Information about The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries

Release 5.0 July 2004.
1. Introduction - personal accounts of how the database was created.
2. About the database - a description of the contents of the database and its purpose.
3. Editorial Criteria - detailed criteria used in selecting materials.
4. Errata - Known errors in this database.
5. Notes on the Current Release - notes on this version.
6. Software requirements - notes on which browsers are supported.
7. Technical support - whom to contact for technical support.
8. Subscription and Free Trial Information - how to get a subscription or a trial.
9. License Agreement - licensing terms and conditions.
10. Acknowledgements - charter customers and individuals who contributed.
11. How to Contribute Materials or Comments - how to contribute materials.
12. Copyright Statement - copyright terms and conditions.
13. Archiving - how this material is preserved for the future.
14. Cataloging Records - what kind of MARC records will be available for this collection.

1.   An introduction to

 The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries

In the Fall of 2000, we began work on The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries (CWLD). The aim of the project was to facilitate a wholly new kind of research on a topic that had already resulted in hundreds of thousands of monographs and journal articles. We knew from our experience with North American Women's Letters and Diaries that extensive indexing could deliver substantial additional utility.  The question was what kind of indexing would do the same for CWLD.

In chatting with Tom Izbicki, a librarian at Johns Hopkins, and Joan Waugh at the University of California at Los Angeles, I came to realize that we could create a collection that would be different - both in terms of its content and in the utility it provided researchers.

The Civil War provoked an enormous growth in letter writing. Soldiers and their relatives could depend only on the mail to keep them informed of the latest happenings. For the last time in a major war, censorship was kept to a minimum. The sense of being part of the creation of important history, of being immersed in a time of upheaval, led writers to be more candid than otherwise. The result is that the letters and diaries reveal the experiences of the authors, both at home and on the front, with an unusual immediacy. In short, it was quickly apparent that the content was worthwhile.

From a technical standpoint the project got interesting when we began to consider the kinds of questions that researchers might want to ask of this material. For example, how could we enable users to ask for all letters written by authors written within three days of battles where more than 10,000 people died?

We noticed that many of the questions would require us to build knowledge-bases of battle information and event information. To answer the query above, we would need to know all the dates of battles, as well as how many people died in each. Our initial survey showed that we would need to create a 30-field database for battles alone.

Once complete, such databases would allow the user to do a kind of research never done before. Military historians could examine the impact on generals of particular kinds of battles, social historians could see letters sent from home in response to letters sent from the battlefield, and casual users could perform searches pertaining to specific locations and personalities with ease.

The challenge for us lay in the fact that although the information for compiling this table exists, it does so in many different, and sometimes conflicting, sources and in many different formats. For the battle file, we decided to use a variety of sources, such as Numbers and Losses in the Civil War, by Thomas L. Livermore. We spent several months building the table. Even now, we welcome your feedback if you find a particular statistic to be incorrect.

We also decided to license The Civil War Day-by-Day: An Almanac, by E.B. Long, to act as a chronology and to provide context around the primary materials. This we made into a database, enabling the user to specify a day or range of days and examine the letters and diary entries written on those days.

We will continue to build the database until the fall of 2002. As it increases in size, it will grow in utility. When it is complete, the words themselves will enable statistically significant research. With 100,000 pages and 1,000 authors, its size will ensure that researchers will find materials of value, no matter what their interest.

Once again I'd like to thank everyone who worked on the project.

Stephen Rhind-Tutt, President
Alexander Street Press

An introduction by John O'Keefe, Indexer.

These letters and diaries allowed me to immerse myself in the period, and to set my mind and empathize with people and their lives in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Many a letter was filled with emotion - angry letters from plantation belles to Union generals protesting foraging expeditions, passionate abolitionists outraged at the horrors of slavery, or even Robert E. Lee writing in a concerned but nagging manner to his sons, making sure they made something of themselves in the army. Here the trick was to index for the topics discussed, rather than for the tone of the writing. Similarly, we were always careful to avoid ambiguous terms when indexing.

Despite my background in history, and although I had visited a number of battlefields - Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg - immediately upon getting started, I realized that there was so much more to learn. I had preconceived notions that needed dispelling, such as my ideas about abolitionists, whose pictures I had seen in ugly black dresses and uglier bonnets, convincing me that although well meaning, they were inclined to be dull and humorless. Lydia Maria Child taught me otherwise, with sarcastic wit, intriguing religious views, and interest in Fourieran Socialism.

Likewise, the diary entries from soldiers in the field brought the raw reality of war inescapably in front of me - fear and panic in the fog of war, stumbling blindly through the thick woods of the Wilderness, nurses writing about hospitals overflowing with wounded, the lack of supplies, and bureaucratic infighting. Most touching of all, I recall a passage from Quaker nurse Elizabeth Comstock, relating how she tried to communicate with a soldier who was wounded and unable to speak or write, verging on death, and desperately wishing to get news home of where he was and what had happened to him:

"Feebly the poor hand moved up and down, back and forth, and very earnest was the gaze fixed upon my face as I tried to read the lines he had made. A look of disappointment and sorrow passed over his face as I tried vainly to decipher it, and tears again filled his eyes. 'Don't be discouraged,' I said, 'cheer up, and I think I shall discover thy mother's address.' I dried his tears, gave him a clean, soft pocket handkerchief, and said, 'Henry, in a few minutes, after thou hast rested, I want thee to try and speak one word, do not attempt more, but simply one word, and that one must be thy mother's post office town. I will watch the motion of thy lips and listen intently.' Presently I saw he was framing to speak, and listening, watching, and guessing, I thought he was trying to say 'Catskill.' 'Mrs. Burhans, Catskill, New York,' I said, 'Is that right'? A flash of joy lighted up the poor, pale face, as he found I had it right."

One of the liveliest characters of the entire war I happened upon completely by accident. Belle Boyd, the famous Confederate spy from Martinsburg, West Virginia, is someone whose writings I truly recommend to all readers. Although she had previously been arrested for espionage, she charmed her way into Union General Shields' Headquarters, secretly listened to an entire Union planning session, and then promptly rode off in the night to deliver the relevant information to Confederate General Jackson. After continuous admonishments and occasional imprisonments for espionage and blockade running, she eventually made her way to London, where she wrote her memoir detailing her exploits during the war.

Most interesting of all are the moments where the writers seem to let down their guard and give a glimpse of themselves at their most vulnerable. Mary Chesnut's frank assessments of her friends and enemies and her occasional confiding in a little bit of vanity made her come alive in the pages of her diary.

Once we had a prototype of the database up and running, I got to see my work in final form - all those authors I had read over, seen again like long-lost friends at a reunion. I keyed in "Port Royal Experiment, SC" as a subject search and was returned two familiar authors, both describing the chaos and confusion of the first days of the Port Royal Experiment, when there were so many unanswered questions. What was to become of those who had been slaves on the Sea Island plantations? Their freedom had not yet been guaranteed by the still-nervous Union government. How were they to find work? Would they be allowed to fight for the Union? Would they want to? How was this newly won territory to be governed? All these questions, along with the future plan of the Reconstruction, had to be answered, as those living along the South Carolina Coast slowly began to work towards a solution.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as having worked hard on something that is a truly wonderful creation. The work gives a sense of craftsmanship at its best, and Civil War Letters and Diaries is just such a product. The cross-searchable database allows the texts themselves to be seen in a new light, once-buried passages suddenly and instantaneously appearing with the click of a mouse, instead of after hours poring through book stacks. It is a product that I am truly proud to have worked on.

John O'Keefe, Indexer
Alexander Street Press.

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2.   About The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries

Perhaps the most exciting descriptions of events during the Civil War are to be found in first person accounts. Detailed firsthand descriptions of historical characters and events, glimpses of daily life in the army, anecdotes about key events and personages, and accounts of sufferings at home written for private consumption, provide an immediacy and a richness that are unmatched in public sources.

The Civil War was responsible for an unprecedented displacement of Americans, and this in turn resulted in an unprecedented number of letters.   This also was the last time a major war was fought without significant censorship.

The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries knits together more than 1,000 sources of diaries, letters, and memoirs to provide fast access to thousands of views on almost every aspect of the war, including what was happening at home. The writings of politicians, generals, slaves, landowners, farmers, seaman, wives, and even spies are included. The letters and diaries are by the famous and the unknown, giving not only both the Northern and Southern perspectives, but those of foreign observers also. The materials originate from all regions of the country and are from people who played a variety of roles.

Using a thesaurus of Civil War terms we've built specifically for the task, researchers can quickly find references to individuals, battles, theaters of war, and activities. A chronology of key events allows the user to see multiple perspectives surrounding a particular event. This level of indexing is unprecedented. Questions such as "Give me all accounts of letters written about hospital conditions by Union soldiers in the Western Theater" can be answered in seconds.

The collection includes approximately 100,000 pages of published memoirs, letters and diaries from individuals plus 4,000 pages of previously unpublished materials. Drawn from more than 1,000 sources, the collection provides in-depth coverage of all aspects of the war. More than 1,000 biographies will enhance the use of the database.

The collection includes one of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Civil War letters and diaries yet published. It lists over 1,000 published and unpublished items from a variety of sources, including online resources and microform. Subscribers to the collection are encouraged to participate in the maintenance of this bibliography by calling our attention to omissions, suggesting additions, and notifying us of newly discovered materials.


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3.   Editorial criteria

The database focuses on the personal and the immediate.   Weight is given both to the social, political, economic and the military aspects of the war.  We've particularly looked for documents that discuss events directly leading to the war, events related to the war (battles, farming interrupted by war, and the daily life of soldiers and their families, life in battle areas, support services for the military, political issues related to the war, etc.), or events immediately following the war that were a result of the war (Lincoln assassination, returning home, loss of home due to war damage, health issues related to war injuries, etc.)   In order to be selected for this database documents:
  • Must have been written between 1855 and 1875 
  • Letters and diaries must have been written contemporaneously with the events they describe.
  • Letters must be of a personal nature, e.g., official dispatches, reports, military orders, and "public" letters are excluded. 
  • Memoirs are restricted to those that describe events during the war (1860-1865)

The following print bibliographies have been used to select the contents of the database. Additional content is chosen by our editorial advisors, and through the feedback of customers.

  • The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Steven E. Woodworth, Editor. Greenwood Press, 1996
  • The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography, David J. Eicher. University of Illinois Press, 1997
  • The Nation in Crisis 1861-1877, David Donald, Goldentree. Bibliographies in American History, Appleton-Century Crofts, 1969
  • Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography, edited by Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson, Jr., Bell I. Wiley, Louisiana State University Press
  • Civil War eyewitnesses : An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1955-1986, by Garold L. Cole; foreword by James I. Robertson, Jr. Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Civil War Diaries and Personal Narratives, 1960-1994, Albert E. Smith, Jr. Washington, Library of Congress, 1998
  • The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women: an annotated bibliography, Joyce D. Goodfriend, G.K. Hall, 1987
  • American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals. Laura Arksey, Nancy Pries and Marcia Reed, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1983
  • American Diaries in Manuscript, 1580-1954: a descriptive bibliography. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1974
  • And So to Bed: a bibliography of diaries published in English. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987

In addition we have licensed E.B Long's The Civil War Day by Day as the basis for our chronology for events during the war.

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4.   Errata

It is our goal to have no errors in this database. The following is a list of known errors in the database:
  • There are no known errata in the database at this time.

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5.   Notes on Release 5.0

Release 5.0 of the database includes 2,009 authors, and approximately 100,000 pages.

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6.   Software requirements

The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries is optimized to operate with Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 or higher, and Firefox 3.0. (We are aware that the "select terms" feature of our Find and Search is not performing well in Firefox 3.5.2. Upgrading to the latest version of Firefox will resolve this issue.)

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7.   Technical support

You can contact us by: When reporting a problem please include your customer name, e-mail address, phone number, domain name or IP address and that of your web proxy server if used.

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8.   Subscription and free trial information

is available for one-time purchase of perpetual access, or as an annual subscription. Please contact us at if you wish to begin a subscription or to request a free 30-day trial

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9.   License Agreement

Terms of Use

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10.   Acknowledgements The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries  was made possible through the hard work of the following individuals:


Becky Wolsk Biographies
Catherine Mardikes Software and design, University of Chicago
Charles Blair University of Chicago
Dave Althen Sourcing
Christina Keller Indexing, Proofing, Mark-up
Darryl Baker Sourcing, Proofing, Mark-up, Images
Eileen Lawrence Research, Alexander Street Press
Elisabeth Long University of Chicago
Graham Dimmock Software Development
Heather Burke Biographies
Janice Cronin Finance, Alexander Street Press
John O'Keefe Indexer
John Cicero Software Development
Ning Zhu Software Development
Kelly Connor Indexer
Linda Busetti Biographies
Laura Gosling Assistant Editor, Alexander Street Press
Mark Olsen Software and design, University of Chicago
Pat Lawry Editor, Alexander Street Press
Sheila Webb Biographies
Will Whalen Licensing, Sourcing, Proofing, Mark-up

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11.   How to contribute materials or comments

Our goal is to create a unique archive of letters and diaries according to the editorial criteria expressed above. We welcome contributions from organizations and individuals, especially if you have materials that are unpublished or of unique interest. Submitting materials to our editors is easy and without obligation on your part. If you have collections of substantial value, we may be able to pay you a royalty in return for the rights to use them.
  • To submit materials for inclusion in CWLD, please e-mail Will Whalen at or mail them to him at 3212 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
  • If you are a commercial publisher who would like to discuss licensing materials for inclusion in the database, please contact Stephen Rhind-Tutt at or 1-800-889-5937 or 1-703-212-8522.
  • To report factual errors or to suggest improvements, please email us at Please include the author, the document, and the page number. Please also include your email address, so that we can let you know the status of your correction.

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12.   Copyright

All materials in CWLD are protected under U.S. and International Copyright Law. Fair use under the law permits reproduction of single copies for personal research and private use. Further transmission, reproduction, or presentation of protected items requires the written permission of the copyright owners.

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13.   Archiving

Texts produced for The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries are considered research materials and receive the same level of stewardship as books, paper documents, and photographs. Once complete, copies of the database will be given to all purchasing institutions, so ensuring that the materials are available to subsequent generations.

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14.   Cataloging records

We will be making MARC records available for this collection. Because the database includes manuscript materials, portions of books, complete books, and journals, we have decided to create new records specific to each author. This will enable patrons to link directly from a public access catalog to all documents pertaining to that author.