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 nations 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 Souths
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 its publisher and editor for the
next 11 years. In that capacity, he developed and polished his
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 its 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
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 editors
room over George Lakes 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 its way back
into its 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 Appeals staff and close them down permanently.
The story of the newspapers 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 Appeals 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
Grants 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. Theres a heap of men who feel mighty
brave when theyve 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
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 papers 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
Appeals 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
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 Appeals 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. Lees 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 Appeals 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 wouldnt be able to receive
it if they were on the run. He realized what Lees 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 Appeals brass and its 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
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 Lees 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 Appeals 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 Appeals 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 citys Elmwood Cemetery
near his former editor McClanahan.
Dills 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 McClanahans 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
Dills life and times and is currently under review for
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 mens final resting places. In addition,
when the Tennessee Press Association founded its Newspaper Hall
of Fame on Knoxvilles 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 Halls first inductees. Among the Tennesseans
inducted in that ceremony honoring journalists in was Benjamin
Franklin Dill of theMemphis Appeal.