Online Primary Sources for American History: The Civil War

150 years ago today, early in the morning of April 12, 1861, a single mortar shell was lobbed into the Union-held Fort Sumter, signaling the beginning of an internecine conflict that claimed 600,000 750,000 lives, over 2% of the country’s population,  and opened up wounds which have yet to fully heal. Thousands of books and web sites are devoted to this four-year long war; what we list here are sites which have proven their worth over time. The first sites are comprised of primary sources; the second are comprised of secondary sources.

PRIMARY SOURCES:  President Lincoln’s public papers can be found at the American Presidency Project, while The Abraham Lincoln Papers (with transcriptions) are available at the Library of Congress; a multi-volume work, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, must also be mentioned. The Papers of  Jefferson Davis offer a few of his works online while an older edition,  a 1923 ten-volume work entitled Jefferson Davis, constitutionalist, his letters, papers, and speeches, is still considered essential(eight of the ten volumes are completely online). The thirty-one volume Papers of Ulysses S Grant is available online, while selected letters of Robert E Lee can also be consulted. The mass media of the time, newspapers and magazines, provided vital, contemporary documentation and several sites are worth mentioning: The New York Times Archive from 1851; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the country’s largest afternoon daily at the time; the Richmond Daily Dispatch, 1860-1865; Harper’s WeeklyPennsylvania Civil War Era Newspaper Collection;  Chronicling America, a repository of over three million newspaper pages between 1860 and 1922; and for an outside view, please look at The Illustrated London News.  The Library of Congress houses a great many digital collections; some of the most relevant to the Civil War are:  Selected Civil War Photographs from the Matthew Brady studio, over 1100 of them;  Civil War Maps, 1861-1865Civil War Sheet Music Collection, and more than 2300 first-person accounts of slavery can be read at Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives.   Battles and Leaders of the Civil War is a series of reminiscences by those generals who fought the battles on either side. Their at times faulty memories can be compared to The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (a cautionary note on their use is here). The former title is accompanied by a beautifully produced Atlas of the War of the Rebellion which is searchable by state or municipality. There are literally thousands of speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, and regimental histories freely available online; two sites which offer easy access to these resources are HathiTrust and Online Books Page.

SECONDARY SOURCES abound. Here are a few of them. Several excellent sites deal with the overall war: American Civil War Collections, Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society, Documenting the American SouthUnited States Civil War Center, and Valley of the Shadow. They all use primary sources to tell their stories. The National Park Service offers an extensive site in light of the sesquicentennial containing a Twitter blog from Civil War Reporter, Civil War Parks, In Depth features, the Soldiers & Sailors System, a searchable name file of those who served on both sides(almost 97,000 New Jerseyans are listed), and battle summaries by state and campaign. State encyclopedias offer much local/regional information on the Civil War;  excellent examples are these sections from the Encyclopedia Virginia and the Encyclopedia of Alabama. In addition to its aforementioned archive section, the New York Times presents a great deal of information in its Disunion blog, an almost daily recapitualtion of Civil War news as revealed through news reports, letters, images, and diaries of the time; these entries are tied into the steadily expanding Timeline section. And do not forget the paper’s American Civil War Topics page featuring articles from the paper and numerous links, among them The Civil War Book List. The Organization of American Historians has podcasts on the Civil War available, and has hundreds of videos and lectures on this topic. Where does New Jersey figure in the Civil War? Come here to find out, thanks to the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee . You can also profit from Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, 1861-1865.


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