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Sensationalist press

Communications in the mid-19th Century were extremely crude compared with today’s high speed Internet, CNN, satellite radio and video transmissions, and other high tech media. During the Civil War, the newspaper was usually the leading source of information, and it was often full of reports from alleged eyewitnesses, sometimes tinged with exaggeration, bias, and even mistruths. Verification of sources was not as prevalent a practice as in modern times. Still, one commonality exists between the 1860s and 2000s – the press was a powerful influence in shaping people’s opinions and concepts, and could be used to sway public action and opinion.

Even the venerable New York Times was not exempt from straying into the realm of tabloid media. Headlines on June 30, 1863, trumpeted the latest news on the Confederate invasion. With information from Rebel-occupied parts of Pennsylvania reduced to rumors and exaggeration, even the Times was not immune. Its correspondent wrote, “The rebel forces at York are 15,000 strong, under Gen. EARLY, who has issued an order levying a contribution of $150,000, 150 barrels of flour, 10,000 pounds of beef, 50 bags of coffee, and large quantities of sugar and groceries. He has given them 26 hours to comply with his wishes. Men of Pennsylvania, you see a foretaste of the fate reserved for you.[emphasis mine].
Well, Early was certainly in York, and he indeed ransomed York for supplies and food. However, he had far less than the 15,000 men claimed by the paper. In reality, his numbers were approximately a third of that figure. The amount of the levy was also inaccurate but at least in the ballpark – Early demanded 165 barrels of flour or 28,000 pounds of baked bread; 3,500 pounds of sugar; 1,650 pounds of coffee; 300 gallons of molasses; 1,200 pounds of salt; 32,000 pounds of fresh beef or 21,000 pounds of bacon or pork; 2,000 pairs of shoes or boots; 1,000 pairs of socks; 1,000 felt hats and $100,000 in U.S. money.
Interestingly, despite the New York Times’ dire warning that the rest of Pennsylvania would see a similar fate, few towns in the Commonwealth actually were held for ransom. Early, who had received nothing from his ransom demands when he occupied Gettysburg on June 26, received less than $30,000 in cash from the York citizenry, although he did march westward with wagons laden with huge quantities of supplies and food. The Battle of Gettysburg may have thwarted his plans to ransack Lancaster and other towns.