My first foray into Civil War newspapers came almost twenty years ago while researching Camp Anderson, an early war training camp that had existed for all of a few weeks in south-central Ohio. I traveled to a local library to peruse their microfilmed newspapers in hopes of finding a few references to the short-lived camp. If you have done much work with microfilm you know that squinting and slogging through frame after frame will eventually make your eyes bleed. I’m only kind of kidding…
At the expense of my eyesight, I was rewarded with more than I could have hoped for – printed correspondence from soldiers stationed at the camp and accounts of local residents who visited the soldiers during their stay. The newspapers had printed all they could get their hands on in the early war fervor and I had found enough to better flesh out the story of a camp that had otherwise been explained away in a singular sentence. If I could turn up such a goldmine on an otherwise unspectacular training camp, what else was out there? I was hooked…
Fast forward to 2018 and my…things have changed. A partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities has resulted in Chronicling America and the digitization of more than 14 million pages of historic newspapers, many of which date to the Civil War period. No more scrolling through microfilm in a stuffy library – newspapers are now keyword searchable from the comfort of your own home. Where much of my research focuses on the Civil War as it relates to eastern Ohio and West Virginia I am lucky to have a number of newspapers that are available on Chronicling America, including the Belmont Chronicle, the Cadiz Sentinel, The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer and others. These are resources I consult on a near daily or weekly basis and readers of my past articles will notice I typically cite several newspapers.
In addition to keyword search functionality researchers can search by specific papers or states; years or specific date ranges; and phrases. As an example of the search functionality, a search of the phrase “Battle of Rich Mountain” yields 381 results dating from 1861 – 1935.
Major newspapers of the period could afford to send reporters and correspondents into the field, attaching them to specific armies or theatres of the war. Their reports could be quickly telegraphed and reprinted far and wide. Local papers more often relied on correspondents imbedded within regiments to bring local readers news relating to their sons, brothers and neighbors. These articles – written from enlisted men and officers in regiments north and south – are a treasure trove of information relating to the movements, fighting and mundane camp life that defined the experiences of Civil War soldiers. Whereas the Official Records of the war more often mention commissioned officers, you are more apt to find mention of common enlisted men in period newspapers.
While today we have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, in reading period newspapers you are very much living in the moment along with the soldiers and civilians who read the papers at publication. They did not know what would happen next or how each passing day would play out. The suspense rivals any movie. Dennis Frye (one of my personal favorite Civil War historians) recently authored September Suspense, an outstanding book on the Maryland Campaign of 1862 based solely of research culled from period newspapers. The result was one of the more riveting books I have yet read which demonstrates the power of the press and the potential these papers offer for new and fresh study, especially as they become more readily accessible and searchable.
While I encourage our readers to mine the papers, I would caution them to do so with a discriminating eye. Newspapers of the period were hyper partisan – more so than we’re accustomed to even in today’s age of attacks on or by the press. Papers would routinely instill their own bias or prejudices into their reporting. Letters from correspondents were written with the intention of being read by a wide audience, compared to those letters written to family (limited audience) or diaries (audience of one). Republican papers would attack their competing Democratic newspapers and vice versa. The truth – or as close as we can figure get to it – likely lies somewhere between the two.
Some ambitious researchers are taking the increased accessibility afforded by Chronicling America even one step further. Author and researcher Dan Masters – proprietor of Columbian Arsenal Press – has spent years indexing soldiers correspondence in more than 40 of Ohio’s Civil War era newspapers. That amounts to more than 6,000 letters and nearly 20% of all papers published in the state during the Civil War! Masters has generously shared these indexes on his website and I would encourage ECW readers to avail themselves of his research. Masters is currently indexing the Urbana Citizen & Gazette, which he describes as ‘a superb paper for soldiers’ letters.’
Lest you think these Ohio papers only published Ohio regiments, a quick scan of the index for the Belmont Chronicle (my favorite Civil War newspaper) shows letters from the 1st Iowa Cavalry with an account of Steele’s 1864 Camden expedition; a letter from the 15th Kansas Cavalry described the 1864 battle at Lexington, Missouri; and additional letters from Indiana, Pennsylvania, USCT and West Virginia regiments. The research potential of these papers, armed with the indexes, is outstanding. Happy Hunting!