Thursday, June 22, 2017

Putting heads on Civil War tales

     They don't make headlines like they used to.
     As dying newspapers lay off their ink-stained copy editors, we may never see another headline quite like this verbless wonder written by Vincent Musetto for the New York Post in 1983—the most unforgettable head in the history of journalism.

     Headline writing is an art. It may be a dying art—a victim of malnewstrition—but the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) still has a Headline of the Year contest to recognize the finest examples. Here are links to the winners for 2016 and 2015
     At The Stoneman Gazette, we take pride in our headlines and have never laid off a copy editor. If ACES ever adds a prize category for anachronistic online newspapers, we'd like to nominate a few of the following favorites.
     If you feel the urge to click on any of these blue links, go hug a headline writer. 

Rebels and their bridge fall for Yankee-pranky
If you're ever caught in a headline fight, remember that the pun is mightier than the sword. This story describes a ruse involving a Union captain (a 27-year-old teacher with the unlikely name of Erastus Cratty Moderwell) who impersonated Gen. George Stoneman to intimidate superior Confederate forces. The rebels unwittingly surrendered the Nation Ford railroad trestle connecting the Carolinas, and the Yankees burned it down before Jefferson Davis could cross it.

Here's my double-headed homage to Vincent Musetto (who died four weeks after we ended the daily run of The Stoneman Gazette). When the Yankees headed south out of Asheville and crossed the Blue Ridge at Caesars Head, they looked down on rebellious South Carolina in more ways than one. While they were descending, they were also condescending.

Good headlines should make readers feel personally invested or amazed. I think this one succeeds on both counts. Over 150 years later, America is still paying a Civil War pension—and the monthly checks happen to be going to the daughter of one of Stoneman's veterans. In a different era, this 1938 Gettysburg headline about her father also did a good job of enticing readers.

The longest raid begins with a single debt
Headline writers often start with a familiar phrase and then twist it like one of Sherman's neckties. You can understand why we wrote raid instead of journey, and here's why we changed step to debt: After rebels captured Gen. Stoneman in 1864, he became the highest-ranked prisoner in the South and a laughingstock in some parts of the North. So when he got a chance to vindicate himself with a thousand-mile raid in 1865, he declared, "I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate."

The story includes a quote about s-e-x from Myles Keogh, a debonair Yankee officer and international man of mystery. We resisted the temptation to use that cheap clickbait in our headline, because it would have been beneath our dignity. Instead, we'll tease you with it here—beneath our headline.

The Kingston Trio and Doc Watson were also part of this story, but the title characters were both fiddlers, and young Tom fiddled around in more ways than one. In fact, he had a harem of cousins. For headline writers, a double entendre is the triple crown. 

Pyres in Salisbury, but a pyrrhic victory for rebs
It's a rare headline that can pair two pyr-words. It almost makes me want to go back and rewrite the story in inverted pyramid. Almost.

Four days in a den of Yankee lions
I like to include Bible allusions in my headlines. With Stoneman's cavalry fast approaching the Carson House, Miss Emma Rankin wrote that she still made it to church on Easter Sunday, "and our blessed old pastor gave us all the hope and strength he could gather from the Bible, reminding us that there were lions in the way, but God could shut the lions' mouths."

"If it's a good headline, we'll make it fit," Phil Batson used to say. But blogs, like newspapers, have fixed widths for columns and pages, and the challenge is to say a lot in a few words (in this case: 34 counts). This headline sums up a flurry of messages between Gen. Stoneman in Knoxville and two of his cavalry brigades in Asheville.

How to stop the U.S. Cavalry? With a winefest
The purpose of a headline is to get you to stop and read the story. Clickbait, they call it nowadays. I think this one clicks. The bacchanalian story comes from my hometown of Anderson, S.C.

Scoop! Sly Stoneman chides rebel church
The little story behind this headline was lost to history until The Stoneman Gazette dredged it out of the The New York Times digital archives. "Chides" is just such a great headline word. Otherwise, our headline might have been Education of black children vs. edification of white Presbyterians. Sly readers of my generation may read something else into that headline.

Tell Mama! The Civil War is finally over
A month after Lee's surrender, the war and the raid were still dragging on. So was the daily run of The Stoneman Gazette. We needed a way to finish strong, and I think we found it in our Mothers Day issue, which featured heartfelt tributes from the likes of Abe Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, and Mark Twain. Some newspapers don't like exclamations in headlines, but we're different.

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