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:

Genealogy Humor: Unusual & Funny Names of People (Part II)

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shares some of her readers’ responses to an earlier blog article she wrote about the odd and humorous names she’s run across while researching family history in old newspapers.

After publishing my Unusual & Funny Names of People blog article on 7 November 2013, readers wrote in droves, sharing additional funny—or should I say hilarious—names. Some were submitted directly to our blog, and others via Facebook pages such as the RootsWeb Genealogist page at

We are chuckling over their submissions, and hope you will too!


Several submitters recounted tales of fun surnames reflecting colors.

“Sometimes when women get married, their new names are comical, too, like one I found recently whose last name was White, but when she married her name became Sarah White Rice.” —K. Campbell

“I encountered two families, the Browns and the Greens, who named their children various colours. I remember one of the Brown’s first names was Green. Other names were Orange, Violet, Purple, and Red but I’m sure there was another. There was another family who named their daughters Ruby and Sapphire, so when their son came along, of course they called him Emerald.” —A. Smulders

Here is an item from a “Personal and Social” column from 1897, mentioning John Green Brown (see It also mentions another unusual name: Miss Scrap Wright.

Personal and Social, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 5 October 1897

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 5 October 1897, page 5

That made me think about all the reports of men and women marrying their Miss or Mr. Wrights!

I once found a Purley Wright, and wonder if anyone has ever encountered a Purley White?


D. Peters reported these names: “Actress Poppy Montgomery and her siblings Poppy Petal, Rosie Thorn, Daisy Yellow, Lily Belle, Marigold Sun, and their brother Jethro Tull.”

She was referring to Australian-born Poppy, who was born with a much longer name: Poppy Petal Emma Elizabeth Deveraux Donahue. If interested, be sure to read her Wikipedia bio at

photo of Poppy Montgomery, Register Star newspaper article 26 March 2006

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 March 2006, page 83


In my earlier funny names blog article, I enquired if there were ever people by the names of R. U. A. Crook and Justin Case? I didn’t discover a Crook with those initials, but just as I suspected—there really was someone by the name of Justin Case!

“In 2009 there was an individual who lived in the same area as where I was working. He was indeed named ‘Justin Case.’” —S. Moore

And A. Smulders reported: “I transcribed the name Ah Choo once.” She also reported seeing some names which sounded like profanity! She didn’t repeat them, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Food Names

I’m wondering if this next woman’s middle initial was B?

“My favorite name on my family tree is Barbara Cue.” —Kathy

Miss Barbara Cue, Lt. Lane Engaged, Boston Herald newspaper article 29 April 1945

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 April 1945, page 82

“I found Mr. FUDGE in a South Carolina census today. Still looking for the NUTS, DIVINITY and PEANUT BRITTLE.” —M. Vanderpool Gormley

Musicians and Cartoonists

Artists have long been known to adopt unusual monikers. Dizzy Gillespie, Chubby Checkers and Fats Domino are some that come to mind, but M. Kates reported a person by the name of “Octave Piano,” which is one I hadn’t heard.

There was also a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling, who shortened his Darling surname to “Ding.” If you’ve ever visited Florida’s Captiva Island, perhaps you’ve visited the National Wildlife Refuge named after him. See

Cartoon Award, Times-Picayune newspaper article 4 May 1943

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 May 1943, page 6

Native American Names

The descriptive nature of Indian names, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, is always intriguing.

However, I’ve found one a bit more graphic than usual. This man from Bullhead was elected a tribal councilman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 1967, and he is also recorded on line 71 of this 1940 Census. If anyone has insight on the origin of the surname Kills Pretty Enemy, please enlighten us!

Agard Is Re-Elected Chairman, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 22 October 1967

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 22 October 1967, page 8

Double Meanings, Interchangeable Names and Relationships

One of my earlier blog articles was about someone named “B. A. Husband,” and a “Husband” reader responded: “Thanks for posting this. It was fun to see my name in there.”

When I enquired, “So, are you a wife who is a husband? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.),” she replied:

“LOL. I am a Husband who is also an ex-wife and a future wife…Us Husband women are the only women that can be both husbands and wives at the same time. I don’t mind if you use my comments at all Mary.” —S. Husband

“I ran across a woman a while back whose name was Polly Esther Cotton. I had to look at it twice to make sure it wasn’t an error. It still could have been a misspelling of the last name, I suppose…We have an artist here in town whose name is Mack Truck (real name; the local librarian told me about him).” —K. Campbell

“I went to high school with a girl named Harley Davidson…A friend’s mother was named Dimple Dottie.” —L. Boyd McLachlan

“And in the 1960s I went to grammar school with a boy named Rusty Bell.” —S. Moore

I wasn’t able to find a historical newspaper account for a Rusty Bell, but I did find three at Find-A-Grave, along with the grave of a gospel preacher named Ding Dong Bell:

“I knew a woman years ago named Gwen and she married a man named Gwen, so her married name was Gwen Gwen.” —D. Peters

Here Is an Assortment of Other Contributions from Readers!

“In researching the family who adopted my father-in-law, a ways back there was a marriage into the Snow line; while Fielding Snow is not so funny, other members of the lineage had a real sense of humor. One I found was Frost And Snow (‘And’ was his middle name), Mourning Snow, and Fountain Snow.” —N. Morris Boyd

“I have a Manely Peacock in my family tree. He was a captain in the Union Army. My gg-gm’s sister’s maiden name was Sarah Madara. My favorite isn’t in my family tree however. I came across this name on FamilySearch: Morris Morris, born in Morristown, Morris County, NJ. I wonder what he named his cat?!” —M. Guenther

“I found an Icy North in a census record. Went to school with the Flower sisters, Iris, Rose and Daisy.” —G. Marshall

“I have a Major Buchanan; yes she was a girl.” —S. O’wen

“In the Dutch [family] trees, you often see a difference of one letter between genders. Cornelis for male, Cornelia for female. End result: Aunt and Uncle Corny. We had a family around the corner from us whose kids were named April, May, and August.” —A. Smulders

Genealogical Challenge

Thanks to everyone who shared their findings and brightened our day! If you run across more funny names during your family history research, please share them with us.

Next on the Funny Genealogy Names series will be hysterical town names! I’ve got a whole slew of funny place names in Texas, including the town of Ding Dong. When I publish it, I’ll be sure to let you know how someone stole their bell!