I cannot conceive of a worst possible moment for the young men to deliver their false missive. Two weeks before, the three day battle of the Wilderness had killed and wounded some 17,666 Federal soldiers. And just three days later General Grant led the same weary army into the seemingly endless meat grinder of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, which this early morning of May 18th, 1864, was still grinding on, having killed and wounded another 18,400, including legendary Union General John Sedgwick. Three days ago, in the Shenandoah Valley yet another Federal Army, this one 6,275 men strong, had been ambushed by an even smaller rebel force in the Battle of New Market. The Federal troops had suffered 13% causalities, and retreated some 35 miles to Strasbourg, Virginia. It seemed as if everything the Federal government attempted in this third spring of the American Civil War, was producing only disaster. And then these young man arrived at 3:30 in the morning, with their missive, to seemingly drop the other shoe.
It purported to be a bulletin from the Associated Press, which had been in business since 1848, and contained the text of a White House Proclamation. In language typical of the President, it began, “In all seasons of exigency, it becomes a nation carefully to scrutinize its line of conduct, humbly to approach the Throne of Grace, and meekly to implore forgiveness, wisdom, and guidance.” The operative passage began in the third paragraph. “In view, however, of the situation in Virginia...and the general state of the country, I, Abraham Lincoln...by virtue of the power vested in me by the Constitution...call forth the citizens of the United States, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years, to the aggregate number of four hundred thousand, in order to suppress the existing rebellious combinations...”
The reaction to news of a new half million man draft, in the city which the year before had produced three days of rioting (above) in response to the first draft call in America, was expected to be even more violence. One hundred twenty had died in the summer of 1863, at least eleven African-Americans had been lynched, untold numbers beaten, and fifty large buildings had been burned down. Many on Wall Street took this as a sign the Federal government was losing the war, and they expected investors this spring of 1864. to dump their stocks for gold..
At first glance the notice seemed legitimate. It was written on the same cheap oily tissue paper used by the Associated Press, but had not arrived in the usual fashion. Several editors were suspicious, but there were only moments before the deadline to start the presses for the morning papers. Under this time constraint, and fearing they would be “scooped” by competitors, three Democratic leaning papers rushed the story into the print – The World, the Journal of Commerce, and the Brooklyn Eagle. But the night editor of the Times, a Republican paper, did not recognize the handwriting, and found it had not been delivered in an AP envelope. He held his own presses while he dispatched a messenger for confirmation. The AP editor replied, “The 'Proclamation' is false as hell and not promulgated through this office. The handwriting is not familiar.”
Wall Street was in an uproar that morning, with investors and brokers crowding all the newspaper offices (above), demanding an answer. Was the proclamation real or not? When the markets opened, the price of gold rose about 10%, but quickly fell back after William Seward, Secretary-of-State and Edward Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary-of-War, both issued statements declaring the report to be “an absolute forgery.” And if the administration had stopped there everything would have been all right. But Lincoln himself ordered the local commander, General John Dix, to seize the offices of the Journal of Commerce and the New York World, and to ”arrest and imprison...the Editors, proprietors, and publishers.” It seemed the bloody mess in Virginia was making everybody a little jumpy.
The Journal of Commerce was a small anti-slavery newspaper founded by Arthur Tappan and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph. But the owners opposed the Lincoln administration's decision to use force to put down the rebellion. So the Postmaster General had refused to deliver the JOC via the mail, crippling the paper outside New York City, where most of its 35,000 readers lived. William Prime, business manager of the JOC, wrote to his wife that afternoon, “Found on coming down town that we, in common with the World...had been hoaxed by a most ingenious scoundrel.” That evening Federal soldiers arrived to close down the paper and arrest the guiltless Mr. Prime.
Considerably less innocent was the two cent per copy, “New York World”. The paper was owned by the Democratic National Committee, and directed by the DNC chairman, August Belmont. In its pages anything with a whiff of Lincoln or Republicanism abut it was opposed. Every day the paper was filled with articles warning of the threat of the ballooning war debt, and criticism of the administration's military strategy. Its editorials called for repeal of the emancipation proclamation, and a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. It was the platform of the Democratic Party in 1864. But these were not entirely the position of the editor, Mr. Manton Malone Marble.
Marble (above) was a newspaperman with printer's ink in his veins. Employed as the Night Editor, he had bought the bankrupt World in 1861, dreaming of a non-partisan fact based style of journalism. But after just six months he had been forced to seek new backers, and the Democratic Party had eagerly stepped in. Marble lost friends and staff members when he signed the deal, and the joke among journalists in the city was that Marble was now little more than a conductor for the stories Belmont wanted in the paper day in and day out. But there was still a spark of independence in the man, and when he learned from an alert staffer, before dawn on the morning of 18 May, 1864, that his paper had published the proclamation, he ordered all copies still unsold to be withdrawn from street vendors, and dispatched a fast ship to stop and board a steamer “Nova Scotia”, to return the bundles of the newspaper bound for England - even buying back the free copy provided to the boat's purser. It made no difference, Marble was arrested the evening of 18 May, and the offices of “The World” padlocked shut.
That very night the member papers of the Associated Press telegraphed the President, strongly defending Prime and Marble. The next day several of editors, including Horace Greeley, of the Republican leaning Tribune, joined the chorus of demands that Marble and Prime be released. And it began to occur to Lincoln, that he had stepped into something unpleasant. He also had the calming influence of General Dix, who seems to have quickly suspected, along with the members of the AP, that this was not a rebel plot, nor even a Democratic one.
At the same time he arrested Prime and Marble, Dix also ordered the arrest of Joseph Howard, night editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, the only other paper to actually publish and distribute the false proclamation. Within a day Howard, who had previously been the private secretary to the abolitionist firebrand minister Henry Ward Beecher, confessed. He had conceived the fraud as a way to clear himself of debts. Howard assumed the false proclamation would drive up the price of gold, in preparation for which he had bought gold futures “short”, on credit. As one historian has noted, “Nothing worse was ever done for the purpose of speculation.” Two days later, on Saturday morning, 21 May, police detectives stopped and arrested Francis Mallson, a reporter for the Eagle, who had actually authored the fake telegram. Francis had just been drafted, and was on his way to report for duty. He had hoped the scam would provide for his family while he was in the army. The next day, Sunday 22 May, military authorities released both Prime and Marble. But the damage had been done.
Marble was in a rage. He laid the blame for his arrest directly on Lincoln's head. On Monday, 23 May he unleashed his pen, in a letter that took up several columns. “Not until today,” Marble wrote, “has The World been free to speak. But to those who have ears to hear, its absence has been more eloquent than its columns could ever be.” He then went on to do his very best to prove that contention wrong. Lincoln had acted, wrote Marble, “for the purpose of gratifying an ignoble partisan resentment” He wondered if the Times or Greeley's Tribune had published the Proclamation, “would you, Sir, have suppressed the Tribune and the Times as you suppressed the World and the Journal of Commerce?” He then answered the question for Mr. Lincoln. “You know you would not... Can you, whose eyes discern equality under every complexion, be blinded by the hue of partisanship.” George Templeton Strong, an diarist and observer of politics in New York, noted, “The martyred newspaper...vomits acid bile most copious.”
Marble now became the publicist for the Democratic Party, and its champion, General McClellen (above, center). He spent the next six months retelling and even creating every lie conceivable about Lincoln, charging him with wanting to force race mixing on the public, and ignoring the pain and sacrifices of Union soldiers on the battlefield.
And it might have worked, excerpt on 2 September, 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, Georgia, the rail and industrial heart of the Confederacy. In that instant it was clear Lincoln was winning the war, and the Democrats were revealed as defeatists, with no answers, only protests. That November Lincoln received only 33% of the vote in New York City. Despite that, he won the state, if barely, on his way to re-election, 55% of the popular vote, and 212 electoral votes to Democrat General George McClellan's 21
The World did not accept defeat, disparaging Lincoln's speech the day after Lee had surrendered, on the night of 13 April, 1865. It described the President as groping “like a traveler in an unknown country without a map.” The following night John Wilkes Booth murdered the President, transforming Lincoln into a martyr, and the The New York World and it's editor into a petty, vindictive and racist party mouthpiece.