How do we document these unusual times? We now read often of museums, historical societies, and libraries scrambling to collect materials that speak particularly of the striking events of this year. It is, fortunately, not a new instinct, as Civil War soldiers shared in it when they collected these unique specimens drawn from a time of crisis. They are newspapers that were printed on, well, anything but newsprint. We summarily call them “Civil War wallpaper newspapers.” As war waged in the 1860s, the states of the Confederacy found themselves blockaded by Federal warships, with virtually all the paper mills in the hostile north. The compulsion to publish was still there, and newspaper editors reached for whatever was available at hand, not only bolts of wallpaper, but ledger and tissue paper. Surviving issues suggest that this was particularly a phenomenon in the Gulf States.
The New-York Historical Society has a delightful sampling of these newspapers. Compelling as they are to us, 150 years later, we can only imagine how they struck Union soldiers, exhausted from battle and disease in the swamps, as they victoriously entered a Confederate stronghold and found these examples of determination and desperation. Some hints of their reaction come along with these newspapers.
The Natchitoches Union was imprinted on some brightly colored tissue paper. The inscription at the top of this one, Valery DeBlieux, probably refers to its delivery to Eugene Valery DeBlieux (1820-1896), who would later record the destruction that retreating Federal soldiers inflicted on his home and large Louisiana plantation.1 The issues date from 1862 but were picked up by Union soldiers in 1864. By April 26, the tissue paper curiosities were already being donated to the New-York Historical Society. The donor was probably William Rockwell who also provided us with “5 rebel newspapers” three weeks later. Rockwell, a surgeon in the 18th New York Cavalry participated in this Red River Campaign. It might be worth noting that this patriotic New York physician was 64 years old at the time. We are grateful that he knew what to do with these peculiar newspapers.
A sense of history also inspired Captain John W. McClure, Assistant Quartermaster, Department of the Gulf, when he came across these wallpaper issues of the Opelousas Courier. He inscribed this paper to “Frank Moore, Esq.” Moore, a journalist who was already known as a chronicler of the American Revolution, saw history happening first hand and turned his attention to publishing volumes of primary material about the Civil War as it was unfolding. Frank Moore, as it happened, was the brother of George Moore, Librarian of the New-York Historical Society, a mutually beneficial relationship. Frank donated the Opelousas newspapers, one on his behalf and one in Capt. McClure’s name, less than two months later, on June 16, 1863, another example of how soldiers wasted little time in delivering these curiosities to historical societies as the war waged.
Our copy of an 1864 Louisiana Democrat of Alexandria, Louisiana appears to be imprinted on some sort of ledger paper. We are less certain of how it came to us, but the Wisconsin soldiers who found it in a disordered newspaper office assumed the newspaper was printed on a Confederate quartermaster’s report. They decided to have a go at reissuing it for the Union troops, even sending copies down the Red River for others. The “Rebel part of the paper” remains, containing the Southern editor’s, “Goodbye, good people, behave yourselves as we intend to do.” It is what the conquering troops called the editor’s “farewell address just upon the eve of skedaddling before, ‘the wrinkled front of grim visaged war’ – or in other words, the d—d YANKS!”
Far better known among Civil War enthusiasts is the way Federal soldiers edited the wallpaper newspaper they found in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It remains part of the lore of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s great siege of the city, ending appropriately on July 4, 1863. We tell here how the conquering soldiers put their addenda onto the July 2 issue they found in the printer’s office and predict that “This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable here-after as a curiosity.” The Society has multiple copies of this rare “curiosity”—rare in part because it was so intriguing that it was copied over as a souvenir. One of our copies comes with a letter of authenticity from the embedded war correspondent, Edward L. Crapsey (1836-1914), to the aforementioned Librarian George H. Moore. Crapsey wants to make sure the New-York Historical Society has a copy of this “relic” of the late war because, by 1875, “bogus copies could be had almost anywhere in our leading cities.” Thank you, Mr. Crapsey!
Our copy of the Alexandria, Louisiana’s Southern Sentinel has this inscription on the wallpaper side, “With the regards of Yours Truly, D.D. Porter.” This was no ordinary foot soldier, but rather Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had to pause his ships in Alexandria in the spring of both 1863 and 1864 while waiting for the Red River to rise. In an amusing post-war memoir, he would recall riding unrecognized through the city, where he may have come across the newspapers. Porter had a bit of literary flair, and, while it may not have been his best effort, he also added some of his typical doggerel on the back of the newspaper:
‘Tis Sign the Rebs are going to the wall
When Paper gets so scarce, they soon must fall.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
1Susan E. Dollar, “The Red River Campaign, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana: A Case of Equal Opportunity Destruction,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 43, No.4 (Autumn, 2002), 425.