Grant Awarded For Civil War Newspapers Website

BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 3, 2003 – A long-neglected component in American Civil War research will receive new emphasis and scholarly attention thanks to a grant to the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. The Atlanta-based Watson-Brown Foundation has awarded $209,000 to the Center to develop a comprehensive on-line index of Civil War newspapers which will provide historians, scholars, students, and other interested parties with ready access to an important, but largely untapped, reservoir of primary source material.

The new Civil War Newspapers website will feature scan-able image documents of complete wartime runs of selected newspapers from both North and South; provide detailed indexes for each newspaper in the collection; and ultimately result in a comprehensive, cross-referenced master index identifying content in all newspapers that are part of the database, including those added over time.

Until now, the practical use of Civil War newspapers as a research tool has been hampered by their relative inaccessibility. Only a very few are available on websites, and fewer still have been properly indexed. Compounding the problem, the collections that do exist are held in widely scattered repositories and generally are available only on microfilm. Researchers are thus required to travel long distances and devote great amounts of time scrolling through page after page of hard-to-read film just to locate items of possible interest. All of this will change as increasing numbers of wartime editions are indexed and added to the Civil War Newspapers database.

The conventional thinking among many historians and academics has also held that newspaper reporting during the Civil War presented a biased and highly opinionated perspective on events, and was therefore of questionable value in serious historical research. But that thinking has changed in recent years as these documents have come to be recognized for the important social context they provide.

"Newspapers of the period were certainly staunchly partisan in terms of their editorial voice," noted William C. Davis, VCCWS director of programs. "But beyond the editorial page there exists a great and virtually untapped resource of letters from the combatants, including those held in prisoner of war camps; accounts by local residents of activities on the home front; and even commercial advertisements that provide an accurate barometer of the status of consumer goods and the economy in general."

The Civil War Newspapers website will be open to scholars and the general public alike. According to VCCWS Executive Director, James I. Robertson, Jr., "It will provide an incalculable mass of information on every topic germane to historians of the era, from race, class, and gender, to politics, the economy, and military affairs."

"The benefit to professional historians and scholars is self-evident," Robertson said, "and will be reflected in the enhanced authority with which they write and teach. Graduate and undergraduate students will find that this site enables them to prepare better-informed research papers, at the same time providing them with hands-on experience in the use of primary source material. Even high school and junior high students will benefit from having access to-and becoming familiar with-the uses, advantages, and limitations of primary source materials."

Following completion of web page design, the center will use two pilot newspapers to evaluate the site for functionality, ease of use, and accessibility. The ongoing project will provide four two-year graduate assistantships to handle the indexing.