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'Chronicle' grew despite early trials

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Like the city itself, Augusta's first newspaper was born with commerce in mind.

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The paper that would become The Augusta Chronicle was first published Aug. 30, 1785, by a Charleston, S.C., printer on Centre Street -- now Fifth Street.  File/Staff
File/Staff
The paper that would become The Augusta Chronicle was first published Aug. 30, 1785, by a Charleston, S.C., printer on Centre Street -- now Fifth Street.

Greenberg Hughes, a Charleston, S.C., printer, brought his press to Augusta in the summer of 1785, hoping to make money.

It was a shrewd bet because at the time Augusta was Georgia's capital.

His enterprise, which opened in a small building on Centre Street next to a popular tavern, could have been highly profitable if he had secured the state's printing contract.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

A Savannah printer got Georgia's business, and within a year Hughes had returned to Charleston.

Little is known about the first issue of what was then called the Augusta Gazette, which the record indicates was published Aug. 30, 1785. No copies remain, but evidence of its publication shows up in references in other Southern newspapers of the time.

New owner, new name

More is known about John Erdman Smith, who took over the town's newspaper after Hughes left.

Smith was a good businessman, but might not be graded so highly as an editor on today's standards of news judgment.

For example, on Jan. 2, 1788, his newspaper noted Georgia had ratified the new U.S. Constitution. It did so by simply reporting: "We have pleasure to announce the ratification of the Federal Constitution."

Still, Smith was a success at expanding his newspaper operation.

In stating his philosophy to his readers, he promised there would be "free and ample discussion of political topics," along with "the latest and most interesting intelligence ... both foreign and domestic."

Whatever he did, it worked.

The newspaper began to grow. On April 11, 1789, he even gave it a new name: The Augusta Chronicle and Gazette of the State.

He overcame a variety of challenges, from typesetting problems (apparent in microfilm copies of the earliest editions) to co-workers (he was often advertising for hired help).

But he kept printing. The Chronicle rarely missed an edition (with the exception of Christmas or when Smith was ill), and he made money, not only from his newspaper but also from other printing operations.

When he died in February 1803 of a "lingering and painful illness," Smith left the paper much better than he found it.

His successor took that success up a notch.

Growing with the city

Dennis Driscol -- who became Chronicle editor and publisher in 1804 -- made the paper bigger.

Augusta's merchants responded. In fact, his front pages were often filled with nothing but advertisements, but commercial information was popular.

Driscol boasted an extensive and growing circulation, and by all accounts, this was true.

An Irishman who disliked the recently defeated British, Driscol also began to take on other newspapers that expressed anything resembling sympathy for the recently retreated Redcoats.

The Chronicle began to grow along with the city and with the new nation under a variety of editors, publishers, managers and owners. It also changed its name, often adding a Gazette or Advertiser to its nameplate.

It increased its weekly publication to semi-weekly in 1817, then tri-weekly in 1821.

A.H. Pemberton, who took control in 1825, championed state sovereignty and was one of the first editors in the South to suggest states who didn't like the way the federal government treated them could secede from the union.

Pemberton's editorials even criticized Georgia's governor ("miserable, slavish, degrading subterfuge") for not complaining enough about the actions of President Andrew Jackson or the federal courts.

'Scourge' affects paper

By 1837, The Augusta Chronicle and Sentinel was a daily publication under the control of editor William E. Jones.

The newspaper made its new daily publication goal until 1839, when yellow fever swept Augusta and thinned out the ranks of Chronicle printers and pressmen.

In a city with a population of about 6,000, the "scourge" was everywhere. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 cases led to 240 deaths. By August 1839, the newspaper began to miss publication dates. It was stop and start through September, then Jones announced that publication would be suspended until his pressmen recovered. No paper was printed between Oct. 5 and Oct. 25.

In November, cold weather came and the fever died.

The next year, Jones sold the paper to two brothers with the last name Jones. It never was clear whether the three Joneses were related.

The Chronicle also found a political party it could support: the Whigs.

Led by Henry Clay and happy to elect former generals to the White House, the Whigs enjoyed some political power for about a quarter-century. They favored a strong Congress and a weak president and federal government.

Whigs favored states' rights, and so did The Chronicle . Whigs were also against the Mexican War, and so was The Chronicle .

Though proud to honor its soldiers as heroes, the Augusta newspaper assailed President James Polk and his war effort.

After the war, however, it was more than happy to aid in the election of Mexican War Gen. Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready."

Through the 1850s, The Chronicle was big on criticizing abolitionists and on showing off for its readers.

Its "king size" edition consisted of four nine-column pages.

'Sins of the past'

Then came the War Between the States, and with it one of the newspaper's oddest tenures.

For the record, The Augusta Chronicle was against the war and secession. It would follow Georgia's lead, if somewhat sadly.

In 1861 it also got a new employee -- Nathan Morse, of Connecticut -- who eventually became its editor.

It's unclear how a Connecticut Yankee came to lead one of the South's oldest newspapers, but Morse tried to overcome any doubts by initially becoming a strident critic of what he called Abraham Lincoln's "tyranny."

As the South's war fortunes faltered, Morse began to criticize the Confederate government and argue for peace. This seems to have been part of some behind-the-scenes strategy.

During the Civil War, Morse downplayed news from the battlefront. While other newspapers featured accounts of the fighting, The Chronicle offered other features.

When he did talk about the war, Morse praised the Southern fighting man but assailed the leadership of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

When the war ended, he quickly wrote an editorial called "I Am An American" and suggested those who didn't want to take a loyalty oath to the Yankee government could go ahead and leave the country.

Business pressures finally forced Morse out, and he left Augusta and went back North, taking a job with the New York Daily News. He also took four years worth of company files with him.

The Chronicle's new management quickly ran a public statement: "We disclaim all responsibility for the sins of the past, and ask to be judged by our conduct in the future."

Reconstruction era

That future soon involved the leadership of former Confederate Maj. Gen. Ambrose Ransom Wright.

Wright and The Chronicle became strident critics of Reconstruction government, federal military rule and the leadership of Georgia Republican Gov. Rufus Bulloch, a former Confederate quartermaster who happened to be from Augusta.

Wright backed up his words with action, too, once taking a whip to Republican editor E.H. Pughe on Broad Street during an argument over their political differences.

Wright went on to be elected to Congress in 1872, but then died. His son, Gregg Wright, took over, but died soon after.

That left The Chronicle under the direction of perhaps its most famous editor, Patrick Walsh, who would join with other editors such as Pleasant Stovall and James Ryder Randall in what was called a Golden Age of Augusta journalism.

Walsh was one of the most successful civic promoters and leaders Augusta ever saw. He was not only an editor, but also a mayor and U.S. senator.

A statue -- still one of the largest in Augusta -- was erected after his death and now stands in front of the federal courthouse.

Under his leadership, The Chronicle became an industry leader in the use of layout and typography.

Walsh was a strong critic of those who would mistreat former slaves in the post-Civil War South, particularly by lynching them.

He led not only the newspaper, but also Augusta. He made it a town that attracted visitors from the North, particularly those who wanted to avoid a harsh winter and spend the cold months here.

That tradition eventually would craft Augusta's identity as the place that would nurture the recreational pursuits that included the new pastime of golf.

Walsh was aided by Stovall. A native Augustan, Stovall grew up playing baseball with childhood friends Woodrow Wilson (the future president) and Joseph R. Lamar (the future Supreme Court justice). Later, Wilson would appoint him ambassador to Switzerland.

He joined The Chronicle in 1877 as news editor and quickly advanced, earning a reputation as a versatile and vigorous writer.

He left Augusta in 1890 and moved to Savannah and began the Evening Press , but before he left he provoked perhaps the most famous "letter to the editor" this newspaper ever published.

In 1888, Stovall wrote to former Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman asking him why he had not attacked Augusta during his famous March to the Sea -- an issue debated locally for 20 years. The most common theory held that Sherman was protecting an old Augusta girlfriend from his days here at the federal arsenal.

Sherman wrote back that the town lacked strategic significance, but that he would return and burn it if Augusta wanted him to.

End of the century

The last of this triumvirate was James Ryder Randall, a Maryland native who ended up in Augusta after the Civil War and worked for The Chronicle for two decades. He held several assignments, including editor.

In his day, Randall was perhaps the best known of Augusta's celebrated newspapermen. New England's Oliver Wendell Holmes praised his poetry. Back in Maryland, he was beloved for writing what became the state anthem: Maryland, My Maryland.

Though he left The Chronicle to edit other publications, Randall would return to Augusta and lived within walking distance of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where it was said he went almost every day to pray.

When he died in 1908, Randall's passing was significant enough that The New York Times noted it, and the Legislature in his native Maryland announced plans to create a memorial to honor him alongside another Baltimore favorite, Edgar Allan Poe. Augusta also honored him with a statue, which can still be seen in front of the Sacred Heart Cultural Center.

It was Randall who was chosen to write a history of the newspaper that appeared in its 1885 centennial edition. It offered this insight into the paper's first 100 years:

"Throughout this century of alternate gloom and sunshine The Chronicle held ... its own. There seems always to have been business management ... willing and able to hand down to the next the trust received from a previous generation."

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