Suppression of the Chicago Times

12/15/2020 Jacob K. Friefeld

By Dr. Jacob Friefeld

Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1863 (Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

The above excerpt from the Chicago Tribune captures the culmination of General Ambrose Burnside's attempt to silence Democrats critical of the Union war effort, including Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham and Wilbur Storey, owner and editor of the of the Chicago Times.

Following Burnside's defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Abraham Lincoln transferred him from command of the Army of the Potomac to the Department of the Ohio. While a peaceful department, especially compared to frontline command, its residents included several prominent anti-war Democrats, such as Vallandigham and Storey. Both men had been severe critics of the Lincoln Administration. One headline in Storey's Chicago Times simply read: "The Awful Calamity of Abraham Lincoln."

Major General Ambrose Burnside in 1863. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Exasperated with the anti-war Democrats, Burnside issued General Order No. 38 in April 1863. This order made those suspected of "treason, expressed or implied" subject to military arrest and trial. How far the idea of "implied" treason stretched remained unclear.

Vallandigham tested the order by continuing to criticize the war in public political speeches. Burnside ordered his arrest. The subsequent military trial sentenced him to imprisonment until the end of the war, but Lincoln commuted it to exile.

Outrage followed. Storey referred to Burnside in editorials as "The Butcher of Fredericksburg" and warned that Americans could now be arrested and banished for discussing the Lincoln Administration's actions "however disreputable and contemptible."

In response to the Chicago Time's fury over the banishment of Vallandigham, Burnside further escalated the situation. On June 1, 1863, he issued General Order No. 84, which aimed to end the newspaper's publication.

On June 3, two infantry companies marched from Chicago's Camp Douglas to seize the Times's office. Many in Chicago, including the Chicago Tribune, praised the move. However, this military action against the freedom of the press caused widespread outrage throughout the city. Prominent Republicans, including Illinois Senator Isaac Arnold and U. S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis, warned Lincoln about the danger of Burnside's proclamation.

Wilbur Storey c. 1870. (University of Illinois Digital Collections)

Lincoln, assuming messages from prominent Illinois Republicans meant there was little support for suppressing the Times, sent a telegram to Burnside to lift the printing ban. Yet Chicago Republicans criticized Lincoln for the move. Suddenly, Lincoln found himself caught between criticism from anti-war Democrats and Chicago Republicans who had helped him secure their party's presidential nomination. He sided with Republicans and sent Burnside another message telling him to delay the reopening of the Times. The second telegram arrived too late, and Burnside had already lifted the suppression order.

The entire affair showed that Burnside, who would go on to serve as governor of Rhode Island, was not yet a savvy politician. His order put Lincoln in an awkward position between the freedom of the press, one of his generals, and Chicago Republicans, bringing Chicago to the brink of partisan mob violence. The only winner was Wilbur Storey and the Chicago Times, whose profile and audience were only increased by Burnside's actions.

Dr. Jacob K. Friefeld is the research historian at the ALPLM.

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