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Introduction to Primary Sources


A bill of sale recording the purchase of a slave, desertion lists from a Confederate army regiment, writing manuals used by freedmen and women to achieve literacy – these and other primary sources will be featured and examined throughout the course. Selected from the collections of Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, these materials will complement the lectures and discussion forums to enrich our understanding of the United States in the Era of Civil War and Reconstruction.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides first-hand or eyewitness information about a particular historical person, event, or idea. Typical examples of primary sources include letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, paintings, maps, and oral histories. Historians can use primary sources to answer research questions and to gather evidence to support their arguments.

Working with primary sources

When working with primary sources it is important to begin with a few observational and interpretive questions, which can often suggest future research directions.

  1. When was this source created? If the source is not dated, can you use any contextual clues to make an educated guess?
  2. Who created it? If no individual’s name is apparent, can you guess their position within society?
  3. What was the original purpose of this source? Why was it created and what was its intent?
  4. Who is the intended audience of the source? How does this influence the way information is presented?
  5. Is there anyone, besides the author, who is represented in the source? What can you learn about them?
  6. How has the meaning of the source changed over time?
  7. How might a historian use this source as a piece of evidence? What research questions might it help to answer? What story might you tell using this source?

Sample Exercise

Using the questions above to examine this Bill of Sale from the State of Louisiana might elicit the following types of answers:

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1. October 4, 1859

2. Anthony Wiesemann of St. Louis, Missouri.

3. This document is a bill of sale for a slave woman. This was a legal document meant to transfer property rights to this woman from Wiesemann to her new owner, Denis C. Daniel of St. Mary Parish, Louisiana for the sum of $1,450.

4. The primary audience for this document was the purchaser, Denis C. Daniel, and his heirs.

5. This document also represents the subject of the sale, “a certain negress, slave for life, named Sarah Jane, aged 17.”

6. While this source originally served as a legal document guaranteeing property rights, today it shows us how people were held and valued as property.

7. A historian might use this document to show how the demand for slaves continued to grow in the years immediately before the Civil War.

I. Cyrus Gordon - Abraham Lincoln Collection, 1846-1980, Columbia University, RBML


Section 2 Primary Sources

A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides firsthand or eyewitness information about a particular historical person, event, or idea. Typical examples of primary sources include letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, paintings, maps, and oral histories. Historians use primary sources to answer research questions and to gather evidence to inform or support their arguments.

Envelopes

For instance, examine the imagery on the following envelopes, which enjoyed wide circulation during the Civil War.


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Patriotic Northern envelope, 1861, printed by Samuel C. Upham, 310 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. [U.S. Civil War Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.]

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Northern envelope with dialect, creator unknown. [U.S. Civil War Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.]

These seemingly simple documents convey a rich variety of historical information. Their style, tone, and design present a clear contrast – scholars might use this to discuss the range of emotional responses to the coming of the Civil War. The dialect speech used by the African-American figures offers insight into racial stereotypes of the day, while the metaphor of Lincoln-as-comet might be employed to discuss popular notions of science.

In the coming weeks we will present a variety of unique materials selected from the collections of Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. These primary sources will complement the scholarly interpretations presented in the lectures and discussion forums. Tips for using these materials are available in the “Primary Sources” tab of the dropdown menu above.

Different types of texts offer varying potential questions and answers. Wills, financial records, and military accounts document the day-to-day functioning of a slave society. Photographic albums, engravings, and printed ephemera provide glimpses into the iconography of nineteenth-century culture. Personal belongings and correspondence beckon toward the intimate details of private lives, while mass-produced keepsakes blur the lines between historical evidence and pop-cultural kitsch. We will investigate the origins and intended functions of these materials. Placing individual documents in context will allow participants the chance to think about the past in new ways. Asking scholarly questions of the materials will model how historians work to provide fresh interpretations of historical evidence.

For further reading on the use of primary sources in historical research, participants might consult these works:

Andrews, Thomas, and Flannery Burke. “What Does it Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History (January 2007).

Barton, Keith C. “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths.” Phi Delta Kappan 86 (June 2005).

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001


Photo Album

This week the course examines a page from a photo album assembled during the Civil War period. The album is from the papers of Sydney Howard Gay, an important Northern editor and abolitionist.

Before moving on to the interpretive questions below, participants should first investigate the document closely and ask themselves these fundamental questions:

  1. When was this source created? If the source is not dated, can you use any contextual clues to make an educated guess?
  2. Who created it? If no individual’s name is apparent, can you guess their position within society?
  3. What was the original purpose of this source? Why was it created and what was its intent?
  4. Who is the intended audience of the source? How does this influence the way information is presented?
  5. Is there anyone, besides the author, who is represented in the source? What can you learn about them?
  6. How has the meaning of the source changed over time?
  7. How might a historian use this source as a piece of evidence? What research questions might it help to answer? What story might you tell using this source?

You will recognize these questions from the “Primary Sources” tab on the menu bar. If you have not inspected this menu feature yet, we recommend that you do so now.



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PHOTO CAPTIONS, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:

  1. Cub Run – On the brow of the hill to the left Lieut. Col. Haggerty was buried
  2. Generals Franklin, Slocum, Barry, Newton, and friends – 14 May 1862
  3. Prof. Lowe inflating Balloon Intrepid to Reconnoiter Battle of Fair Oaks
  4. Fortifications at Centreville

Once you have carefully inspected this source, consider these two questions for the discussion board:

  1. What do you see in these images that you might not have expected? How do they seem to be portraying the Union Army and the Northern cause at the start of the war? What expectations did the North have for the war, and how do these photos reinforce or contradict those expectations?
  2. This image depicts only one page from an entire photo album. Consider it as a material object. What can you infer from the way it was collected and preserved? What do the handwritten captions add to the source?


Section 3 Primary Souces

From the very start of the war, enslaved people in occupied southern states understood the nearby presence of the Union Army to be an opportunity for freedom. Long before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved African-Americans actively pursued their own political ends, seeking refuge in army encampments as a first step toward achieving freedom. At Fortress Monroe in Virginia, General Benjamin Butler set a precedent for refusing to return slaves who fled to Union lines to their owners. He justified his actions by defining enslaved persons as “contraband of war,” or military resources of the enemy that could be seized. While Butler sought to use the “contrabands” as military laborers who would be paid wages, the swelling tide of African American refugees, including women and children, tested the resources of the Union Army. The “Contrabands,” as they came to be called, spurred debate and controversy among a Northern public that was by no means unified on the questions of emancipation, and racial equality. These African Americans made slavery central to the political agenda of the Union early on in the Civil War. The federal government was compelled to create sweeping policies to account for the actions of runaway slaves.

The following two texts present the “Contraband” question in very different ways. Examine these texts using the basic questions suggested in the “Primary Sources” menu tab, then answer the interpretive questions that follow.



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Northern envelope, creator unknown. [U.S. Civil War Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.]



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Photo album page, depicting “contrabands.” [Sydney Howard Gay Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.]

Interpretive Questions

  1. Contrast the two documents. How do their depictions of formerly enslaved people differ? What messages do you think these images were attempting to convey to the Northern public during the early years of the war?
  2. Both sets of texts were created to convey a meaning, but they were not produced by African-Americans themselves. As a historian, what difficulties would this create if you were hoping to recreate the experience of formerly enslaved people?

The newspaper below, the New South, was a Union newspaper published in the Northern-occupied city of Port Royal, South Carolina. This page, from the January 3, 1863 issue, contains several interesting articles. But probably the most eye-catching piece is the announcement of “Emancipation in South Carolina.” Read the article and scan the rest of the page before answering the interpretive questions that follow.



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Page from the New South, 1863. [U.S. Civil War Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.]

Interpretive Questions

  1. Consider the rhetorical style of the article “Emancipation in South Carolina.” How does it differ linguistically from the text of Abraham Lincoln’s legal Emancipation Proclamation? What do you think might explain the difference in tone?
  2. This document reveals some of the remaining tensions over the future of slavery in the United States among military officials and between members of the Northern public. Compare the viewpoints presented by General Butler and General Banks in the center column of the page. What do they reveal about the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the lingering obstacles to universal emancipation?


Section 4 Primary Sources

The Black Soldier

African Americans provided crucial manpower to the Union army in the second half of the Civil War. Offering a powerful rebuttal to racist claims, they proved themselves equal to their white counterparts, spread emancipation throughout the South, and served as a beacon to black pride and self-confidence in the postwar years. With Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, the Union Army became a force of liberation. Enslaved people continued to flock to Union Army lines to claim their freedom, and black soldiers led the charge in the crusade to end slavery.

At the same time, however, black soldiers continued to face virulent racism from both sides of army lines. The Confederate Army targeted black regiments for violent attacks and threatened prisoners with re-enslavement. Many black soldiers protested unequal pay in comparison to their white peers, and their advancement through army ranks was constrained by racist policies. Furthermore, the gains made by some black men in the army were offset by the hardships faced by family members who could not enlist, especially women, children, and elderly people.

This week’s primary sources include two northern depictions of African-American soldiery: One is a poem from a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the Second Louisiana regiment, the other is an illustration of black soldiers. Examine these texts using the guidelines described in the “Primary Sources” menu tab, and then answer the interpretive questions that follow.


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Pamphlet, 1863, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.


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Illustration, 1863. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

INTERPRETIVE QUESTIONS

  1. Examining the poem and the image describe the importance of the army for African Americans in the Civil War. Using specific examples, discuss how military service could be used to combat the legacy of slavery.
  2. What do these two texts convey about Northern attitudes toward African-American soldiers? Both authors favor the participation of African Americans in the conflict, but can you still discern conflicts or tensions over lingering questions of racism?
  3. Consider associations between military service, masculinity, and citizenship. Why might military service be a flawed or incomplete path to equality for former slaves?

Section 5 Primary Source

The Confederacy

From the beginning of the war, the Confederate States faced internal divisions on many fronts. As the war progressed these tensions rose further: Between slaves and masters, plantation-owners and small farmers, women and men, soldiers and officers. Original documents from the era can offer specific insights into some of these conflicts.p>

One of the major challenges the Confederacy faced was keeping its army supplied with basic rations and manpower. Many of the men that were drafted into the army were owners of small farms on which their families relied for subsistence. When they left home, their wives and children felt the absence of their labor dearly and sometimes begged the men to return to help them with the harvest. In addition, many of these small farmers did not own slaves and found it difficult to justify fighting for the rights of large plantation owners while their own families went hungry. All of these factors led to a growing desertion rate as the war dragged on.

Below you will see a List of Desertions from a regiment of the 4th Brigade of the Trans-Mississippi Army, C.S.A., which served under Major General Thomas C. Hindman. The list covers roughly nine months, from September 1862 through June 1863. Examine the document closely and then consider the interpretive questions that follow.


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Peter Wellington Alexander Papers, 1855-1863. Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Columbia University.

QUESTIONS:

  1. This document provides rich details about private soldiers in the Confederate army. Social historians use texts like this to make statistical analyses about everyday people in the past. Look closely at the demographic information – rank, age, height, personal descriptions, etc. – available on this list, what patterns emerge that you find interesting?
  2. The last column, entitled “Cause of desertion + Whereabouts,” offers special insight into the mindset of the creator of this document. What questions do these various enumerated “causes” raise for you? How might deserters’ experiences have differed from the ideals of the Confederate nation and masculinity forged by wealthy planters?
  3. As a standalone text the “list of desertions” raises many intriguing questions. What other information would you, as a historian, want to have before you would feel comfortable drawing conclusions about desertion and morale in the Confederate army?


Section 6 Primary Sources

The impact of the Civil War

In the midst of the Civil War the Union cause suffered one of its most dramatic crises, when a prolonged uprising in the North’s largest city threatened to destabilize the nation’s unity. The New York City Draft Riots lasted for several days in the middle of July in 1863. Working-class residents – including many Irish immigrants – expressed outrage over the Republican prosecution of the war in general, and opositiuon to the Emancipation Proclamation in particular, by targeting government buildings, antislavery politicians, and African-Americans. Angered by a draft system that allowed wealthy citizens to purchase exemptions from service, and concerned that freed African Americans would compete for employment opportunities, the rioters overwhelmed authorities to rampage unimpeded for nearly a week. In the end soldiers had to be rushed from the Battle of Gettysburg north to Manhattan to quell the bloodshed. The rioters’ career of burning, lynching, and murder culminated in the destruction of the city’s Colored Orphan Asylum. Between 100 and 500 deaths resulted from the violence, making the draft riots the largest incident of civil disorder in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of the turmoil, the city’s wealthy Republicans mobilized a Merchants’ Committee for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Riots in the City of New York. Over the course of several weeks, the committee raised more than $40,000 dollars and gathered donations of food and clothing. Its efforts earned the gratitude of Reverend Henry Highland Garnet and many other leading African-American ministers and community leaders.

This week’s primary-source document is excerpted from the committee’s report. Highlighted below is the Chairman’s response to Rev. Garnet’s acknowledgment of the committee’s good works. Examine the text and then consider the interpretive questions that follow.


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“Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the city of New York,” New York : G.A. Whitehorne, printer, 1863. From the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Questions:

  1. There are three groups of people represented in this speech: free black people, immigrant rioters, and the merchants of New York. How are each of these groups described in the text? According to the author, what roles did they play in the recent draft riots? How do these descriptions reflect divisions within Northern society that emerged during the war?
  2. Consider the author’s position as a New York merchant. How might his position in society influence his attitudes towards the rioters and towards the free black community? What rhetorical evidence can you find in the text that exemplifies these attitudes?
  3. What is the author’s opinion of the institution of slavery? Why does he support a policy of gradual emancipation and what problems does he foresee with wartime emancipation policies?


Section 7: Toward Union Victory

The Election of 1864

The presidential election of 1864 was seen as a referendum on Lincoln’s conduct of the war, and, in particular, on his policies of wartime emancipation and reconstruction. The Democratic Party nominated General George McClellan, a veteran general of the Union Army, as their candidate for office. McClellan supported the war as a means to restore the Confederate States to the Union, but repudiated emancipation. McClellan argued that Lincoln’s efforts to secure the abolition of slavery were unnecessarily prolonging the war. His campaign strategy stoked racial fears in order to win support from Northern voters.

This week’s primary-source document is a campaign pamphlet for the election of 1864 titled “Lincoln’s Catechism.” The pamphlet presents its message in a series of “lessons,” the first of which is reproduced here. Examine the text and then consider the interpretive questions that follow.

“The Lincoln Catechism wherein the Eccentricities and Beauties of Despotism are Fully Set Forth: A Guide to the Presidential Election of 1864,” New York: J.F. Feeks, printer, 1864. From the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

“The Lincoln Catechism wherein the Eccentricities and Beauties of Despotism are Fully Set Forth: A Guide to the Presidential Election of 1864,” New York: J.F. Feeks, printer, 1864. From the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

“The Lincoln Catechism wherein the Eccentricities and Beauties of Despotism are Fully Set Forth: A Guide to the Presidential Election of 1864,” New York: J.F. Feeks, printer, 1864. From the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Questions

  1. From this example of campaign literature, what can you say about how the Democratic Party sought to defeat Lincoln? What issues seem to have been the most controversial?
  2. Discuss the form of the "catechism," and how audiences in 1864 would have understood it. What in your opinion is the purpose of publishing campaign literature in this genre? How do you think the audience would have reacted to this publication?
  3. What does this document imply about Northern attitudes toward slavery, racism, and the Emancipation Proclamation? Be specific. Does the prejudice seem to emphasize social, cultural, economic, political, or other factors? Why, do you think?


Section 8 Primary Sources

Beginnings of Reconstruction and the End of the War

“Now He Belongs to the Ages”

For Americans living in 1865, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a traumatic event. As with the assassination of John F. Kennedy a century later, or the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, everybody who experienced it would always remember where they were, and what they were thinking, when they heard. In the archive, the moment has left traces across several collections, as people took the time to records their reactions to the tragic news

Coming on April 14, 1865, just days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the assasination shocked the nation. Millions of Americans mourned Lincoln’s death, and many paid their respects directly as Lincoln’s casket journeyed by rail from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois. The mythologizing of Lincoln began immediately after his death, prompted further by the fact that his assassination occurred on Good Friday. Lincoln was depicted as a Christ-like figure who died for the sins of his country. He was also remembered as the Great Emancipator, although this image faded by the turn of the twentieth century as white Americans reconciled and transformed Lincoln into a symbol of national Unity.

This week's primary-source documents are a visual catalogue of some of the ways ordinary Americans remembered Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of the war and his assassination. Each of these items reflects the personal connection felt by individuals to Lincoln and to the tragic event of his death. Examine the images carefully and consider the following interpretive questions.

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J. A. Arthur, Washington and Lincoln Apotheosis, 1865, Abraham Lincoln Portraits and Memorabilia, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.



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Mourning envelope depicting Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1865.

US Civil War Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.



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Mr. Edgar Deal’s Badge of Mourning Depicting Abraham Lincoln, 1865. In the framed envelope, he has written:

“I wore this badge of mourning in 1865. Mr. Lincoln’s body was lying in state in Independence Hall, Philadelphia.”

Abraham Lincoln Portraits and Memorabilia, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.



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In his diary entry for April 15, 1865, the federal clerk Charles T. Cotton wrote: “our beloved President A. Lincoln assassinated at Ford’s Theatre last night at 10 P.M. & died this morning at 7. o’clock & 22 minutes – A most gloomy dismal day – rainy – everybody weeping – houses hung in mourning.”

“our beloved President A. Lincoln assassinated at Ford’s Theatre last night at 10 P.M. & died this morning at 7. o’clock & 22 minutes – A most gloomy dismal day – rainy – everybody weeping – houses hung in mourning.”

Charles T. Cotton Diaries, 1850-1877. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.



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On April 16, 1865, the meeting minutes of the New York Chamber of Commerce were limited to one stark sentence, delineated by heavy black lines:

This day the news was received of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln President of the United States.

New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry Records. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

Questions:

  1. These objects suggest the array of reactions experienced, and mourning customs employed, by Americans in the 19th century. How do these mementoes seem different or similar to those used today?
  2. These objects were used or displayed by a variety of Americans, ranging from ordinary citizens, to federal employees, to wealthy elites. What do the objects reveal about their creators? How did different people mark the occasion in ways that reflected their professions and social standings?
  3. Compare and contrast the depictions and descriptions of Lincoln in these images. How might they reflect different interpretations of Lincoln’s legacy?