aimed at it gathers together the whole power of resistance, intensifies it, augments it, defies it. It says to the South, you had no cause to rebel: we give you every reason to rebel in our power to give…We don’t understand the wisdom of all this. Perhaps the Abolitionists may have a revelation on the point that we common mortals know nothing about. If they have, they ought to give out what it is, so that outside sinners may see it…We have still an abiding faith that this Union will be restored but we can’t see daylight on the present plan. The Abolitionists do, perhaps; but they don’t explain.

 Lewis Baker, Editor of the  Wheeling Daily Register

Lewis Baker, Editor of the Wheeling Daily Register

While the editors chastised Republicans for these war measures, they also doubted the sincerity of those advocating emancipation. “They are not working and preaching for the negro, but for themselves,” the Register opined. Republicans were simply political opportunists, advocating whichever policy kept them in power: “There is not one in the entire crowd who would not rather see the whole negro race exterminated, or the whole population of Africa exported and enslaved than to release their hold upon the honors and spoils of office. They are abolitionists by design, not by heart.”

Unsurprisingly, the editors of the Wheeling Daily Register offered a full-throated endorsement of former Union Army commander George McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. “With George B. McClellan at the head of our government, reconciliation will be easy. The rights of all will be respected, the Union will be restored and…the flag of the Union floating proudly over our whole land.”

Conversely, voting for Lincoln constituted “a vote to prolong the war four years more, with all its attendant horrors and demoralizing influences.” As the editors raged, “It is a vote for more money for contractors [sic], and more men for death. More taxes and suffering for the poor, and more drafts and heart-stricken desolation at our firesides.—More manly forms crippled for life, more widows and orphans, and all for the abolition of Slavery.” The editors concluded by asking: “Shall we do evil that good may come from it? Does the end justify the means?”

Throughout the Civil War, the Democratic press was often targeted for its political opposition to Lincoln, the war effort, or both. On our blog, I’ve explored the willingness of Ohio soldiers to take loyalty into their own hands and attack The Crisis, a Columbus-based Copperhead paper. In the case of The Crisis, the Union soldiers’ destruction of the newspaper’s office served only to make a martyr of its editor. The imprisonment of Baker and Long achieved the same effect in West Virginia. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, a staunchly Republican paper, thought the whole affair was foolish. The imprisonment of their cross-town counterparts, the Intelligencer’s editors opined, only gave their newspaper “a notoriety that it would never have otherwise enjoyed, and also, in addition, a new lease of life, if ever it starts again.”

 Union Gen. Philip Sheridan finally secured the Editors release in August, 1864

Union Gen. Philip Sheridan finally secured the Editors release in August, 1864

The Wheeling Daily Register did indeed start again. After nearly two months of imprisonment, the editors were finally released on August 30, 1864, having never been formally charged with a crime. One of their many letters for assistance reached the desk of General Philip Sheridan, who “at once denounced the arrest as a very gross outrage,” and ordered the men released. Sheridan probably understood that such censorship of the Democratic press hurt more than it helped, merely providing more fodder for charges of despotism and tyranny against Lincoln.

On September 22, the Register once again hit the streets of Wheeling, sharing the scandalous details of their imprisonment and thundering about the importance of “FREE SPEECH AND FREE PRESS.” In a particularly salty move, the newspaper reprinted the original article that supposedly offended General Hunter in the first place. The paper continued publication for years, and Lewis Baker went onto a enjoy a successful career in West Virginia Democratic politics post-war. The imprisonment of Baker and Long did little to stymy their opposition to Lincoln or their support of the Democratic Party.

The brief closure of the Register and the arrest of its editors offer a reminder of the complicated nature of Northern politics, the periodically contentious relationship between the Union army and the press, and the differing conceptions of loyalty circulating about the North. Loyalty meant differing things to various factions, and the brief militarism sparked by the Civil War at times provided avenues for Federal authorities to quash free speech. Such censorship often backfired, as in the case of Baker and Long, whose imprisonment ultimately gained their small paper great attention, sympathy, and sales.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral candidate at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. Zac has published in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, North Louisiana History, and Hallowed Ground (magazine of the American Battlefield Trust). He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Sources & Further Reading:

Wheeling Daily Register (online via the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America program)

[Wheeling] Daily Intelligencer (online via the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America program)

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Blair, William A. With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Herringshaw, Thomas William. Herringshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Biography of the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, IL: American Publishers’ Association, 1901.

History of the Upper Ohio Valley. Vol. 1. Madison, WI: Brant & Fuller, 1890.

Holzer, Harold. Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Miller, Thomas Condit and Hu Maxwell. Vol. 1. West Virginia and Its People. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1913.

Neely, Jr., Mark E. Lincoln and the Democrats: The Politics of Opposition in the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Rawley, James A. The Politics of Union: Northern Politics during the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868. New York: W.W. Norton, 1977.

Steelhammer, Rick. “150 Years Ago: Washington Statue Theft Caused Controversy in Wheeling,” Charleston Gazette-Mail. July 4, 2014.

Tenney, Craig D. “To Suppress or Not to Suppress: Abraham Lincoln and the Chicago Times,” Civil War History 27, no. 3 (Sept., 1981): 248-259.

 Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.