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Library unveils new tool for Civil War research

May 21, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Library officials on Thursday unveiled what could become the Google of local Civil War history.

An index of newspapers from 1860 to 1862 will help genealogists and historians easily mine thousands of pages of information by paging through a thickly bound book.

"Newspapers without an index are tedious, difficult, laborious, and often not used as a result," said local historian Dennis Frye. "This is a remarkable resource."

Staff and volunteers at Washington County Free Library created the index by reading local newspapers from the period, primarily the weekly Herald of Freedom and Torchlight, and indexing all the stories and advertisements by name and subject matter.

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It's part of a project that began more than 20 years ago to index a century of newspapers from 1790 to 1890.

Researchers completed the index through 1844, then decided two years ago to jump ahead to the Civil War period because local newspapers from the period were discovered at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

They will now begin work on the 1864 and 1865 issues, which were found last year at the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts.

People around the country know Washington County as the location of the Civil War's bloodiest single day of fighting at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Frye said.

The conflict affected the daily lives of those who lived in the area.

"It was day after day. That's our story and this is part of it," Frye said. "Nothing documents that better than the weekly newspaper."

At a reception unveiling the index on Thursday, Frye gave some examples of the nuggets that can be found in the newspapers.

There are stories about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's plans to invade the north weeks before the battle.

Articles detail the recruitment of soldiers and people leaving the county to avoid being drafted.

Stories about how drought withered local crops debunk a popular theory that soldiers at Antietam hid in the cornstalks from their enemy, he said.

Frye said he plans to write a book about the war's impact on the area using the index as a map.

Project Manager Carol J. Appenzellar said she has learned a lot from reading the old papers.

For example, local people were required to take an oath of allegiance or risk being hauled off to jail.

Young people in the area died or lost limbs while playing on the battlefield after the battle.

"All of this nitty-gritty stuff you don't learn in history classes," she said.

Few research libraries in the country have such a valuable resource on file, Library Director Mary Baykan said.

Eventually, the library hopes to put all the information online, she said.

Grants from the Washington County Historical and Fine Arts Trust Inc., also known as the Bowman Board, paid for about half of the indexing project.

The index is available in the library's reference department and in its Western Maryland Room. The Washington County Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the Maryland State Archives, the Maryland Historical Society and Enoch Pratt Library also have copies.

The newspapers themselves are on microfilm at the library.

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