Many who deplore the partisanship of today's news organizations deem it a new phenomenon, recalling a tradition of "objective" journalism that perhaps reached its apogee in the mid-20th century. But newspaper partisanship is in fact an older tradition. As noted by historian William Ginapp, "Editors unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes. They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed. 'The power of the press,' one journalist candidly explained, 'consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.'"
The crucial year of 1861 saw that phenomenon play out in Chattanooga, and indeed, in other parts of Tennessee as well. The political parties at that time were the Democrats, who were primarily secessionist, and the "Opposition," primarily former Whigs, who were not. Noted Chattanooga historian James Livingood wrote that in the late 1850s, "each side had a spokesman — moderate yet serious, in the two leading newspapers." The Advertiser of 29-year-old, New York-born H.F. Cooper favored the secessionist doctrine; 22-year-old North Carolina-born James R. Hood advocated the Union cause in the columns of the Gazette.
The Gazette was the older of the papers, having started as the Hamilton County Gazette in the spring of 1838, bearing a dateline of Ross's Landing. It was published by F.A. Parham, who wrote that the purpose of the paper was to advocate for the economic growth of the area as well as provide information of a miscellaneous nature for the general reader. A single issue of the Hamilton County Gazette from July 26, 1838, may be found on the Chattanooga Newspapers website. The paper was at some point renamed the Chattanooga Gazette and passed though several publishers until Hood apparently took over in 1861. The Advertiser was started by Cooper in 1850. Later, another Whig-related newspaper, the Chattanooga Vindicator, was started in 1852, but did not survive to debate the great issues of 1861.
While few examples of these newspapers remain, as was the practice during that time, excerpts of each would be published in other newspapers with an attributing byline. Accordingly, it can be determined that in addition to taking sides in the impending crisis of the Union, the two newspapers also kept up a running battle of what might be termed local economic advocacy with the newspapers of rival towns in the region. In the early 1850s the discussion frequently related to the location of railroads. Snippets from the papers on that subject would appear in papers in Loudon and Fayetteville, for example. In 1853, the Athens Post condescendingly stated that if "all the railroads in contemplation pointing towards Chattanooga should ever be completed, it would not at all surprise us if it turned out to be a right thrifty business little place."
Another source of local rivalry was the location of the site of the future University of the South in the late 1850s. The papers sniped with papers in Huntsville and Winchester over the anticipated location. A piece in the Jan. 28, 1858, Winchester Home Journal accused the Advertiser of unfairly besmirching the Sewanee location, huffily stating that the Advertiser's comments were not "worthy of the consideration of respectable or high-toned journals."
It can be deduced that the political rivalry between the Gazette and the Advertiser lasted until the the late spring of 1861, when after Fort Sumter, Tennessee and other border states joined a Confederacy at war, which meant that a paper still in opposition to secession was deemed seditious. The Nashville Patriot and the Athens Post, both previously Unionist, then became advocates of Southern independence. It appears that the Gazette, in the secessionist view a "dirty little paper," ceased being published by Hood, who left town. For some months, it was combined with the Advertiser, the combination published as a secessionist Chattanooga Advertiser and Gazette.
In August 1862, Franc M. Paul began publication of a new secessionist newspaper in Chattanooga, the Daily Rebel. In early October 1862, the owners of the Rebel purchased the "printing materials, type, presses, etc., formerly used in printing the Chattanooga Advertiser." The now-famous Rebel could therefore claim descent from both. The Rebel's wartime journey is a story in and of itself.
Sam D. Elliott, an attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon, is the author of several books and essays on Tennessee history. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.