29 July 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 7 comments

In working on completing the retreat manuscript, I spent much of the afternoon looking at newspaper coverage of the pertinent time frame. Many of the articles came from The New York Times, but several also came from other papers, such as the Baltimore Daily Gazette. Since there was nothing like e-mail or the Internet in those days, most articles had to be mailed in or delivered by courier; some shorter articles could be transmitted by telegraph. Either way, it usually took at least several days for a piece to appear in the newspaper, and by the time that they did, events had already demonstrated that many of the reports were inaccurate.

Also due to the difficulty in communicating, virtually any rumor that was even remotely credible got published. Thus, one must parse through the newspaper coverage very carefully and with a fine-toothed comb, as these newspaper accounts are just filled with inaccurate information. As historians, we have the responsibility to see that the true facts are presented, so I take the responsibility of parsing out this material quite seriously.

Another phenomenon interests me. Often, the newspapers simply ran stories from other papers verbatim, with attribution to the other paper. As just one example, there were a number of stories from the Philadelphia Press and the Philadelphia Inquirer repeated in the Baltimore newspaper without comment or any indication that anything had been done to determine the validity or accuracy of the stories being recounted. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, and it means that the job of parsing often goes two levels deep.

Many papers had dedicated correspondents that traveled with specific commands. A correspondent of the New York Times named E. A. Paul often traveled with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, and spent most of the retreat attached to the Michigan Cavalry Brigade of Kilpatrick’s Third Division. It’s akin to what the modern media calls “imbedded journalists” today. While there’s a great bit of detail reported by Paul, the scope is narrow. It’s a real trade-off. Finding complete coverage is, therefore, a challenge. Some Union officers, such as John Buford, Wesley Merritt, and David Gregg, were not fond at all of the media and forbade reporters from accompanying their commands in the field. Therefore, officers such as Judson Kilpatrick used the media to promote himself and advance his own career. It’s somewhat comforting to know that some things never change…..

The final issue is reading microfilm and photocopies. I’ve always despised microfilm–reading it gives me hellacious headaches–so I tend to print stuff out. The problem is that the print-outs are small, and for old eyes like mine, there’s no way I can even think about trying to read this stuff without reading glasses any more.

In spite of it all, newspapers are some of my favorite sources. Some of the very best and most valuable material that we found for Plenty of Blame to Go Around came from newspapers, and including that material really helped to put a lot of very valuable flesh on the bones of the story. I would never feel like my job of researching a project is complete without having thoroughly combing the newspaper sources. I guess I will just have to invest in more powerful reading glasses……

Scridb filter


  1. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 29th Jul 2007 at 7:47 pm

    If you want to know anything about ‘contemporary’ newspapers, you should do the type of research I have done on a man like John Mosby who was a ‘lightning rod’ for newsprint, North and South. Some of it is humorous, especially, the ‘Yankee’ press. Some of it is more enlightening and, of course, a lot is just reiteration of various previously printed accounts that may or may not be ‘tinkered with’ by the newspaper that prints the ‘blurb’.

    Some of it is tantalizingly mentioned in other sources but impossible to find. For instance, all of Mosby’s biographers as well as other sources have mentioned editorials (and letters) by Horace Greeley calling for Mosby’s execution as an outlaw at the end of the war. Everybody mentions it – but I cannot find ONE editorial or a contemporary reference to an editorial or even the copy of a letter to Lincoln or Johnson by Greeley on this subject. And believe me, Mosby was a great concern as the war was coming to a close as Grant, Lincoln and Sherman considered the horror of a guerrilla war after Appomattox. When you add Lincoln’s assassination to that concern, John Singleton Mosby was ‘writ large’ in that time period.

    Another tempting morsel that I cannot find is an article written by a journalist whose name I have but escapes me now which supposedly ‘exposes’ a ‘plot’ by the Confederate government to make Mosby a Brigadier General and add to his command the remaining guerrilla commands in Virginia (McNeill and several others). Once that was done, Mosby was to enlist the aid of every willing ‘loyal’ civilian, male and female, old and young for the purpose of murdering every Yankee soldier coming into that area of Virginia. It was to be a ‘scorched earth’ strategy (although what was left to ‘scorch’ after Sheridan and Hunter, one can only guess). In any event, it was supposed to be a fight to the death with the same type of tactics that we see being employed by the radical jihhadists today. The journalist pontificated that the only thing that one could do with such ‘wicked’ people was to destroy them utterly.

    In any event, I have looked through reams of microfilm and internet newspaper archives and have yet to find anything on either Greeley’s demands or the journalist’s article (and what sources he used for same). So I know perfectly well what you mean when you say how difficult it is to chase down the elusive news ‘blurb’ that might make all the difference in the subject.

    But is sure is fun to read the contemporary accounts. Many of them are a real hoot! 😀

  2. Sun 29th Jul 2007 at 9:19 pm

    NY Times has it’s entire archive (including Civil War) online for a fee… also, I used newspaperarchive.com for about 50% of my newspaper research for my book. Easier on the eyes… It has numerous newspapers from as far back as the Civil War and older. (It was more affordable than Ancestry.com and better!) I was lucky as they had Wisconsin well covered as well as some other key locations… I found that many soldiers were writing home to local newspapers as correspondents from my regiment. One in particular was the regimental surgeon who was writing for 3-4 newspapers including the Chicago Tribune…


  3. Sun 29th Jul 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Once Eric gets done adding in his material, then it’s on to me to add in some additional ones I have. Earlier today I read to him an account by a trooper in the 1 WV Cav of the fight at Monterey Pass, which has never been used before. His letter on the retreat was published in the Athens newspaper about a week later, and it’s truly neat stuff.

    What amazes me, time and time again, is how few authors use newspaper accounts. It seems that way in book after book that appears – sure, the Tribune and some southern standards are used, but that’s usually it. And as Eric said, some of the best contemporary stuff is found in the papers – as long as you are careful about substantiating it, and you must have a very good knowledge of your subject beforehand.


  4. Dave Powell
    Mon 30th Jul 2007 at 8:52 am

    Newspaper sources fall into two kinds: the ‘professional’ accounts by journalists, and the “soldier correspondents.” Some of the professionals are quite good, some are atrocious. Rumor and gossip often get repeated as truth in the professional accounts, as well. That doesn’t mean that the professional accounts don’t offer up good material, but that I find I have to work harder to verify their stuff.

    Shiloh is a case in point. After Shiloh, Whitelaw Reid’s articles for the Cincinatti Gazette electrified and horrified the nation, as they were widely copied (as Eric notes) in other papers. Reid wrote lurid accounts of Union troops so surprised that they were bayoneted in their blankets. His entire account is nonsense, since he was not present. He gleaned his info from interviewing stragglers and wounded after the battle, and then embellishing the tale. I want to find proof that the professional was there before I start using his stuff. That can be a diffucult task.

    I prefer the soldier correspondents, like the one JD alluded to in the 1st WV Cav. (I have seen a number of letters from this unit in SE Ohio newspapers, BTW, suggesting that a number of Ohioans ended up in that unit.) The soldier correspondents have a number of benefits. They are usually eyewitnesses. They are usually reporting news about locals to the home front, and are often describing what they have experienced. They have a narrow focus, so you get less of the wild speculation. Most importantly, they are fresh – dated just a few days after a fight, rather than reminiscences years or dacades later.

    Of course, they can be a bit overwraught in their prose, and like any other source, cross-checking is useful. But some of the best stuff I have found on chickamauga has emerged from vivid, descriptive letters home by soldiers shortly after the fight. Best of all is when I can get 2-3 letters describing the same event, which corroborate each other.

    Like Chris, I have found a number of regular soldier correspondents writing on a regular basis, to the point where you get to know them and their work. It can be a bit jarring, then, to find their letters suddenly stop, especially after a big battle. Did they killed or wounded? Since they often used noms de plume, you can’t always easily tell by reading the casualty lists. It has brought me up abruptly more than once.

    One reason I think that more historians don’t use newspapers is because the most accessible ones – the big papers from the larger cities – used professionals and very rarely ran soldier-correspondent letters. The smaller, local papers had fewer resources – they could pay stringer fees and get accounts sent them from larger papers, or they could wait and simply reprint (for free, as far as I can tell) those articles, by which time the news was stale. Or, they could encourage local soldiers to write home, ask civilians to share local letters, etc. A large number took this latter route.

    Papers from places like Gallipolis, Athens, or Marietta (all in OH) are treasure troves.

    the big Chicago, Cincinatti, St. Louis, or Milwaukee papers, by contrast, were much more barren for my purposes. Time and again they re-ran each others stories, or printed stuff from the same 2-3 professionals.

    But obviously, finding the Warren Independent (IL) is much harder than calling up the Chicago Tribune.

    Digitization is coming. I look forward to that quite a bit. But we are not really there yet, especially in terms of these smaller papers.


  5. Russell Bonds
    Mon 30th Jul 2007 at 9:29 am


    I agree with you and others that newspaper sources are terrific and yet strangely overlooked/untapped by many authors. Reading Southern papers (including newspapers like the Memphis Appeal, which “refugeed” south to Atlanta fairly early in the war) gives a great perspective of morale, worry and wishful thinking down here as things began to come unraveled in Virginia and the West. And the accounts of the pen-named soldier correspondents and civilian columnists of the various papers (“Bill Arp” of Rome, Georgia, who wrote for the Atlanta papers, is a personal favorite) are lively, heartbreaking and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    I agree with Dave that accessibility is an obstacle. Let’s face it, despite a few digitized sources, the vast majority of papers require an author to spend hours and hours at the microfilm reader, squinting and taking notes or paying 15 cents a page to print; and the best stuff is not necessarily on the front page (more likely buried a page or two in with the ads, under innocuous headlines like “News of the War.”)

    Best regards,

  6. Mon 30th Jul 2007 at 11:25 am

    Really interesting to see this thread. Chris is right that NY Times has their archive available for a fee, but the CW issues of NY Times (as page image PDFs) is also available at the Historic NY Times project (but it’s not searchable), so I usually do a keyword search at NYTimes.com, find the issue and page, then go over to His. NY Times to pull the article for free. Looks like Hist NY Times link is down right now, so I’ll post it later.

    I’m also a big fan of newspaperarchive.com myself and used it extensively for my forthcoming book, “Lincoln’s Labels.”

    Eric – regarding your point about material copied from one paper into another…this was a 19th-century journailsm practice called “excahnge material”…some papers were actually little more than “cut-and-paste” journals…in its early days, **Scientific American** magazine – which I have also written about in the context of the Civil war, rec’d a lot of criticism on this point.

    Best Wishes to everyone on using their newspapers (judiciously) for research.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

  7. Wed 01st Aug 2007 at 10:40 am

    As a follow-up to my message the other day, the “Historic New York Times” link is now working:


    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

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