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Historical and Cultural Contexts newspaper

Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a document or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied, often by the people being studied. For example, if you're studying the American Civil War, you will probably read beyond your textbook and study documents that were created by people who actually lived through the events. You can think of primary sources as the raw material or first-hand information. Here are some descriptions of primary sources and examples from the American Civil War.

A picture of some newspapers.

Newspaper Articles:

A newspaper article is considered a primary source if it reports an event as it happened without commenting on it or offering an opinion about it. Here is an example of a newspaper article that is a primary source published on March 18, 1864 in the Little Rock Unconditional Union.

A Female Recruit.-Ex-Lieutenant Samuel Douglas, while on his way to Quincy, last week, with recruits, discovered a volunteer amongst those on the cars, that he thought looked too "raw" for a soldier. An investigation was instituted, and the discovery made that the would-be soldier was not of the gender called for by Uncle Sam. She was gong forward from Galesburg for the 124th regiment though she had previously enlisted at Monmouth for the 66th. As the recruiting officers are not authorized to enlist female recruits, she was handed over, much against her will, to the Sisters of Charity at Quincy, to be returned home. Her name is given as Mary Ann West, from near Burlington.-Monmouth (Ill.) Atlas.
A picture of some journals.


Journals, diaries and personal accounts. A narration of an event by someone who was actually at the event and witnessed it firsthand is a primary source. Here is an example of a first-hand account of a Union soldier named Harvey Hogue:

At another time during our stay at Covington, Kentucky, a detail, in which the writer was included, escorted some Confederate prisoners from Cincinnati to Lexington, Ky., via railroad. At a small station on the way the prisoners were permitted to leave the train for water. Each guard had in charge a number of prisoners. The writer's squad all returned to the train save one who held back, seeming determined to remain at the town if possible. I urged, but he hesitated, good naturedly, of course, but lagged. The warning whistle to start sounded and my prisoner seemed deaf. I threatened and pricked him with my bayonet, but he hasted not. Our Lieutenant called out, "Make him get aboard or shoot him."

The train was already going and gaining on us. The prisoner hearing the Lieutenant's order made a searching look into my face, and then being certain that I would not shoot, ran just fast enough to get left. I could not shoot and he knew it. The train went and I remained with my man. I would not have killed him for a world and have been thankful many times since that I did not, though I took a great risk in undertaking to hold him under the circumstances. My prisoner then said, "This is my home, my people live just a mile in the country and I want you to go with me there. I cannot go away without seeing them. I will prove to you that I am reliable," and he did so by taking me to the various business men of the place. All of whom endorsed him (the prisoner) as both reliable and honorable. We went out and took dinner with his people. They all treated me with the greatest kindness and consideration.

We remained till toward evening. The next train going south found us aboard and I took a receipt for my man from the prison clerk at Lexington about midnight. I would have as soon been killed myself as to have killed my prisoner under the circumstances.
A picture of some letters.


A letter from one person to another can capture an event is a unique way. Letters, whether formal or informal, provide can insight into a period in history. Here is an example of a letter from a Union soldier, John M. Follett, writing to his wife about the Union victory at Vicksburg.

In Vicksburg July 4th 1863

My Dearest Little Hortense

Now you may clap your hands for Vicksburg is surely ours. The place was surrendered this morning. A flag of truce was sent to Grant yesterday morning asking what terms he would grant them if they would surrender. He said to Gen Barnes they must surrender unconditionally and gave them till 10 this morning to do it. So they have hoisted the white flag on every fort and our forces are marching in. I have been in. I tell you it is a strong place. I do not know how many prisoners we have taken, but all agree that there must be 30000 and lots of artilery (sic) and rifles. It is a death blow to the rebs in this quarter. I must write a few words and give the good news to fathers folks. Good bye. As ever your husband Kiss our dear children for me.

John M. Follett

I will write particulars on the 9th.

PS We expect to start for Jackson soon. Good bye Dearest,

JM Follett

A picture of a microphone and a written speech.


A speech is a formal talk which someone gives to an audience. Usually speeches are carefully crafted, contain persuasive language and convey a tone (joyful, mournful, angry, excited, for example). Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is an example of a speech:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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