As I finish this semester and continue work on my thesis, I thought I would consider newspapers and their coverage of events surrounding soldiers. As you may know, I am researching camps of instruction in Illinois, where Union soldiers took their basic training while regiments organized before either reporting to larger camps for further training, or directly to the field. One area of examination within this topic is how the press covered the camps. In addition to the early stages of the war when camps were in operation, newspapers covered the war in larger ways as well.
During the Civil War, most newspapers in Illinois were shorter compared to today, often only being four pages long. Most items printed were only a few lines long, with longer pieces being present, as well as advertisements. Most of the newspapers that I have looked at for my research are like this. The newspapers provide longer articles for more nationally related news and shorter articles on war-related events of a more local orientation. In addition, papers sometimes published letters written by soldiers to give local residents an idea of what local men in the army were experiencing in the war.
There are two important considerations when thinking about newspapers during the war as well as the letters published in them. The first consideration is the viewpoint of the paper. Illinois, like other Midwestern states had concentrations of Copperheads and others with Southern sympathies of varying levels. This means that certain local newspapers possibly harbored anti-war/pro-Southern leanings in its pages. I cannot make a determination on the newspapers that I have thus far examined for my project, but, with a more thorough examination of the papers, I may determine if such leanings exist in certain papers.
The other consideration is also difficult to pin down, but is as important as the ideology of the newspaper. The concept of “canned” letters, letters written for the soldier to send home or to local papers was suggested to me by one of the professors in my department who attended the presentation session for my research seminar class, where my colleagues and I presented sections of our papers to department faculty and our fellow graduate students. Again, as with the ideology of a particular newspaper, I have not found and do not know of a source to determine whether the letters that I have found, or others that were published in local newspapers were written for the soldiers, but I will be on the lookout to find such information, as it will influence not only my research, but research into Civil War soldiers.
The newspapers at the time are interesting reading, as they serve as a gateway into the communities during the Civil War. With regard to the camps of instruction in Illinois, many newspapers in Illinois presented readers with pieces on the progress of the soldiers in the camps. In addition, soldier letters were published, which described many happenings in the camps. Outside the camps, the papers presented their readers with articles, both short and long about the progress of the war, particularly in the East. The papers also devoted space to covering the happenings across the state surrounding the war, especially the formation of regiments. All of these pieces in various newspapers combine to present a situation of communities in Illinois, and many other states, being well-informed about the war, if they had access to a local newspaper.
Overall, the newspapers in Illinois seem fair to the soldiers, as they generally presented the men in a positive way. The overall opinion of the paper with regard to the war as a whole is harder to determine, but since I have only examined newspapers from early in the war, it seems that most papers were pro-war, as the Union had been affronted at Ft. Sumter and had yet to suffer the rounds of defeat in the East, or the triumph in the West. It does seem that since most Illinois soldiers were serving in the Western Theater that most papers in Illinois held more of a positive view of the war given the success of the war in the West. The people of Illinois had many newspapers available to them and, depending on literacy rates, had the potential to be very well-informed about the war. Civil War era newspapers are a really great resource and are worth examining to understand the war and its influence on communities large and small.