Civil War Newspaper Research: Personal Notices & Letters

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary shows that one of the ways ordinary citizens and families communicated across enemy lines during the Civil War was by having personal notices and even letters published in newspapers – and these are a great resource for family historians.

It’s often said that “Where there is a will, there is usually a way.” This is true even during the most challenging times – such as during the American Civil War, when in the midst of terrible fighting, communications still found their way across enemy lines. Families either smuggled letters, sent them via flags of truce, or – what is not often realized – published them in local newspapers.

illustration: the 1863 Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, by Kurz & Allison, c. 1890

Illustration: the 1863 Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, by Kurz & Allison, c. 1890. Credit: Library of Congress.

Thanks to digitized newspaper collections online, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, genealogists can search these old newspapers to find very personal communications from and about their ancestors.

Restricted Messages

Some newspapers during the Civil War, such as the Daily National Republican of Washington, D.C., limited the types of notices its readers could publish. In this old news article example, readers could only submit information regarding health or whereabouts to friends and relatives.

  • E. Cunningham and family of New York City relayed a message to Mr. and Mrs. Bernard F. McKenna. They were well and wished to hear the same from them.
  • Charles Horsfield of Wilmington, North Carolina, learned that his mother had died on the 15th of July, an important genealogical date if an obituary was not published.
  • Letitia Donahue of New York City was desperate to hear news of her husband Sam. He was formerly of Atlanta, Georgia – but if you notice the reference to Augusta, this is an important clue as to his possible whereabouts.
personal ads, Daily National Republican newspaper advertisements 28 August 1863

Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.), 28 August 1863, page 2

“Please Copy” or Answer Instructions

Whenever you spot a “please copy” notice, there is a connection to the location. It may be a residence, place where someone works, or – in the case of a soldier – a place where they were stationed.

Many of these newspaper notices also gave instructions as to how one could answer. This clue indicates that they had access to a particular newspaper, even if they lived elsewhere.

Reprisals and Hidden Identities

One of the more proactive newspapers during the Civil War was the Richmond Enquirer in Virginia, which exchanged personals with various northern papers.

Divided families often printed notices – but if they feared reprisals, either for themselves or for loved ones, they would disguise identities by using nicknames or initials. In this example, E. S. C. requested to hear from Mrs. M. J. Ebbs. They were well and sent their love to Alice.

personal ad to M. J. Ebbs, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Search tips to locate hidden identities:

  • Search without a surname
  • Search by initials with or without a surname
  • Search by nicknames and locations

Civil War Soldier News

Not surprisingly, many newspaper notices were about missing Civil War soldiers.

In the same issue of the Richmond Enquirer, there was a message to Lieut. J. M. Podgett of the 18th Georgia reporting that Britton W. Riggons was well and comfortable at Camp Douglas in Illinois.

Another notice, to Charles B. Linn, notes that messages were getting through and that “things” were sent back. He was welcome to respond to “W. S. R.” via the Richmond Enquirer or the New York News.

personal ad to Charles Linn, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Letters to Congressmen

Many letters published in newspapers during the Civil War are full of pathos and desperation, such as the following example.

personal ad to Joseph Segar, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 27 October 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 27 October 1864, page 1

After learning that Dr. Frederick Griffith had been captured about the 20th of September, Wat H. Tyler, M.D., wrote his Congressman Joseph Segar.

What is exciting about this discovery is that the capture is reported in official records, but not how assistance was requested. Griffith was exchanged on 19 March 1865, most likely a direct result of Tyler’s letter. Be sure to visit their Findagrave memorials:

Civil War Vital Records

When you cannot locate a vital record from the Civil War era, a genealogist might find direct or indirect evidence of that record in newspaper notices. In this example, the widow was visiting the Angier House and her husband’s loss was noted.

personal notice about Mrs. Woodbury, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 July 1862

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 July 1862, page 4

This sad notice is important because it connects three generations, and substitutes for an obituary.

In this next example, M. Jane Richardson wrote her father to report that her husband had died on 1 October 1864 of diphtheria, and that Little Nora had no hope of recovering either. She was in deep distress and asked her father to come see her.

personal ad to Mr. Burton, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 27 October 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 27 October 1864, page 1

Civil War Marriage Records

What is wonderful for genealogists searching these Civil War-era newspapers is that not all notices were sad.

Many marriage notices were published at that time. In this one, G. L. M. married Miss A. L. on Wednesday, March 30, 1864, possibly in New York.

Genealogical Challenge: Try to figure out whom this marriage notice was about and let us know in the comments!

marriage announcement, Richmond Enquirer newspaper article 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Civil War research is a fascinating topic – and it doesn’t have to be limited to official records.

You can date early photographs using revenue stamps, learn about regiments through their uniforms, and explore the fascinating articles and letters found in historical newspapers.

Related Civil War Articles & Resources:

American Family Migrations & the U.S. Interstate Highway System

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena explains that understanding transportation is an important part of getting to know our ancestors’ world – and focuses on the development of the Interstate Highway System.

Migration is something we must consider as we trace our ancestors’ lives. Our ancestors were mobile – maybe not nearly as much as we are today, but they traveled across seas, and then often went further inland to set up their new homes. Knowing where and how they arrived is important to finding genealogical documents and records. How they migrated is determined by the time period and modes of travel then available. As time and technology marched on, our ancestors’ opportunities to travel and move about increased.

photo of Interstate Highway 295 in New Jersey

Photo: Interstate Highway 295 in New Jersey. Credit: Famartin; Wikimedia Commons.

Just as we do now, future genealogists will also have to consider what their ancestors had available to them as they traveled. Although the first aircraft took off in the early 1900s, commercial flight didn’t become affordable and largely available until after World War II – just one of numerous considerations in looking at how 20th century ancestors migrated.

Along with airplanes, another mode of transportation we take for granted is the automobile. While motorized vehicles have been with us since the 1800s, it wasn’t until well after World War II that America became more accessible through the building of the U.S. interstate highway system. This mobility allowed families to migrate easier. The highway system also made it possible for people to travel great distances simply for pleasure, or to visit extended family members. This transportation milestone is an important part of the social history we can document in telling the story of our more recent family.

President Eisenhower and the Building of the Interstate Highway System

While President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the man behind the building of the interstate highways, the bill making the national highway system possible was passed in 1944 under the Roosevelt administration. Unfortunately, the legislation did not specify a way to begin building it.

As the Federal Highway Administration’s website explains:

“After taking office in January 1953, President Eisenhower made revitalizing the Nation’s highways one of the goals of his first term. As an army Lieutenant Colonel in 1919, Eisenhower had accompanied a military convoy across the United States and saw the poor condition of our Nation’s roads. Later, during his World War II stint as Commander of the Allied Forces, his admiration for Germany’s well-engineered Autobahn highway network reinforced his belief that the United States needed first-class roads.” *

The 1962 newspaper article below, complete with a map showing the 41,000 miles of highways, declares enthusiastically:

…when completed in 1972, will connect all the states and link 90 per cent of the cities of 50,000 or more population…When the system is complete, it will be possible to drive from one end of the country coast to coast and border to border, without a slowdown, and without encountering a traffic light or stop sign.

Features of the highway that we take for granted are heralded in this article and include: “control of access” prescribed on and off ramps; “grade separations” or overpasses and underpasses; medians; and paved shoulders. All of these safety features were meant to allow a smooth flow of traffic and lessen possible accidents.

map of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 May 1962

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 May 1962, section 5, page 1

National Defense a Key Consideration

While many of us consider the interstate highways a tool to get us to where we are going, the highway system wasn’t only built with the general public in mind. In the shadow of the Cold War and the belief in an imminent nuclear attack, the highways could also move military vehicles and troops across the nation easily. This 1962 article points out that the highways were built as a part of national defense.

article about the U.S. Interstate Highway System, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 May 1962

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 May 1962, section 5, page 2

Interstate Highway System Named in Honor of President Eisenhower

Shortly after Eisenhower died, it was proposed by Rep. Glenn Cunningham (R-Neb) that the interstate system be named after him and referred to as the “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System” rather than the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” as it was originally known. This honor acknowledged the important role that President Eisenhower had in the creation of this most important highway system that is still vital to most of our lives today.

article about naming the U.S. Interstate Highway System in honor of President Eisenhower, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 8 May 1969

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 8 May 1969, page 8

To learn more about the Interstate Highway System, see the website at

How did the building of the interstate impact your family?


* Why is President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “Father of the Interstate System”? – Frequently Asked Questions – Eisenhower Interstate Highway System website:

Related Transportation Articles:

70th Anniversary of WWII’s D-Day (6 June 1944)

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find out more about the Allied attacks on German-held beaches in France on D-Day.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day, which happened on 6 June 1944. D-Day was the long-awaited invasion by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s “Fortress Europe.” The massive assault was also known by the codename “Operation Overlord.”

It is estimated that America is losing some 550 World War II veterans each and every day now. Of the approximately 16 million U.S. men and women who served in World War II, only about 1.2 million are still alive today. Personally, I know that my father landed on Omaha Beach, and he has passed away. Now his WWII experiences are only stories others remember, not first-hand experiences he’s around to share with us. It was with this in mind that I decided to search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to review this historic day.

It did not take me long to find this front-page news coverage of D-Day. General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allies had amassed the greatest amphibious invasion force in history. The old news article reports a one-sentence communiqué issued at 3:32 A.M. Eastern War Time:

Under the command of Gen. Eisenhower, Allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.

By the time this “Extra” edition of the newspaper hit the streets, Operation Overlord had become an immense battle across five Normandy beaches whose code names now are seared into our memory: Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, and Utah.

front-page news about the Allied invasion of France on D-Day during WWII, Boston Herald newspaper article 6 June 1944

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 June 1944, page 1

During the months of D-Day preparations, the actual landings, and even continuing into the first weeks of battles, there was an equally important operation taking place by the name of “Operation Fortitude.” This two-part operation of “Fortitude North” and “Fortitude South” was one of the supreme acts of deception of all time.

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It took a while for all the details to be revealed, but this 1965 newspaper article presents a very good review of this “secret of D-Day.”

article about D-Day and the secret “Operation Fortitude” during WWII, Boston Herald newspaper article 10 December 1965

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 December 1965, page 15

Four years later, this 1969 newspaper article again focuses on the use of deception that paved the way for the Allies’ success at D-Day. This historical news article reports the reminiscences of General Omar Bradley, who commanded the American troops attacking the Normandy coast. Bradley related not only his firsthand memories regarding the D-Day invasion, but also the big deception that was created to convince the Axis powers that the actual invasion was still coming at Pas de Calais—and that the Normandy landings were actually just a distraction.

article about WWII's D-Day and General Omar Bradley, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 1 June 1969

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 1 June 1969, page 32

The incredible fighting, bravery, and staggering losses of D-Day have been frequently reported, but I found a 1979 article on this subject that was particularly interesting to me. It was written by Robert E. Cunningham, a U.S. Army Captain, and relates his experiences while landing at Omaha Beach that fateful day. His story is almost too intense to read.

At Omaha Beach, D Day, June 6, 1944, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 3 June 1979

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 June 1979, page 135

Several years ago, my family was on vacation in Europe. We were in France, my mother was driving and my father was dozing in the car. My mom saw a sign for “Omaha Beach” and decided it would be a nice surprise to go there for my dad. My father didn’t wake up until we parked the car. He was incredibly shocked to see where we were as he sat in the car looking out at the acres and rows of crosses. For quite some time he refused to leave the car. Finally he joined us as we walked the now silent beach, seeing the cliffs, concrete pillboxes, old rusting guns, and shipwrecks still in the surf.  It was later, while walking hand-in-hand with his family through those crosses that he said, in a voice that was only a whisper, that he had spent the first months after D-Day on graves registration detail and it was the worst duty he had ever pulled.

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The War continued for almost a year after D-Day with fierce fighting all across Europe (and in the Pacific for even longer), as shown in this 1944 newspaper with a full page of articles covering battle after battle being waged from France and Italy to the Pacific.

articles about WWII battles, Oregonian newspaper articles 23 June 1944

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 23 June 1944, page 4

Now it is 70 years after D-Day and the successes of that fateful day continue to be recognized across Europe as communities everywhere celebrate their liberation. As a matter of fact, just a couple of months ago I was contacted by a woman who is coordinating the celebration of the liberation of the town of Dinan, France, which was accomplished by the forces of the 83rd Infantry. She was seeking photographs that might be a part of that town’s celebration. As any good family historian and genealogist would do, I was happy to share what I had for the display during their celebration this summer.

The small leather satchel in this photograph is the one my father carried across Europe during the fighting. He carefully noted each town he found himself in, one of which was Dinan.

photo of a leather satchel carried by Scott Phillips's father across Europe during the fighting of WWII

Photo: leather satchel carried by the author’s father across Europe during the fighting of WWII. Credit: from the author’s collection.

As my contact in Dinan said to me: “Oh my, Scott, this satchel tells a story all by itself.”

I can only add my thanks to all who served our country in WWII and especially those who fought on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago on D-Day.

photo of Scott Phillips'sfather having lunch somewhere in Normandy with his squad during WWII

Photo: The author’s father (right rear) having lunch somewhere in Normandy with his squad during WWII. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Do you have any D-Day veterans in your family or your family tree? I’d like to hear about them if you do; please post something in the comments section below.