I cannot conceive of a worst possible moment for the young men to deliver their false missive. Two weeks before, the 3 day battle of the Wilderness had killed and wounded some 17,666 Federal soldiers. Three days ago, in the Shenandoah Valley yet another Federal Army had been ambushed by an even smaller rebel force in the Battle of New Market. And this morning, 18 May, 1864, General Grant was leading his weary army into the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, which would kill and wound another 18,400, including legendary Union General John Sedgwick. It seemed as if everything the Federal government attempted in this third spring of the American Civil War, was producing only disaster. And these young men arrived at 3:30 in the morning, with their missives, 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. 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 Lincoln's first draft call 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 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 it 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 declared the report to be “an absolute forgery.” And if the Lincoln administration had stopped there everything would have been all right. But Lincoln himself ordered the Military commander in New York City, 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 about 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 the position of the World's 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 the steamer “Nova Scotia”, carrying bundles of the newspaper bound for England. Marble even ordered the ship's captain to buy back the free copy provided to the Nova Scotia'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 the 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 confessed. He 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 into the army. He hoped the scam would provide for his family while he was away at war. 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 clearly felt betrayed and laid the blame for his arrest directly on Lincoln's head - where it belonged. On Monday, 23 May he unleashed his pen, in a letter that took up several columns of "The World". “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.” Lincoln had acted, wrote Marble, “for the purpose of gratifying an ignoble partisan resentment” He wondered “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 McClellan (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 cost Lincoln the election that November , excerpt that 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. History does that every once in awhile.