The Muckraker and the War

By March 10, 2016Blog

ida tarbell

It was the spring of 1865 . . . the remnants of what once had been Confederate regiments had stacked their arms, the tattered battle flags were furled, the cause which had been so gallantly defended was lost and one by one the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of Tennessee and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi were disbanded. Those who had opposed these ragged veterans on the field of battle, while they may not have fully understood why their Southern foes had fought so fiercely, they did respect their bravery and dedication. Northern politicians, on the other hand, continued to wave the bloody shirt for more than a decade and exact reconstructive retribution from the prostrate body of the South. There were others in the North, however, who viewed the South in a far more sympathetic light, and were willing to publicly express such feelings. One such person was the noted writer for McClure’s Magazine in New York, Ida Minerva Tarbell.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, what the media now refers to as investigative journalism was then known as muckraking, and one of the foremost writers in this genre was Ida Tarbell. Miss Tarbell was born in Pennsylvania in 1857, and a few years later her father became an early oil producer in the town of Titusville. In the late 1870s, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company forced Tarbell’s father and other small oilmen in the area out of business . . . an event about which, starting in 1902 in McClure’s Magazine, Ida Tarbell would write a series of nineteen exposés on the mammoth oil company’s underhanded dealings. In 1904, these article would be published in book form, “The History of Standard Oil,” a seminal work in the field of muckraking which led a host of later writers to delve into the machinations of various other American trusts and monopolies. Prior to her exposé of Standard Oil, however, Ida Tarbell’s primary interest had been history, and in 1890 she went to Paris to do some research on the French Revolution. While there, she wrote several articles on Parisian life and women which caught the attention of Samuel McClure, the publisher of McClure’s Magazine, who invited Miss Tarbell to return to America and write a twenty-part series on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln that would portray the late president from a more progressive point of view.

Up until that time, the only works on the life of Lincoln were the hastily pulled together 1867 book by Congressman Isaac Newton Arnold of Illinois, The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery; the 1872 biography, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s self-appointed bodyguard, which was based on research conducted by Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon; and Isaac Arnold’s better researched and far more comprehensive second biography in 1884, The Life of Lincoln. During this period, the late president’s personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, were gathering material for their own massive Abraham Lincoln: A History, which was to present, in addition to an in-depth study of Lincoln’s life, the Northern version of the War Between the States, as well as to create the monumental and mythic figure that Americans know today as their 16th president. Shortly after Lincoln had been elected, Nicolay and Hay had received the president’s permission to write his biography, but after his death the two had to wait until 1874 for the release of Lincoln’s personal papers by his son Robert. The actual writing began two years later but due to delays, including Nicolay’s illness, Hay’s service as Secretary of State and the serialization of parts of the work by Century Magazine to help raise funds for the project, the final, ten-volume tome was not in print until 1890. After its publication, the books were sold door-to-door for fifty dollars a set.

By the time McClure’s Magazine began its Lincoln project in 1895, many in America, particularly Nicolay and Hay, deemed the 1890 volumes to be the definitive word on Lincoln’s life and presidency, but McClure thought otherwise and set Ida Tarbell on her task of finding new Lincoln material. She went first to see the ailing Nicolay, who was then the marshall of the Supreme Court, to see if there might be any unpublished material available, but was told bluntly that there was “nothing of importance left to be said about Lincoln,” and that her assignment had no hope of success. Tarbell, however, ultimately found more than a sufficient amount of material for both her twenty-part magazine series, which ran from 1895 to 1899, and her two-volume book which appeared in 1900, The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Since the publication of Tarbell’s book, enough new material has been compiled by a multitude of later authors to produce over 15,000 additional volumes on Lincoln.

While researching the Lincoln material, Ida Tarbell also found a wealth of information on various aspects of the War Between the States from both a Northern and Southern perspective. This material became the source for additional articles in McClure’s Magazine, including her sympathetic piece in April 1901, “Disbanding of the Confederate Army.” The article began with detailed accounts of the events surrounding the surrender of the three main Confederate Armies as they might have been witnessed by the Southern soldiers who Tarbell described as having “ . . . won as brilliant victories as history records . . .” The writer also sought to give her readers some true sense of the deep emotion the Confederate veterans felt as they sadly bid a final farewell to their respective commanding generals, Lee, Johnston and Kirby Smith. Even though Lincoln had attempted to obscure the fact that the Confederate States were, indeed, a sovereign nation by alluding to the South as nothing more than a region in rebellion against the Union, Tarbell’s article termed the Southerners who had conducted their brave resistance for four years as men who were now left without a country . . . a country she accurately portrayed as one whose government was now dead, its officials prisoners, its currency worthless and its constitution void.

Ida Tarbell’s heart-wrenching and even-handed approach to the South’s lost war, lost nation and lost cause brought forth an immediate response from her Southern readers. Letters from Confederate veterans poured into the offices of McClure’s Magazine offering both praise and personal accounts of what some of them had experienced during the years following the fall of the Confederacy. The letters came from men such as Charles C. Gibbs, the secretary to one of the South’s leading generals, John B. Gordon of Georgia, as well from former enlisted men like James J. Williamson who had served in Colonel John S. Mosby’s 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry and who, in 1896, wrote the book, “Mosby’s Rangers.” Williamson also told of his experiences as a prisoner of war in “Prison Life in the Old Capitol and Reminiscences of the Civil War” which appeared in 1911. One of Mosby’s officers, Surgeon William C. Dunn, also contributed a letter of appreciation to Tarbell for her article. A veteran who headed a law office in Richmond, Virginia, George C. Christian, stated in his letter that Tarbell’s article presented a very faithful and graphic picture, and he thanked her for the impartial manner in which she had written about his old comrades. Another attorney, William H. Payne from the Law Department of the Southern Railway Company in Washington, D. C., heaped praise on Tarbell by informing her that “the spirit in which you write is commendable in the extreme. Our story has been so imperfectly told by others and so completely misunderstood, and we have been so maliciously assailed that we have almost despaired of ever obtaining a fair audience before the bar of history.”

In addition to words of praise, a Confederate veteran from the west shore of Maryland who later became a lawyer in Baltimore, David Briscoe, also told Tarbell of the long-lasting damage the conflict had inflicted on St. Mary’s County. Briscoe stated that while the havoc in his home area was perhaps not as great as it was further to the south, there was an immense loss of property in the region, and as he said in his letter, “the bruised arms hung up for monuments, as the quandam soldier plodded in the ways of peace.” The writer also cited how the “young and strong” of the region had drifted away, how the lack of rehabilitation had continued year after year and how the deserted colonial mansions, as well as the most humble of abandoned homes, still remained filled with “the thriftless white and the roving Negro.” Briscoe concluded by saying that even after thirty-five years “. . . conditions deteriorated to a plane far below that of the years immediately following the close of the War.” This first-hand description of the situation, even in Maryland as late as 1901, vividly relates the terrible price the South had to pay for the North’s period of occupation and so-called Reconstruction.

Ida Tarbell, of course, lived in an era that was not burdened down with today’s onerous baggage of political correctness. It was a time of live and let live, a kinder age in which those who had participated in the War Between the States, be they Confederate or Union, were still recognized as heroic American veterans. It was a time when people in both the North and South respected the Confederate monuments which had been erected below the Mason-Dixon Line, when Confederate and Union flags could still be displayed and paraded side by side and “Dixie” could still be played in public without causing a riot. While America can never fully return to such an era of mutual good will and respect, perhaps the time may yet come when our nation might grow more willing to accept contemporary history for what it really is, an account of events and personages as they were actually perceived at the time, rather than attempting to make such events and people conform to how today’s diverse groups feel the events should have taken place or how the individuals should have lived their lives based on the context of current social mores.

John Marquardt

John Marquardt is a native of Connecticut but a Southerner at heart. After attending the University of Georgia, Marquardt realized the truth and the value of the Southern tradition. He served in World War II and spent his career in international trade. He currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. His Japanese wife loves Charleston and Savannah and admires Southern culture.

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