06/21/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dark Twists of Researching the Civil War

Researching the Civil War leads us down a lot of very dark alleys. Little did I know that researching wartime scarcity of paper for a forthcoming book would lead me to the subject of Southern starvation and the image of stewed kittens.

It begs the question -- how do we find new relevant information to inform our understanding of the time, but still keep it all in perspective? After all, the idea of eating cats is revulsive to us today, but was it viewed differently at the time? Or was an exaggeration fueled by the Union's anger toward the rebels, or the hyperbole of colorful Southern newspaper editors of the time?

But back to the research on paper scarcity. Blockade of Southern ports resulted in a scarcity of paper. Paper mills were concentrated in the North, and those remaining in the South were converted to other purposes, or shuttered as workers went to war.

By way of introduction, I'm researching a book about journalist Edmund Kirke, and was intrigued by accounts of how ingenious Southerners coped with almost no paper available. In one account of wartime Richmond, Kirke makes a comment about finding a guest's laundry bill scrawled on the wall of a hotel room. I asked... why would they write on the walls?

By 1863, paper was so scarce that desperate mothers would peel wallpaper to pen letters to loved ones at the front, writing on the back, then folding it to make an envelope out of the printed side. That led me to find out about what it was like for newspaper publishers and to the story of the Daily Citizen of Vicksburg, Miss.


In July of that year, Union troops were closing in on Vicksburg and publisher of Daily Citizen was out of paper. He used new rolls of wallpaper to print several editions in late June and early July.

The most famous of these "wallpaper editions" was July 2, 1863, as General Grant's forces had finally surrounded the city.

On Independence Day, 1863, Vicksburg surrendered and the publisher fled. The Union forces occupied the offices of the Citizen and found the newspaper for that day was typeset and nearly completed. The soldiers finished that day's paper with their own news story:

July 4, 1863

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has "caught the rabbit:" he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The "Citizen" lives to see it. For the last time it appears on "Wall-paper." No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricasseed kitten -- urge Southern warriors to such diet never-more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.

So, there's the grisly turn. I knew starvation was a problem, and I'd already researched the bread riots in Richmond in 1863. But did the Confederates really eat cats, dogs or other domesticated animals? Had the newspaper earlier written about mule-meat and fricasseed kittens as meals? That might mean a trip to the Library on Congress to read those newspapers.

That's my next quandary, determining how relevant it is to painting a verbal picture of the desperate condition that play into my book topic of the 1864 peace efforts. Research is like an expedition -- in order to produce a book, you have to make constant decisions of how much research you need to pack in your bag before you start the journey of writing.

And if you'd like to find out more about the wallpaper editions, the Library of Congress can tell you how.