150 Years Ago This Week in the Civil War

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By Lisa Greenhouse

Bullying, bed bugs, disputed elections, prisoners held without Habeas Corpus, warnings that the End Times are near at hand: these things sound like the stuff of contemporary newspaper headlines, but they are really the subjects of 150-year-old articles published during the Civil War.

Librarians in the Periodicals Department have been posting articles like these from the Pratt historical newspaper collection to the 150 Years Ago This Week in the Civil War blog every week since April 13, 2011, and will continue until April, 2015, exactly 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

"Baltimore: Made an Abode for Owls and Satyrs"Students exploring the blog might be surprised by the similarities they find between the Civil War era and our era. They will also find big differences, the existence of chattel slavery perhaps being the greatest.

It was once rare for secondary school students to have access to historical newspapers. Access involved a trip to the historical society and the time-consuming use of cumbersome microfilm machines. As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approached in 2011, we realized that we had the resources to make rich original material from historical newspapers easily available to students and researchers online.

Sean McGuire and Teresa Duggan from the Library’s Web Department designed and set up the technical framework for the blog as a stylized repository for years of weekly historical scans. Readers can search the articles in a variety of categories and read them using a high-res zoom tool. The design uses some elements from our historical collections and online displays on the Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage (MDCH) website.

The header is reminiscent of old printed broadsides, with a fibrous brown paper texture and thick, heavy lettering in the title. For example, the flags from both sides of the war act as a frame, taken from the Baltimore broadside, Volunteers to the "Melish". Between the flags you'll see a variety of Civil War images, a random one with each page view. Some of these include printed scenes from the Cator Collection of Baltimore Views, such as The Lexington of 1861 and the Invasion of Maryland, citizens of Baltimore barricading the streets, Monday evening, June 29, 1863.

from historic newspaper to microfilm to blog: 150 Years Ago this Week in the Civil WarUsing ScanPro technology to make digital scans of microfilm from the historical newspaper collection, Periodicals Department librarians build 150 Years Ago This Week in the Civil War one week at a time, entering content to reflect the war’s impact locally as it unfolded. Currently, the blog includes digitized content from 22 Civil War era newspapers from Maryland towns and cities. We choose the articles based on their relevance to life in Maryland during the war and are tagged by subject and locality. Blog readers can sort them by subject, locality, and/or date.

Some entries in the blog detail the political climate in Maryland, a state that was—more than most others—divided in its loyalties. Others portray the economic situation brought about by the war. A few articles describe the Confederate Army’s 1862 incursion into Maryland and the deadly series of battles culminating in Antietam, where Middletown, Maryland became, as the Valley Register proclaimed, one vast hospital.

Much of the blog content captures the flavor of daily life during the war. One of my favorite entries is an advertisement placed by the Maryland Institute (MICA) in the Baltimore Daily Gazette in April 1863, which invited the public to witness for only $.25 "sublime and stirring scenes" of the war via the Polopticorama, a complicated arrangement involving "extensive and intricate machinery, mechanical appliances, chemical effects and ingenious dioramic accompaniments"—and a word which, according to Google search, appears only in this article!

World War II newsreels are what we usually think of when we picture Americans coming together communally to hear news of a war via mass communications technologies. 150 Years Ago This Week in the Civil War shows us that Civil War era audiences were doing the same thing.

As librarians continue to work to keep pace with what occurred in Maryland 150 years ago, more will be revealed.

Watch a slideshow of photos from our Flickr set: "From historic newspaper to microfilm to blog: 150 Years Ago this Week in the Civil War"

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