Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Military Department of the Ohio (which included jurisdiction over Illinois), had ordered the arrest of former Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham for violating a military order prohibiting the public expression of anti-war sentiments. Having silenced one of the loudest anti-war politicians, Burnside now turned to one of the largest anti-war newspapers.
The Chicago Times was owned by Wilbur Storey, who had initially supported the war but then turned against it when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Times regularly featured virulent articles from the Copperhead (i.e., anti-war Democrat) point of view. A Federal officer called the Times “chief among those instigators of insurrection and treason, the foul and damnable reservoir which supplied the lesser sewers with political filth, falsehood and treason.”
Burnside issued a general order: “On account of the repeated expression of disloyal and incendiary sentiments, the publication of the newspaper known as the Chicago Times is hereby suppressed.”
At 3 a.m. on June 3, Federal cavalry rode up to the Times building, with two infantry companies from Camp Douglas arriving an hour later in support. Troops seized control of the building, stopped the presses, destroyed newspapers already printed, and announced that the Times was hereby out of business.
Burnside’s order infuriated many northerners, especially since it came so soon after his controversial arrest of Vallandigham for speaking out against the war. Chicago Mayor F.C. Sherman presided over a meeting held by city leaders at noon. Expressing outrage that Burnside had trampled upon the constitutional freedom of the press, the attendees unanimously demanded that President Lincoln revoke the Times’s closure.
That afternoon, the lower house of the Illinois legislature at Springfield condemned Burnside’s suppression, calling it “so revolutionary and despotic” that it was “equivalent to the overthrow of our government.” That night, some “20,000 loyal citizens,” including many supporters of Lincoln’s administration, gathered in Chicago’s Court House Square to hear speeches denouncing military suppression of constitutional liberties and cheering the legislature’s condemnation.
In New York City, Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune, led a meeting of over a dozen newspaper and magazine editors who unanimously declared “the right of the press to criticize firmly and fearlessly the acts of those charged with the administration of the Government, and those of all their civil and military subordinates.” According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:
“The arrest of Vallandigham and the order to suppress the circulation of the Chicago Times in his military district issued by General Burnside have created much feeling. It should not be otherwise. The proceedings were arbitrary and injudicious. It gives bad men the right of questions, an advantage of which they avail themselves. Good men, who wish to support the Administration, find it difficult to defend these acts. They are Burnside’s, unprompted, I think, by any member of the Administration, and yet the responsibility is here unless they are disavowed and B. called to an account, which cannot be done. The President–and I think every member of the Cabinet–regrets what has been done, but as to the measures which should now be taken there are probably differences. The constitutional rights of the parties injured are undoubtedly infringed upon.”
Recognizing the political consequences of Burnside’s actions, Lincoln directed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to have Burnside revoke his order. Stanton also directed Burnside, through Lincoln, to stop issuing such orders without prior War Department approval. The Chicago Times resumed publication with the declaration that “the right of free speech has not passed away… we have, then, still a free press.” But its temporary closure was enough to become yet another rallying point for northerners to criticize Lincoln’s abuse of civil liberties and his conduct of the war.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.