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:

Richardson, Texas Newspapers Online

GenealogyBank has Richardson, Texas, newspapers online dating back to 1920.

photo of Richardson, Texas, circa 1923

Photo: Main Street, Richardson, Texas, circa 1923. Credit: Wikipedia; courtesy of the Richardson Historical and Genealogical Society.

Always ranking high on the lists of best and safest places to live in the U.S., Richardson, Texas, is home to many cutting-edge electronics and telecommunications companies, as well as the University of Texas at Dallas. The city is located in both Dallas and Collin counties.

To learn more about your family history from “The Lone Star State,” search GenealogyBank’s extensive online Texas Newspaper Archives.

Here is a list of our online Richardson, Texas, newspapers currently available in the archives. Each Richardson newspaper title contains a hyperlink taking you directly to that newspaper’s search page. Click now and start searching for your ancestors out west!

Richardson Echo 1/10/1920 – 12/28/1966 Newspaper Archives
Richardson Digest 1/6/1965 – 12/29/1965 Newspaper Archives

Women during World War II: Knitting & Sewing on the Home Front

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the knitting, sewing and quilting efforts of women on the home front during World War II to support the Red Cross and the war effort—and how local newspaper articles about these women provide good information for your family history searches.

Have you documented your family’s lives during World War II? With the upcoming 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day this Friday, it’s an important reminder to document those stories now before it’s too late. The Greatest Generation’s numbers are decreasing daily, memories are fading and family stories will soon be lost.

No doubt it’s important to research your military ancestors and what they were doing in the war to record your family history. Equally important is finding out about those that were left behind on the home front during wartime. Women, children and non-military men played important roles in the war by sacrificing through rationing of food and other material goods, working in industries that supported the war effort, taking over jobs for those who were fighting, and lending their time and talent to help those in need here and abroad.

Women filled many roles during World War II: they served in the military, they worked in industries like aircraft manufacturing and farming, and they also lent their skills to volunteer efforts. One such example is the sewing that was done for the Red Cross.

The American Red Cross, founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, coordinated various efforts during the World War II years that assisted service men and women, civilians, and war victims. They shipped supply packages and helped to ensure a blood supply for soldiers. (You can read more about the history of the American Red Cross on their website.) One way American women helped Red Cross efforts was through sewing and the raffling of finished projects to raise much-needed funds.

This knitting and sewing effort during World War II wasn’t a new idea. World War I saw women sewing and organizing groups that crafted materials to benefit soldiers and those who were victims of the war. Socks were knitted; pajamas, sheets and shirts were sewn; and quilts were pieced and quilted.

American women weren’t the only ones who sewed for the Red Cross. According to the book World War II Quilts by Sue Reich, Canadian women “began quiltmaking in support of the war in the late 1930s…Canada sent 25,000 quilts to Britain and Europe for the relief effort via the Red Cross.” She goes on to write that women attending Red Cross meetings presented a quilt block and a penny at each meeting, thus raising funds and creating quilts and blankets.*

Women’s benevolent sewing, knitting and quilting work was featured in their local newspapers. Meeting notices, project photos, and participants’ names were all documented for the community.

This newspaper article is about a Mexican woman in the United States who used her sewing skills to support her sons fighting in the U.S. Army.

Mexican Woman Makes, Sells Quilt to Aid Red Cross, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 February 1942

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 February 1942, page 9

The quilt Mrs. Maria Salazar made was originally going to be sold to finance her trip to Mexico to visit relatives, but she reconsidered and donated the money to support the efforts of the Red Cross and ultimately of her three sons fighting in the war. Her name, address and the names and ages of her sons are listed in the old newspaper article.

This historical newspaper article, also from Texas, details the amount of volunteer hours spent in the Red Cross Sewing Room. Products created included 446 woolen garments, 28 knitted garments and 2 quilts made by 616 women.

Red Cross Sewing Room Makes Fine Record, Richardson Echo newspaper article, 3 April 1942

Richardson Echo (Richardson, Texas), 3 April 1942, page 1

This Louisiana article makes note that a quilt was sent to the Red Cross by Mrs. Ada B. Brown and also lists the names of every woman in her sewing group.

A Lovely Quilt, State Times Advocate newspaper article 27 March 1942

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 27 March 1942, page 9

Military records are an important resource in researching your World War II military ancestors. To get a fuller picture of everyone’s involvement in the war effort, however, turn to newspapers—they are important in learning more about the local history of an area including the activities on the home front.


* Reich, Sue. World War II Quilts. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub, 2010. Page 138.