Primary Documents--the most important tools to understand history

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tonijustine

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I have been collecting some primary documents on my blog to help my readers (kids, families, non-academics) get a better understanding of the Civil War. Do you have specific go-to primary documents that you find particularly helpful in understanding the Civil War?

I already have the Declarations of Causes, the platforms of the 4 parties in the 1860 election, the official reports from Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga, and a smattering of other documents.

Are there any particularly telling letters, diary entries, speeches, newspaper articles etc that would be valuable to a new student to understand the war overall or certain aspects?

Thank you!
 
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Deleted User CS

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The internet is full of wonderful institutions that are filled with primary source treasures. For example, Michigan State University is a wonderful site for examining original letters and diaries from both theatres of the civil war. Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania has an archive that has placed a lot of their original documents pertaining to the Confederate invasion of Carlisle during the Gettysburg Campaign on line. I also find archives.org an indispensable site for locating old and out of print regimental histories and published diaries. I have just given you a sampling of what is out there in the internet to explore. Good luck with your research. David.
 

tonijustine

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The internet is full of wonderful institutions that are filled with primary source treasures. For example, Michigan State University is a wonderful site for examining original letters and diaries from both theatres of the civil war. Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania has an archive that has placed a lot of their original documents pertaining to the Confederate invasion of Carlisle during the Gettysburg Campaign on line. I also find archives.org an indispensable site for locating old and out of print regimental histories and published diaries. I have just given you a sampling of what is out there in the internet to explore. Good luck with your research. David.
Thank you for the resources. Do you have any specific documents you like or think beginners should review to understand the war? I have a list of my own, but my fear is that I am choosing documents that confirm my own bias. I would like others' insight to help round out the list. The internet is a great tool, but unfortunately, as can be seen here every day, the sheer volume of data available at a key stroke is overwhelming and can lead one to cherry pick if only to try to manage the volume.
 

Deleted User CS

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Thank you for the resources. Do you have any specific documents you like or think beginners should review to understand the war? I have a list of my own, but my fear is that I am choosing documents that confirm my own bias. I would like others' insight to help round out the list. The internet is a great tool, but unfortunately, as can be seen here every day, the sheer volume of data available at a key stroke is overwhelming and can lead one to cherry pick if only to try to manage the volume.
There are many aspects and various topics to study about the war. You first have to determine what aspects of the civil war you wish to study, i.e., military aspects, economic or social aspects, etc. Once you determine your civil war interests, then you have to develop a bibliography on that particular topic and interest and then study the primary sources used by a particular group of authors and build your own library of books and take the time to gather the primary sources. Before to long you will have built up a collection of materials. David.
 
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Andersonh1

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Northern Light

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Just bear in mind that primary sources, while extremely important are not necessarily unbiased, especially newspapers. They are a tremendous asset, but need to be put into context.
 

huskerblitz

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It is really limitless in what you are asking for. I would (and have with my students) bring in John T Harrington's letters of the 22nd Kentucky. Has some good descriptions of the fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, his annoyance with Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his regard for the fighting spirit of the Confederate soldiers. I think it's a good overview of a Kentucky Union soldier's view of the war. Sadly, Sgt Major Harrington would not live to see the war come to an end.

PS...I would also consider primary sources a tool for learning as well.
 

Lubliner

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Thank you for the resources. Do you have any specific documents you like or think beginners should review to understand the war? I have a list of my own, but my fear is that I am choosing documents that confirm my own bias. I would like others' insight to help round out the list. The internet is a great tool, but unfortunately, as can be seen here every day, the sheer volume of data available at a key stroke is overwhelming and can lead one to cherry pick if only to try to manage the volume.
I agree with @christian soldier absolutely. One other item needed would be the age level and advancement structure in your classroom. The General Orders issued by number from the War Departments both North and South. Likewise Special Orders published into headquarters groups. There are declaration found from Beauregard's terror accusations to Jeff Davis's pious pleas to God for mercy in the Official Records. Specifics for detailed facts are accomplished this wise, but to put a spin on the whole aspect, Grant's Memoirs, Sherman's, Sheridan's, and numerous confederates.
Lubliner.
Edit: Sources-data.
 
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7thWisconsin

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Also remember that primary sources record perceptions of the time, not necessarily the facts. Fred Ray kept a wonderful, detailed private diary of his service with the Iron Brigade. Since he was writing it during his enlistment, and never intended to publish it, I consider it in the first rank of primary documents concerning the common soldier. Yet almost without exception, each time he mentions a piece of news, or camp rumor, it's wrong. If you don't have some background in how things actually went, you will be puzzled about all these nonevents.
 

tonijustine

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Just bear in mind that primary sources, while extremely important are not necessarily unbiased, especially newspapers. They are a tremendous asset, but need to be put into context.
Thank you and context is my favorite word. This is actually one of the exercises that I want my readers to go through. Asking the questions about each primary document that identifies the audience, the purpose of the document, what makes it more or less reliable than other types of primary documents, and what each type of document adds to the story. So, for example, a general's after action report may not be entirely accurate if they had ambitions to climb the military ladder and wanted to deflect the blame of a loss on subordinates. Or the fact that a private's letter to his beloved about a battle he fought in only tells a small portion of the larger battle because that was all he knew. I'm especially interested in finding political cartoons from publications on opposite ends of the political spectrum and comparing the message, or newspaper reports from those politically diverse publications and how they differ in the story they tell.

I think historical literacy has a huge benefit in the present, but putting it in the context of history is a lot less politically charged.
 

wbull1

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John E. Washington's They Knew Lincoln, which has a great introduction by Kate Masur, contains many reports by blacks of their interactions with Abraham and Mary Lincoln. It stands in contrast to sweeping statements about Lincoln's personal feelings. It also shows how one person can help record history and the story of how it came to be shows how dishonest and biased historians can be. I think students would find it fascinating. I do.
 
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