Rare Civil War newspapers report glories of victory
Virginia collector, Richmond museum have treasure trove for researchers
By LINDA WHEELER
Special to The Washington Post
July 9, 2004
WASHINGTON — Among the rare finds for newspaper collectors are copies of papers printed in the Confederacy during the war. Some went out of business for lack of newsprint, but others were closed by Union forces or subjected to censorship.
The most valuable ones were published far enough from the battlefields to escape military control, enabling them to report the Confederate view.
Copies of Union papers are more easily found and are considerably less expensive.
Mark Mitchell of Fairfax, Va., has made a business of collecting and selling historic newspapers. His collection includes 100 Confederate papers, only some of which are for sale.
“I can’t replace any of these papers,” he said. “There were so many destroyed that we are lucky to have any of them left.”
John Coski, historian and library director for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., which opened in 1890, said most copies of Confederate newspapers disappeared because people didn’t save them.
“It was a daily paper and was meant to be thrown away or cut up for a scrapbook,” he said. “Our collection of about 1,000 papers came to us through groups that set out to preserve the newspapers right after the war. Much of our collection came from the Southern Historical Society that was founded in 1869.”
Coski said the museum’s collection is unusual because it includes newspapers printed by Union troops occupying the South, such as those from Maine and Pennsylvania, who “had too much time on their hands.” There were printing presses to be found in Union camps, as well as soldiers with the right background to produce a newspaper.
Because the museum collection is extraordinary and contains full runs of all the newspapers printed by a particular publisher during the war, he said, scholars who have exhausted other sources of information come there “looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“We have those needles,” he said.
The museum’s collection is bulky and expensive to maintain, Coski said.
Mitchell faces some of the same concerns, having devoted his basement to his collection of 20,000 newspapers and documents dating to the 1600s. He keeps each in an acid-free folder and controls the climate carefully.
Mitchell’s favorite newspaper is a framed copy of the July 20, 1863, issue of the Charleston, S.C., Daily Courier that includes a lengthy eyewitness account of the attack on Battery Wagner by the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of black troops, the one made famous by the movie “Glory.” Also involved in the July 18 Federal attack were the 47th New York and the 104th Pennsylvania regiments.
The multiple headlines, all one column wide, read: “Another Glorious Victory,” “Terrific Bombardment,” “Battery Wagner Fiercely Assaulted,” and “ONE THOUSAND YANKEES KILLED AND WOUNDED.”
“Our batteries remained silent until the enemy reached the vicinity of our rifle pits, when grape and canister was thrown into their ranks with fearful precision and execution. Checked for an instant only, they closed up the ragged gaps in their lines and moved steadily on within less than eighty yards. Barely waiting for the Federals to get within a destructive range, our infantry opened their fusillade and from a fringe of fire that lined the parapet leaped forth a thousand messengers of death.”
The idea of blacks’ serving as soldiers was controversial on both sides of the war but particularly discomforted residents of Charleston, where slave trading was still a daily activity.
The Courier reporter, who signed himself Personne, made note of the soldiers’ race.
“We could stop to take no prisoners then. The parapets were lined with dead bodies, white and black, and every second was adding to the number… . Of white prisoners we have taken six commissioned officers and ninety-four privates. Of blacks, it is said we have twenty, of whom several are severely wounded.”
Much of the information found in Mitchell’s collection and in museums is available on microfilm or on the Web. The news is less valuable than the actual newspaper, usually a high-quality cotton and rag content document that can still be handled and read today as when it was first published. Because of the cloth content, the 1860s papers — unlike today’s newsprint of wood pulp ingredients — are soft to the touch, flexible and still a creamy white.
When it comes to selling old newspapers, it’s the ones with the news of famous battles and well-known events, such as the death of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, that are most popular with collectors, Mitchell said.
Rare doesn’t necessarily mean outrageously expensive, unless you consider that a Confederate paper cost a couple of pennies when published and now sells at prices starting at about $50 from some dealers. Mitchell said his prices begin at $100.