Researching the Civil War deep “into the weeds” requires time, patience, and a passion for the war.
War-related research resembles a well-run Maine farm. There are the highly visible “crops”: the apple orchard, the potato field (think Aroostook County), the pea vines and bean stalks, etc., etc.
Let’s compare that same farm to research related to Pickett’s Charge. The apple orchard represents the well-known tales, written or video, produced the decades about this epic event. Everyone knows that some 12,500 Confederates marched out of the Seminary Ridge woods and headed for the Copse of Trees.
The Yankee boys promptly shot the Southern boys to pieces.
That’s the tale rising above the event’s horizon like a tall apple orchard dominating the horizon of a Maine farm.
The potato field represents the hidden details dug up by Pickett’s Charge researchers over the years. People “pick” potatoes in Maine’s Aroostook County in the fall. You never know what lies beneath the surface until the mechanical harvester turns over the soil and pops the taters to the surface.
As the decades passed, researchers have turned over the Pickett’s Charge soil to find information hidden in history. I refer to the brigade and regimental reports and correspondence revealing which units went where and did what … and how bad a shellacking they took.
These details have fleshed out the Charge.
The pea vines and bean stalks represent additional research that adds individuals and their names to the narrative. We are talking the level of line officers, the captains and lieutenants who survived to write down what they did during the Charge.
Researching “into the weeds” resembles taking a spade (make sure it has a good steel blade) into a fallow field and digging holes around a suspected treasure trove. You think it might be there, but you can’t be sure until you start digging here and there.
For me, “weeds”-level research related to Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge has involved sitting at a digital microfilm reader, loading in Maine newspapers’ July 1863 microfilm, and searching page by page for “weeds,” the stories that have seldom seen the light of day (and history) for 150-plus years.
I learn each newspaper’s idiosyncrasies. The weekly Maine Farmer published only five times in July 1863. I know from past research that page 1 of every issue deals exclusively with agricultural stories, some quite interesting.
But every page 2 contains war information, including soldiers’ letters and correspondence from regimental officers, some writing under noms de guerre. The war-related material can spill onto page 3.
With more Maine libraries installing digital microfilm readers, I no longer need to “pull up each weed” (i.e., read every column on page 2) at the library to find useful information. I save the entire page as a PDF to read at home at my leisure.
Saving the Maine Farmer’s pages digitally is easy: four pages per issue, one issue per week.
The Maine dailies represent large weed patches. The Bangor-published Daily Whig & Courier usually filled page 1 with ads and generic war news, primarily reports from the War Department or the larger pro-Union dailies.
But Mainer-based war stories sometimes started on page 1 and, in newspaper parlance, “jumped inside.” Page 2 was always war news, often provided by Mainers far afield. The war news could flow onto page 3 and rarely onto page 4.
These are the “weeds” I seek, the detailed information you will not find “growing” in the vegetable patch, the potato field, or the apple orchard. In my new book Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, the chapters devoted to the destruction of five 1st Maine Cavalry companies at Middletown, Virginia in 1862 are richly detailed with information found amidst the “weeds,” the letters that survivors promptly wrote home and that relatives as promptly hustled to the Daily Whig & Courier for publication.
Today researchers can save entire newspaper pages as PDFs and read them later. We are digging “into the weeds” to tell the tales seldom found elsewhere.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.