Notes On 19th Century Newspapers

Throughout Lighthouse Loyalty, newspapers, journalism, and writing feed into the plot of the story. Is it accurate? What papers could the Arnold Family have read? And how did newspapers help American’s form opinions about the Civil War?

I thought I’d share some of my notes on newspapers and delve into the historical backing for some of the journalistic details in my newest historical novel. Happy reading…

An 1864 edition of the New York Tribune

Influential Newspapers of the Era

By 1860, there were approximately 3,000 different newspapers published in the United States. Many of the papers were specially written to appeal to specific social classes, ethnic groups, political party members, and/or supporters of social reform causes. Penny papers brought the news to the working class in an affordable way.

Some of the famous “large” papers of the 1860’s included:

  • Boston Daily Journal
  • New York Herald
  • New York Tribune
  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Harper’s Weekly
  • The Liberator (ceased publication in 1865)
  • The Washington Star
  • Richmond Examiner (Confederate during the Civil War)
  • Charleston Mercury (Confederate during the Civil War)
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Milwaukee Sentinel

Newspaper image of Yachts from 1865

This list is obviously not exhaustive and only includes some of the more recognizable names of the era. Large cities tended to have large newspapers, but these large presses might take news from the small papers and reprint it (or vice-versa).

Smaller Presses

County and town newspapers reported national news and also ventured into reporting local happenings. Since many smaller presses couldn’t afford to send reporters to cover national events, they received their news from the larger papers – sometimes re-writing articles to match the particular slant or angle preferred by their readership.

These smaller presses often had comparatively large readership and focused their reporting efforts to reach particular supporters or interest group. For example, a county or large town might have several newspapers – for example, one Pro-Democrat, one Pro-Republican, and one trying to bridge the gap or support a particular issue like abolition, immigration, or another political issue of the day.

The Civil War & The Northern Press

Harper’s Weekly was known for its illustrations. This edition from 1863 tells about slavery.

During the Civil War (861-1865), citizens received most of their national and war news via the large and local newspapers. There, they read battle reports, political speeches, editorials for or against the conflict, casualty lists, and other news. At times, the Northern civilians seemed better informed about the war than the soldiers in the field, and it’s not uncommon to find soldiers asking for newspapers or a summary of the reports so they could know “what is going on out here.”

Freedom of the Press took hits during the Civil War in the North, and newspaper editors writing vehemently against the war effort or president sometimes found themselves out of work or under arrest for “treasonous” printing. However, there were plenty of presses who continued to print differing opinions or their own angles on the war. For many civilians at home, their newspapers were their reports and “current history books” and the views espoused by the editors became their views too.

Boston Daily Journal from April 10, 1865

Why am I mentioning Civil War newspapers when Lighthouse Loyalty is set in 1867? Well, the main character – Miss Susan Arnold – loves to read, but there’s not always an abundance of new reading material at the lighthouse. When the family moved, they used old newspapers to pack their dishes and other belongings; Susan takes the old newspapers and, with her mother’s permission, starts reading them for fun. She reads about the Civil War and starts forming opinions, based on the perspective she reads. Later, her father provides some words of balance and wisdom.

One afternoon Mama asked me to smooth and fold the crumpled, outdated newspapers we had used for packing. I pressed the papers flat and folded them on the original folds. Words, words, words, covering the yellowing pages. Headlines announcing victories and defeats in the past war. I wanted to read these, to learn more about the war that I had been too little to understand when it happened. When I finished the task, I took the top paper to Mama, asking, “May I read this? I haven’t had anything new to read in a while.” (Lighthouse Loyalty, Chapter 2)

Later in Chapter 11 after a trip to town, Father reads excerpts from a new newspaper. That paper could have been published by a local press or perhaps one of the large papers from the big cities sent by a friend or family member:

An 1867 Harper’s Weekly page, featuring stories and some poetry, though not patriotic.

Publishing Patriotic Poetry

One of Miss Susan’s favorite things about the old newspapers is the patriotic poetry; she loves writing and tries crafting poetry in the story, so she studies the verses in the papers.

Some newspapers started publishing short stories, serialized stories, and poetry, expanding their literary offerings for readers. (Some of these features were written by women.) Typically, these “extras” reflected the tone and views already adopted by the paper, just in a different journalistic form.

Patriotic poetry of the Civil War era – published in papers or magazines – tended to be dramatic. Popular topics included death of brave soldier boys, officers on white horses, defending Lady Liberty, abolition cause, and other glorification and justifications of the conflict.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Want to check out some more Civil War era artwork from newspapers? This post features Harper’s Weekly images from the Battle of Fredericksburg.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to Notes On 19th Century Newspapers

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Newspapers! Crazy then as now! It is amazing to read the editorials, the ads, the articles about local happenings–little has changed, except maybe not so much libelous content. These sources are a delight from which to work, and several names go on to become very well-known people. If you haven’t read one of these wonders, check online sources like son-of-the-south or pick up a reproduction issue at a reenactment or living history demo. Well worth it!

    • Definitely. They are great resources but sometimes the bias or misinformation is highly amusing. I was not aware Longstreet was wounded and captured at Gettysburg until I saw a reprint of the New York Tribune. UMM… LOL

  2. Pingback: 10 Things You Should Know About The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House | Gazette665

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