TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES


Fear and loathing in Dixie


American journalism has always been a field of endeavor that has demanded commitment and dedication to the idea that freedom of the press is a right that must be continually exercised if the concepts of that four-word phrase in the First Amendment – and the ones before it guaranteeing freedom of speech – are to be permanent fixtures in American society and help guarantee the other nine Amendments that follow it in the Bill of Rights.
The efforts of these journalists have not been restricted to the major cities or the nation’s capitol, but also in the deltas, hills, and valleys of Tennessee. Since the 1788 establishment of the first newspaper west of the Appalachians by George Roulston in Knoxville, the field of journalism in the state has been one of diversity and impact that has influenced the industry far beyond the borders of Tennessee.
These men and women who would come to dominate the industry in Tennessee were as diverse as the ideas they represented. They withstood public opinion, angry mobs, and even an entire army while maintaining their professionalism and the standards of their craft – one that would earn them a place in the annals of American history.
Among the first to rise to national prominence was a man named Benjamin Franklin Dill of Memphis. A journalist who would make a name for himself and the paper he owned as one of the South’s preeminent news organizations.



Benjamin F. Dill was born in Augusta, GA on July 5, 1814. He spent his childhood in the state going on to attend the University of Georgia and returning to his native Augusta to study law in the office of Georgia Judge Gould. While he would prove himself to be an adequate attorney for the day, Benjamin Dill developed a skill for writing and a working knowledge of the newspaper industry of the day.
In 1837, he arrived in Memphis to work as an attorney. He soon found himself spending most of his time, however, writing for the Memphis Enquirer than he did practicing law. A year later Dill moved to Hernando, MS as an attorney and bank teller. During his three-year tenure in the city he met and married America Carolina Walker, the daughter of local attorney Felix Walker. Dill and his father-in-law became close friends and soon moved their families to St. Louis, MO to open a law practice. Before the year was over, however, Felix Walker passed away and Dill closed the practiced and moved back to North Mississippi. He finally came to rest in Oxford, MS, where he founded the Oxford Organizer and served as it’s publisher and editor for the next 11 years. In that capacity, he developed and polished his skills.
Benjamin Dill moved again to Memphis in 1855 as co-owner of the Memphis Appeal. Dill settled into his position at the Appeal and soon became one of the leading voices in the city. While his co-partner John R. McClanahan handled most of the writing and day-to-day business of the newspaper, Dill maintained a strong editorial voice championing the city, the state and, as the nation moved towards war, became a strong supporter of the South. When Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, Dill and the Memphis Appeal became one of the most powerful voices in the Confederacy.
Following the Union victory at Shiloh in 1862, General U.S. Grant and his forces began moving on the West Tennessee City of Memphis. The streets began to whirl with activity as people loaded as much of their belongings as they could and began preparing to evacuate if the Union forces attacked.
The crew of the Memphis Appeal was also preparing. Dill had seen what was happening to other newspapers in Nashville captured by the Union Army and watched them fall silent or become voices for the Northern cause. Dill rankled at the idea of being used as a propaganda tool for Washington D.C. and, in April 1862, as the Union Army neared the City, he wrote:
"The Appeal will continue to be issued punctually in Memphis as long as the city is in the possession of the Confederate authorities. Should it, however, be occupied by the enemy, taking a lesson from the despotic suppression of the Nashville journals by Andrew Johnson, we shall discontinue its publication here and remove to some point in Mississippi where we can express our political sentiments and still breathe the pure and untainted air of Southern freedom... Sooner would we sink our types, press, and establishment into the bottom of the Mississippi River and become wandering exiles from our homes."
On June 6, 1862, the Federal fleet defeated the Confederates on the Mississippi River and General Grant started sweeping his troops towards Memphis. While the gunboats were engaged in a brutal battle and the Union Army was marching in, Dill, McClanahan, composing room foreman S.C. Toof and pressman Andy Harmon loaded equipment in a railroad boxcar on the edge of the city. With bullets flying, Dill, the crew and writers of the Memphis Appeal loaded into a boxcar as the train began rolling south towards Mississippi.
The staff came to rest in Grenada, MS 100 miles away and began publishing 3 days later. Their first lead story in their new headquarters was "The Fall of Memphis", followed by scathing editorials denouncing the Union occupation. The paper had left a correspondent behind in the City who operated under the noses of Union command and filed continuos reports with the paper keeping them informed of Memphis occurrences and what was happening in the city. There were many pro-Confederate people and families being kicked out of the city by Union command to secure it and the mass exodus instantly created a refugee problem that was enormous. As a public service, the Appeal decided to offer itself as a clearinghouse to find lost family members writing in an open editorial to it’s readers:
"No matter where you go in your exile, you can write your friends in care of our office in Grenada and they can do the same."
Numerous letters soon flooded in reuniting families and friends, who had been separated fleeing the city. The staff of the paper also developed a journalism underground in the South obtaining information and news anyway they could. Dill and staff developed a unique method of staying informed through the Appeal by stating in an open editorial: "Gentlemen who arrive from the United States with late papers will please leave them at the editor’s room over George Lake’s store, next door north of the Collins House. In these days of uncertain mail from the South and a blockade from the North, our facilities to furnish the news from all quarters can be increased by a little attention on the part of our friends."
It was a stroke of genius for Dill as copies of newspapers accompanied with other information allowed them to track the progress of the war. The Memphis Appeal, began making it’s way back into it’s former home city infuriating Union leaders. The paper maintained its hard-line Southern editorials and kept readers informed of Confederate affairs and Northern politics.
The accuracy of the reports in the Appeal did more than surprise the Northern command, they began an all out campaign to find the Appeal’s staff and close them down permanently.
The story of the newspaper’s escape quickly earned the respect of thousands in the South and it soon became regarded as "the Bible of the Confederacy." Wherever a Confederate soldier was stationed, the latest edition of it could be found in the camp or on the lines.
Escaping capture, however, was only the beginning of problems for the newspaper staff. The wartime shortages and rationing, forced the Memphis Appeal to become creative. They scrounged and managed to keep their wood-fueled one-cylinder Hoe Press maintained and publishing papers. They took on a Confederate contract printing money and conserving their ink supplies to make deadlines and, when supply lines were cut and ink ran out in Grenada, the Appeal pressman improvised with boot-blacking from the Confederate commissary and continued publishing.
When Dill wasn’t working to keep the paper going, his staff fed, and obtaining supplies, he was firing off editorial after editorial and informing his readers of the latest developments and troop movements of the Union Armies.
General Grant and his Army kept pressing South and soon had Grenada surrounded. One of the objectives of the General was to capture the Memphis Appeal and its defiant editors and put them out of business as it was beginning to factor into the morale of both Union and Southern armies. On Nov. 29, 1862, the fall of the city became inevitable to the newspaper. As in Memphis, Dill and the Appeal staff acted quickly moving their big press back to the rail yard and into a boxcar headed for Jackson, Miss. As artillery began pounding nearby, the newspaper staff pulled themselves into the train and headed further South.
By Dec. 13, the Hoe press was rolling and the Memphis Appeal back in publication on State Street in Jackson. Benjamin Dill and John McClanahan were back turning out fiery editorials defiantly speaking for the Confederate cause, helping raise supplies for the beleaguered soldiers and continuing their in-depth reporting on the war. Pressman Andy Harmon used whatever type of paper he could lay his hands on and the Appeal often varied from a six column to an eight column newspaper depending on what could be scrounged. It wasn’t only paper or ink that was in short supply, but wood as well and, on Jan. 8, 1863, an ad appeared in the newspaper stating:
"The Appeal would like to make arrangements for a supply of good, dry wood. It is needed to fire the boiler that turns the single-cylinder press."
The wood was soon donated and with the press back in operation, the newspaper continued to not only rail against the North and the war effort, but also kept a maintained a reporting base in the South that played watchdog on businessmen trying to profit on the war at the expense of the Southern people – earning Benjamin Dill and the staff many enemies among them.
For five months, the Appeal stayed in Jackson. When the Union Army began invading Mississippi and closing in on Jackson, people gathered in front of the Appeal’s office waiting for news on the advance and readying to flee the city when it came. While the Appeal pleaded for calm among the mob gathering in front of the office, Dill and his staff kept their eye on General Grant’s progress as he encircled Vicksburg and began an all out effort to seize the city.
By early May, the big guns could be heard in the distance as Federal raiding parties made their way towards Jackson. By this time, word had got to Dill and his staff that they had a price on their heads, but the staff held their ground in the city promising citizens they would continue to publish "until the evening and morning of the last day of probable security."
That day came sooner than they thought and almost caught the staff off their guard. On May 14, Grant and Sherman brought the Union guns to bear on Jackson. Both Generals had fresh copies of the Memphis Appeal in their hands brought to them by Scouts they had sent forward earlier and were determined to capture the Appeal. Before Dill could give the order, the veteran pressman began immediately tearing down the press and getting it on the road. There was no rail car to help them this time and the staff was forced to start towards the Pearl River.
As the Union Army blazed into Jackson on one end, the Appeal was literally leaving on the other side. A full 40 rounds of shot and shell ripped over their heads before they could get out of the way of the two commanders, who promised their superiors to put the paper out of action.
In an interview before his death, Pressman Andy Harmon told what happened next.
"We got all packed and ready to go," said Harmon. "Myself and Bassett, who was then foreman of the composing room, were the rear guard. We crossed Pearl River in a flat with our mules, and had just made the trip when the Blue coats reached the other bank. They had nothing to cross over with so they took it out in cussing us, and we gave ’em back as good as they sent. There’s a heap of men who feel mighty brave when they’ve got a river between them and the other fellows. We cut loose the flat and she went sailing down to the gulf. They cussed us some more and we mounted our mules and rode to Brandon, Miss., where all our truck had been carried."
The clicking one-cylinder press that had published in Memphis, Grenada, and Jackson, now cast its lot towards Atlanta and opened up shop.
In their first issue, the Appeal took a measure of pride in the fact that one of the first acts of the invading Union Army in Jackson "was to inquire as to our whereabouts, and they were not slow at expressing their rage at our escape. We flatter ourselves our evacuation was a masterly one and it was accomplished without loss, notwithstanding a number of shots were fired across Pearl River at our rear guard by the disappointed Yankees."
The paper’s reputation among other exiled journalists in the South led many, who had been removed from their profession by Union command, to find their way to Atlanta to assist the Appeal’s staff. With the new help and their information sources, the newspaper began publishing at full force. Letters from Richmond, Chattanooga, and other sectors of the battered country rolled into Atlanta and kept the Appeal on the cutting edge of teh news business.
The Union Army kept up its advance southward and by July, Governor Brown issued a proclamation suspending business throughout the state in order to organize a home defense to fight the invading forces. The Appeal hit home with hard editorials trying to raise the morale of the people and giving them the brutal truth at the same time.The Appeal stated in many editorials:
"...let us not be humbugged; to be forewarned with the truth is to be forearmed with the power of the deed."
In another issue, the Appeal scolded a ladies church group in Atlanta for soliciting money from residents for a carpet in one of the parsonages. The Appeal editors wrote:
"In times like these when numbers of our soldiers are suffering for covering to shield them from the chilling blasts of Winter, and their families at home are suffering for the actual necessaries of life, such action is not only condemnable but reprehensible. If any of our ministers have carpets on their floors it is their duty to convert them into blankets and send them to the Army. Let us hope these ladies will think better of the enterprise."
The editorial had its effect and the ladies abandoned their solicitations.
On June 24, the Appeal announced "an important movement which we cannot mention has taken place." All of a sudden Press reports stopped, the telegraph wires were cut, and the Union forces began bearing down on Atlanta. On June 30, 1864, Federal shells began falling on the streets of Atlanta tearing huge craters in the city. Benjamin Dill left a small press behind for the remaining journalists to use and began to mobilize his people. The Appeal’s staff knew the routine, however, and quickly loaded their equipment into a boxcar where they fled to Montgomery, Ala. to once again began publishing.
A few months later, Major General James Wilson and his 9,000 men armed with the latest Spencer Rifles tore through Alabama. Dill and McClanahan stayed at the helm as long as they could before packing it in and readying the staff to move.
The Appeal was on the run again crossing over the Chattahoochee River to Columbus, Ga. and staying ahead of the Union Army. They were still creating furor among Northern generals trying to capture the press and close it down. Two days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appamattox, the City of Columbus fell to the Union.
For the paper and the South, it looked as if the war was finally coming to a close. Union troops were immediately dispatched to the Memphis Appeal’s offices to seize the press. Benjamin Dill was in a corner, but decided to make a hard decision and play out his hand. In part because his wife had taken ill and would slow down the remaining crew. She needed proper medical attention and Dill knew she wouldn’t be able to receive it if they were on the run. He realized what Lee’s surrender meant for the South and, in a show of leadership, got his partner McClanahan and the staff out of town with the press and surrendered himself to the oncoming soldiers.
When Benjamin Dill was brought into the office of General Wilson, The Union general jumped to his feet with a broad smile.
"Have we caught the old fox at last?", asked Gen. Wilson. " Well I'll be damned!"
The fear and apprehension in the room ended when the general and the the parties gathered around Dill began laughing and shaking hands. Although sworn enemies, many Union commanders had admired the Appeal’s brass and it’s accomplishments.
The general poured Dill a glass of bourbon and gave him a choice. He could post a $100,000 bond and give his word not to publish the Appeal for the remainder of the war or he would be taken prisoner and immediately jailed. Dill paid the bond and was released.
With the Appeal now out of commission, other papers across the nation began to recognize that never, in the history of American journalism, had such a thing been accomplished. Dill and McClanahan, like most working journalists, realized that freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those that own one, and, at the same time, understood the responsibility that came with it.
From the fall of Memphis to Lee’s surrender, The Memphis Appeal had managed to stay one step ahead of the Union Army, kept its presses rolling, and served its community in whatever safe haven the staff could find.
Following the Appeal’s capture, Benjamin Dill and John McClanahan brought its Hoe press out of hiding and sent it back to Memphis where they resumed publishing six months later with "no unmanly excuses" as Dill later said in his editorial. Although battered and torn, the press made it through the ordeal. Types had to be ordered from Cincinnati in order to replace those that were destroyed in the journey.
Benjamin Dill reestablished his beloved newspaper back in Memphis and helped lay a foundation that would ensure its future success.
McClanahan remained a steady fixture at the Appeal and continued writing his fiery editorial stands. Many earned him enemies in the City in the Reconstruction era, during a confrontation in the summer of 1865, McClanahan allegedly fell from a window and died from his injuries.
The Appeal’s journey, the loss of McClanahan, and disease took its toll on the Benjamin Dill. On Jan. 5, 1866, Benjamin Dill died of an illness at the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis. His body was taken to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Court Street, and he was laid to rest in the city’s Elmwood Cemetery near his former editor McClanahan.
Dill’s wife, America C. Dill, took on the role of publisher at the Appeal for a short time while a court battle waged between her and John McClanahan’s heirs for control of the paper. She lost the case and returned to Oxford, MS, where she lived out her remaining years.



While there have been numerous articles and stories in the past written around the world about the legendary exploits of the Memphis Appeal during the American Civil War, there is very little on the founder Benjamin F. Dill. The Commercial Appeal did publish a book a few years ago recounting its past in the city, but what little biographical information is available can only be found in the Memphis Shelby County Public Library. A new book has been written by Dr. Barbara Ellis on Benjamin Dill’s life and times and is currently under review for publication.
The death of John McClanahan was long reported and believed to have been an accident resulting from his drunkenness at the Gayoso Hotel, where proofs had to be taken to Dill, who was bed-ridden at the time. Recent evidence has been uncovered, however, that proves the editor was actually tossed from the window during a fight with an angry reader. Because of the tumultuous Reconstruction era that gripped Tennessee following the war and the rampant corruption in the city, scholars say it may prove impossible to identify who was actually responsible. In any event, records from the day show that no charges were ever brought by the Memphis City police against his assailant.
For more than 130 years, both men lay in relatively unmarked graves. In a solemn ceremony held in September 1999, more than 100 people, including Tennessee Wars Commissioner Jerry Lessenberry, current staff members of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, representatives from Memphis State University, and other state officials, held a special observance at the grave sites of Dill and McClanahan and, with proper headstones purchased by Dr. Barbara Ellis, properly mark the men’s final resting places. In addition, when the Tennessee Press Association founded its Newspaper Hall of Fame on Knoxville’s University of Tennessee College of Communications in 1965, they called for 30 nominations from across the state from which they could cull 10 individuals for enshrinement as the Hall’s first inductees. Among the Tennesseans inducted in that ceremony honoring journalists in was Benjamin Franklin Dill of theMemphis Appeal.