top of page

At Ease: Primary Sources

History...In Their Words

According to Healey Library, a primary source is defined as: "immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it...[including]:

  • Texts of laws and other original documents.

  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.

  • Speeches, diaries, letters, and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.

  • Original research.

  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.

  • Photographs, videos, or audio that capture an event.

We enjoyed hearing about your favorite primary sources, preparing a new video, and doing a little extra research about the "OR's" and Civil War era newspapers. We hope you are doing well and having a safe week. Don't forget to vote in the new survey since we're "laying track" for another great discussion next week!


Survey Results

Thank you for sharing your favorite primary sources. In the final tally, the Official Records scored 4 votes, "Letters & Diaries" (mostly family papers) took 5 votes, Grant's Memoirs finished with 2 votes, Battles & Letters scored 1, and specific published titles of varying types finished with 5 votes. (The latter are detailed below.)

Here are the suggested, specific titles of published primary sources from the survey:

  • Memoirs of The Confederate War for Independence by Heros van Borcke

  • Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac by Frank Wilkeson

  • Correspondence of Emory Upton published by University of Tennessee Press

  • Boys of '61 by Charles Carelton Coffin

  • All for the Union by Elisha H. Rhodes


Excerpts from Two Letters

Confederate officer Charles M. Blackford wrote about defending the flank at Fredericksburg, and Elisha H. Rhodes recorded leading his Union regiment into battle at Spotsylvania. This week's video features excerpts from their letters.


Collecting The Official Records

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Say that official title five times, out loud, as fast as possible. Or maybe just join the club and call these volumes "The OR." So...who collected the hundreds of battle reports, messages, unit casualty lists, and other documents published in the series? And who had the idea in the beginning? By 1863, General Henry W. Halleck seemed to be tired of writing his annual report for Congress and suggested that the Committee on Military Affairs start collecting and preparing documents to record the conflict. A joint resolution in Congress allowed for the collection and printing of official records, and on May 19, 1864, President Lincoln signed the bill. The 128 volumes that comprise the OR's contain an array of primary sources, including battle reports, messages, and numerical data. Some contents are problematic, not well written, and contradictory, creating challenges for researchers.



Historic newspapers can be both primary or secondary sources, so it's important to know what type of article we're looking at. During the Civil War, many newspapers published soldiers' letters in their hometown newsheets, accounts from front-line reporters, or—in later years—veterans' memories and articles about their war experiences. As with all primary sources, it's important to test the strength of the account in newspapers. Does it match other documents about that time or incident? (There are some fascinating rumors that made their way into the 1860s campaign reports!)

Excerpt from the Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1864. (accessed and clipped from


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

1 view0 comments


bottom of page