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Free Speech in the Civil War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2023

Arizona State University


During the Civil War, many Americans were prepared for censorship if free speech undermined preserving the Union. Journalists were unable to obtain timely accurate information on the military campaigns either for fear of helping the enemy or depressing morale at home. Self-censorship was far more important than official suppression of free speech, as spontaneous popular pressure curtailed freedom of expression at the beginning of the war and later on the army performed a similar function. For Federals, commitment to preserving the Union required treating Confederates as ubiquitous seditious conspirators. Combatting this internal enemy, in turn, especially in the Border States, required extensive suppression of free speech. Later in the conflict and right across the Union, the critical and urgent need to fill the ranks led to official censorship of any words that might discourage volunteering, and this conflicted with freedom of religion as well as speech and the press.

© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2023

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