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The Writing on the Wall: Documenting Civil War History

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As June turned into July in 1863, the residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi faced an increasingly dire summer. Union troops surrounded the city in a siege that had begun on May 18th. Ulysses S. Grant's army was determined to gain the city and its strategic location along a bend in the Mississippi River, while Robert E. Lee and his lieutenant general John C. Pemberton were equally devoted to holding it. Within Vicksburg's fortifications, the women, children, and other civilians literally dug in, sheltering in caves that protected them from the ever-present bombardment of minié balls and other shelling.

Illustration of cave life in Vicksburg, from Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History from 458 A.D. to 1909, Volume 10
Illustration from Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History from 458 A.D. to 1909, Volume 10

The Vicksburg troops were well-stocked with weapons, but as the days ticked by, food and other necessities became increasingly scarce. The city's newspaper, the Vicksburg Daily Citizen, was remarkable in that it both documented and physically represented the effects of the siege.

Two copies of a single issue of the Citizen are included within the database America's Historical Newspapers, listed as July 2, 1863 issues. Each is printed in broadside format, meaning that the entire issue takes up one full sheet of paper. (It was not folded into multiple leaves like a pamphlet or book.) The recto (front) of the broadside contains the printed text, but the verso (back) is another story. In the digitized version, we can see faint traces of a pattern on each verso. What are these markings? The database is silent, but further research reveals a curious story.

Detail of recto and verso of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen in America's Historical Newspapers
Detail of recto and verso of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen in the America's Historical Newspapers database

By June 18, 1863, the editor of the Citizen, J.M. Swords, faced a problem. While hoping to continue running his press and distributing news to the city of Vicksburg, Swords no longer had paper on which to print. He instead cut up wallpaper into sheets and fed these through his press. The blank side of the wallpaper, meant to adhere to the wall, bore the newspaper's text. The subtle decorations we see on the versos of these newspapers are the original wallpaper designs. While difficult to discern in the database versions, they are far clearer, and quite beautiful, in their original print format. The Library has two such print copies in its Rare Book Division, each with a different wallpaper design.

After more than a month under siege, Vicksburg was lacking in more than just paper. The primary concern was food: by early July, the city was down to the dregs of its supply of fresh meat and "breadstuff"—the rice, peas, meal, and flour used to make bread. By late June, coveted flour was being sold for $600 a barrel. Scurvy was present among the Confederate soldiers. Sweet potatoes were gone, meaning the end of the surrogate "coffee" brewed in place of coffee beans. (Read more about coffee and the Civil War in the New York Times.) Residents had begun slaughtering mules for their meat, eating this alongside the even less savory rats (in a dish termed "squirrel stew") and cats.

This dire state of affairs was documented in what was to be the final issue of the Citizen. Its various articles spoke of civilian deaths, military activity, instances of soldiers stealing civilian provisions, goods sold at extortionist prices, and the consumption of mule (termed "Confederate beef alias meat") and cats ("poor, defunct Thomas"). It nonetheless exhibited a false optimism on the chances of Confederate success, mocking Grant and reporting on illness and desertion among Union troops just days before the city surrendered.

July 4, 1863 Note from the Vicksburg Daily Citizen
July 4, 1863 Note for the Vicksburg Daily Citizen

But the last article in this issue of the Citizen is something else entirely. America's Historical Newspapers dates its Citizen issues to July 2, 1863. And at first blush, this is correct—July 2 is, after all, recorded under the newspaper's masthead. The final article, however, is a note dated July 4. This day marked the end of the Vicksburg siege, as General Pemberton, hoping to strategically appeal to the sentimentality and patriotism of the Union forces for better terms, surrendered the city on Independence Day. As the victorious troops entered the city and surveyed the activities of the defeated Rebs, one group stumbled upon the offices of the Citizen and its printing press. The soldiers found that the type for the July 2 issue was still "standing" on the press. In other words, the individual pieces of movable metal type were still held together in their printing forme, ready to be inked and transferred onto more paper. The soldiers decided to make a few adjustments and reset the type for a small appended note announcing the arrival of Grant and the victory of the Union army in Vicksburg:

NOTE.

JULY 4th, 1863.

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has "caught the rabbit;" [a reference to an earlier article in this issue] he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The "Citizen" lives to see it. For the last time it appears on "Wall-paper." No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule meat and fricassed kitten—urge Southern warriors to such diet never-more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.

A forme of printing type
Moveable metal type, set in a forme and ready for printing. Photo by Flickr user addedentry.

The Union troops printed out about fifty copies of this new, July 4 installment of the Citizen and sold them to their fellow soldiers. As suggested in the note, this edition became a wartime keepsake. One of the Library's copies has the faint inscription of a name on its verso, likely the name of the soldier who purchased it. Over time, it has become a valued collectible, leading to commemorative copies and facsimiles that muddy the waters for interested purchasers. (The Library of Congress has authored a guide for distinguishing an authentic Citizen from a reprint.) When the New York Herald Tribune reported on the existence of the newspaper for a 1929 article, it prompted a letter to the editor from one W.T. Gardner, an army veteran and former printer's apprentice who shared:

"I am the Grant soldier who set up the type of the item dated July 4, 1863, and did the press work on an old Franklin press. The item was written, if I am not mistaken, by Sergeant Lanfield (or Landfield), Company G, 97th Illinois Volunteers...When we entered the little one-room printing office we found everything as it had been left on July 2. Mr. Swords, the proprietor, was not in, but he had kindly cut up a quantity of wallpaper and sprinkled it and piled it on the floor ready for use....we used it all and then, dividing the papers up, started out to sell them at 25 cents a copy." (Read the entire letter here, via the New York Tribune/Herald Tribune (1841-1962) database.)

Close-up of signature on the verso of NYPL's Vicksburg Daily Citizen
Close-up of signature on the verso of NYPL's Vicksburg Daily Citizen

This issue of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen showcases many things. It illustrates how online databases can help us discover and provide us with convenient access to valuable, rare objects we might not otherwise see or even know about. At the same time, it demonstrates why these digital surrogates are not straightforward replacements for the original, print versions. But most importantly, it shows how printed texts are artifacts of our material culture. We can learn about a historical era from the informational content of a book, pamphlet, or newspaper, but we can also learn from the physical object itself. This document tells a story with the materials from which it was made, how it was assembled, why it was created, and how it was received. Only by exploring all of these facets of its lifecycle do we begin to understand the evidence it holds for one crucial point in history.

References

America's Historical Newspapers database

Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton. Ed. David M. Smith. Cincinnati: Ironclad Publishing, 1999.

Hoehling, A.A. Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996.

Lossing, Benson John. Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History from 458 A.D. to 1909. Vol. 10. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1905.

Loughborough, Mary Ann. My Cave Life in Vicksburg. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1864.

New York Tribune/Herald Tribune (1841-1962) database

Sacrifice at Vicksburg: Letters from the Front. Ed. Susan T. Puck. Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 1997.

Wheeler, Richard. The Siege of Vicksburg. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1978.

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