Pass the Funnies…

When it comes to my research, I’m a real newspaper junkie. I’ve found some of the best material in period newspapers, such as those from Richmond, Washington, New York, Baltimore, etc. As many know, the post-war National Tribune is indispensible for the writings of Union veterans – with the Richmond Times-Dispatch its equally valuable counterpart. Several papers have been digitized and are online, and the latest is the digitization of the war years of The Richmond Daily Dispatch. Previously available only to researchers who perused the microfilms or originals – or paid others to do it – the paper is now available to everyone. It will prove to be a great resource.

I’ve long been suspect of any books that come out without a healthy dose of newspaper sources, when warranted by the subject, in the bibliography. They’re just too valuable and revealing. Even those that aren’t digitized are relatively easily obtainable at the National Archives reading room and other depositories. If I don’t see some newspapers in a bibliography (besides other primary sources) I wonder if the author did only half-hearted research.

For example, for the recent book on Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg I co-authored with Eric Wittenberg, we used a wealth of newspapers – in fact, the list of them takes up the entire first page of the book’s bibliography. We used dozens of them. A Baltimore newspaper from July 1863 gave us the contents of a dispatch written by one of Stuart’s brigade commanders – Fitz Lee – that was captured by Union scouts. Lee sent the dispatch to Stuart warning of the presence of Federal cavalry in Hanover Pa just an hour or so before the all-day battle there broke out on June 30. Had Stuart received that dispatch, the battle may never have happened at all. The dispatch has never been used in any book or article on the battle, and was a real discovery. It changes the interpretation of the movements and battle, and appears for the first and only time in our book.

If anyone hasn’t examined period newspapers and those veterans writings in post-war papers in depth before, check them out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the world they open up.

Published in: on October 21, 2006 at 6:49 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Over the years, I have grown addicted to researching newspapers – not just for the pertinent material on the battle, but for the local color and stuff you just stumble on. I have dug through nearly 150 contemporary papers (mostly microfilm) looking for stuff on Chickamauga, and managed to copy all the National Tribune stuff as well. Post war accounts are more of a treasure hunt, but the key has been the Sunday Supplements, for me. A number of postwar papers ran weekly columns where veterans could write up their experiences, almost always running on a Sunday.

    newspapers opened my eyes to how vitriolic and vicious politics has always been, as well. The key race in Ohio at the time of Chickamauga was the Brough-Vallandigham contest for Governor, and the newspaper editorials, pro and con, were far more down and dirty than anything we see in national politics today. Apparently slander and libel were stock in trade, then.

    Another favorite are the detailed narratives by soldier-correspondents, writing weekly or monthly from their regiments in the field. These articles add up to detailed narrative histories for these regiments, and can be thousands of words all told.

    I now tend to copy anything that has good ACW content, even if it is not about Chickamauga, so I pick up stuff on all sorts of different battles. I am, however, running out of shelf space for three-ring binders.

    If you couldn’t tell before, I love period ACW papers:)

    Dave Powell

  2. Indeed, Dave! And I too am running out of space – I do the same as you apparently, putting all copies of articles chronologically for each paper in three-ring binders. The National Tribune articles, for instance, are packed into five binders which are about three inches thick each. Just my newspaper articles take up an entire shelf that’s about 6 feet high with 5 shelves on it – plus a few other binders that don’t fit.

    Finding a particular article that you want to use as a source can then be quite a hunt… what I really need to do is use a software program to index everything. I recall that for the Stuart’s ride book, sometimes I would spend hours looking for a particular article that I knew I had read previously, but wasn’t sure what paper/binder/date the thing was.

    Period newspapers are one of the most valuable resources we have, and the fact that so many are now being digitized is making them available to the majority of folks, as well as much easier to search through.


  3. Relying on newspapers for publication of “official” documents has its problems. For example, that Fitz Lee dispatch you cite – are you sure the newspaper published it without any changes? Unless one can get back to the original document, one can never be sure of what they are seeing.

  4. You’re right, David, and there’s no way of knowing for sure. Eric and I discussed it, and because of the specificity of the local roads mentioned in it, and the fact that Fitz Lee was marching his brigade in column parallel to Stuart and the rest of the division in that exact area, the dispatch rings true. The dispatch is reprinted even with obvious minor errors, such as misidentifying one of Kilpatrick’s regiments and the name of a nearby town. The original dispatch appears to be lost to history, so the printing in the article is all that’s left to go on.


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