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Role of the Media

Newspapers: U.S. Press

Tom Reilly from The United States and Mexico at War

The U.S.-Mexican War provided the emerging penny press in the United States with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate news enterprise. It was the first foreign war to be covered extensively by U.S. correspondents, and key penny press newspapers made expensive, elaborate arrangements to have their reports carried back to the United States. By combining pony express, steamships, railroads, and the fledgling telegraph, the press established a two-thousand mile communications link that repeatedly beat military couriers and the U.S. mail with the Mexico news. So effective was the express system maintained by the press that President James K. Polk learned of the U.S. victory at Veracruz via a telegram from the Baltimore Sun.

The goals of the war, however, left a number of editors perplexed. Even though they reported the U.S. victories with enthusiasm and financial profit, some worried about the moral consequences of the conflict. To Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, it was a war "in which Heaven must take part against us." James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, meanwhile, was an adamant supporter, arguing, "We are on the verge of vast and unknown changes in the destiny of nations."

Most penny press leaders threw their editorial support behind the war and at the same time established a New York-to-New Orleans express system to deliver news from the battle zones. The express system "is a creature of modern times," Bennett explained to his readers, "and is characteristic of the American people." Led by the New York morning dailies, a number of papers participated, including the Philadelphia North American and Public Ledger, the Baltimore Sun, the Charleston Courier, and the New Orleans Picayune. During the final six months of the war these papers pooled their efforts to operate the delivery system on a daily basis.

The pro war New Orleans press, closest to the combat zones, led the coverage of the conflict. Because newspapers of the day depended heavily on news from their "exchanges"-free copies they received of other newspapers the reporting by the New Orleans correspondents was widely reprinted throughout the United States. One of the innovative New Orleans papers was La Patria, the nation's first Spanish-language daily. Many U.S. dailies reprinted the letters from La Patria's correspondents and liberally used its translations of Spanish-language papers in Mexico, Cuba, and Latin America.

The star reporter of the war was George Wilkins Kendall, coeditor of the New Orleans Picayune. Kendall covered major battles from Monterrey to Chapultepec and Mexico City and gave long accounts of the military and political strategy involved. At least ten other "special correspondents" followed Kendall into the field, led by Christopher Mason Haile of the Picayune, John Peoples for the New Orleans Bee, Delta, and Crescent, and James L. Freaner of the New Orleans Delta. Haile, a West Point dropout, matched Kendall's reporting ability and provided readers with detailed lists of battle casualties. Freaner and Peoples, former New Orleans printers, became accomplished writers and gained national reputations under their respective pseudonyms of "Mustang" and "Chaparral." Freaner capped his successful career as an army correspondent by personally delivering the peace treaty from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., in a then-record seventeen days. Other U.S. correspondents in Mexico were Francis A. Lumsden, Daniel Scully, Charles Callahan, and John E. Durivage of the Picayune; George Tobin, the Delta; William C. Tobey ("John of York"), Philadelphia North American; and John Warland, Boston Atlas. The reports from the correspondents with the army often supported U.S. involvement in the war and the idea of Manifest Destiny. The correspondents also empathized with the plight of the invading U.S. forces, which often were isolated in the interior of Mexico; reflected attitudes of distrust and bias against the Mexicans; and promoted and reinforced the popular war hero images of Gen. Zachary Taylor and Gen. Winfield Scott. Taylor, benefiting from a wave of favorable newspaper publicity resulting from his battlefield exploits, was elected president in 1848.

A quixotic chapter in the war was provided by the colorful publisher of the New York Sun, Moses Yale Beach. Accompanied by Jane McManus Storm, an editorial writer for the Sun, Beach arrived in Mexico City in 1847 on a secret U.S. peace mission. The effort failed and Beach, suspected of assisting antiwar forces in Mexico, barely escaped arrest. Storm, a strong advocate of Manifest Destiny, wrote prowar commentaries to the Sun and New York Tribune from Havana, Veracruz, and the Mexican capital under her pseudonym "Montgomery." Storm made one of the war's more memorable observations about the press coverage when she wrote, "Truth always goes home in clothes of American manufacture. "

Also important to the war's coverage, a large number of U.S. printers followed in the wake of the army and established "occupation newspapers" in Mexico. Before the conflict was over, enterprising U.S. printers and publishers had established twenty-five such publications in fourteen occupied cities. Serving both the troops at the front and the public at home, these papers provided considerable war coverage. The occupation newspapers proved valuable for the U.S. military occupation of Mexico. In many instances, order was maintained only through the strict use of martial law, and many of the war papers were encouraged and funded by the U.S. military authorities because they helped the army maintain local control by publishing official decrees and regulations. Another valuable function of the occupation news was to keep the public, at home and in Mexico, aware of conditions and issues in the expeditionary army. The U.S. press often was the channel by which officials in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City learned of actions in the other capital. For the general public, it was the only communication link.