Analyzing primary sources: Civil War Newspapers

This is one of a series of posts about how to analyze different types of primary sources.

Last week we talked about analyzing literature from the world wars. This week we’re also looking at published material – newspaper images depicting scenes from the Civil War.


During the Civil War, newspapers were a popular source of information about battles, events, and opinions on the war. Radio, television, and the internet were decades away from creation, and photography was still in its early years. Newspapers were dominated by illustrations and articles depicting scenes of the war, which was one of the only ways readers could stay informed about what was happening. Keep in mind national opinions on the war and how newspaper publishers, reporters, and illustrators may have interpreted the scenes they were illustrating and reporting on.


Below are several pages from 19th century American newspapers. Think about some of these questions as you look at each page:

  • Who owns and publishes these newspapers? What do you know about those companies and/or individuals?
  • Who created these images? What do you know about them?
  • When and where were these newspapers published? How might that affect your interpretation of these sources?
  • Who is the intended audience? What might their beliefs and opinions about the Civil War be?
  • What information can you find out from the text and images in the newspapers’ headers?
  • Who are the subjects of these images? How are they depicted?
  • What contextual information is provided by captions or surrounding text?
  • What do we know about the scenes depicted in these images? How does the artist interpret these events? Do we know facts about these scenes that might support or detract from the accuracy of these images?

[click for larger images]

Further Research

The Harper’s Weekly pages are part of a larger collection of historic newspapers in UMD Special Collections – the Original Newspaper Collection. This collection contains newspapers from 1773-2010 (the bulk of which are from the 19th and 20th centuries). The other page, from the Pictorial War Record, is part of the Demorest’s New-York Illustrated News Woodcut Collection. This collection contains several woodcuts and prints illustrating scenes from the Civil War. You can come in and look at these collections whenever we are open.

Another great historic newspaper resource to check out is Chronicling America, which has digitized copies of newspapers from all over America printed between 1836 and 1922. Anyone can search and view these pages 24/7. If you are a UMD student, faculty member, or staff member, you can also search this database of historical newspapers (available 24/7).

Learn more about the Civil War in Maryland by browsing our collections, or check out this guide about women and the American Civil War (with a focus on Maryland women).

Want more help analyzing and understanding primary sources? You can download our Primary Source Analysis handout or take at look at our “Research Using Primary Sources” tutorial. Need help finding primary and secondary sources to analyze? We’re always happy to help – just ask us! You can also check out our website (we recommend starting your research here).


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