Using Newspapers in Researching Ancestors During the Civil War

Most of us who research our ancestors in the Civil War beyond finding the name in an index and making a note of the service and with what regiment, are familiar with some of the basic options for adding more detail to our ancestor’s service. But just in case I have some folks just getting started, let me suggest visiting this blog post on researching your Civil War ancestor.  Books, diaries, the Official Records, and record documents are all great first steps to lay out the timeline of your ancestor’s experiences.  Besides these records one that is often overlooked is newspapers.  Though often hard to locate these are excellent resources for real-time observations and reporting.

I have found researching newspapers that are available from that time period to be invaluable for context and details on larger social ebbs and flows in the South, as well as reports on battles and sometimes admissions to local hospitals and deaths by regiments. I will admit that scouring old newspapers online can be time-consuming but it can also be rewarding and since I love reading and looking at old newspapers, it isn’t too painful.

When trying to locate old newspapers to scan through, it helps to think outside the box. Most of us are not lucky enough to have a local newspaper that was able to publish during the war (disruptions and paper supplies were both challenges to newspaper publishing). Look for newspapers that were publishing at the time and in the area of a particular battle, newspapers in the larger cities at the time (Atlanta, Montgomery, Mobile, Nashville, etc), newspapers close to a Prisoner of War camp where your ancestor was incarcerated, newspapers from areas where one of the opposing regiments was from, and national Federal newspapers. The last has several well-known papers that might be helpful, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are two that come immediately to mind. And finally, not from the time period but still very helpful, is the Confederate Veteran magazine that was published for decades after the war. There are a lot of first-hand accounts that may give you insight into a battle and your ancestor’s likely experience of it.

pg 2 12 Dec 1862 Abingdon Virginian newspaper

The Abingdon Virginian. (Abingdon [Va.]), 12 Dec. 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

One of the best online resources for archived newspapers that is also free is Chronicling America at the Library of Congress. If you go to tab “All Digitized Newspapers” you can scroll through their holdings looking for newspapers in a given location that was published during the years of the war (1861-1865) or download a complete list to browse at your leisure. The download is a messy looking text file so I would recommend leaving the options at “All States” “All Ethnicities” and “All Languages” and hit the “Go” button. The State is on the far left, then the name, number of issues they hold, earliest and latest issue. The State can be confusing. If you follow the above and get to the page you will see under the State of Alabama is listed three slightly different listings for The Chattanooga Daily Rebel which was published during the war and the Memphis Daily Appeal which also was published during the war. The State designation indicates that the newspaper covered all or part of that State in their reporting, not necessarily that the newspaper was published in the State. If you click on the name of one of the newspapers you will find some very useful information on the history and cataloging of the newspaper. From here you can click on “All Front Pages” on the right-hand side of the page and see the front page of each of the issues Chronicling America holds.

These newspapers can be challenging to read. Some were in bad shape when scanned. Some scans vary in quality and they often packed a lot of information in as little space as possible to conserve paper. You can download an issue, or individual pages, or clip a section of a page but be sure to make a note of the citation information for whatever you download. You can find some help at the bottom of the image on the website. This would be the citation for the page you are viewing. Beyond looking for details on battles and skirmishes your ancestor participated in, you may find information on issues that plagued the Confederacy or caused controversy. You never know what you can find in old newspapers.

In addition to the free resource above and the two below, there are also a number of paid sites with access to newspapers but I’ve not found that a lot of them have really old newspapers from the South. But it never hurts to look and check back regularly because they do add to their collections. Most have a trial membership. I would also want to see a list of their holdings and the dates they have before committing to a membership. For any of these resources do your own online search, you may find better sites than the ones I’ve provided.  Good hunting!

Until Next Time

Resources:

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