Journalism in Washington: The Value of Hospital Newspapers

Newspapers published in the District of Columbia during the Civil War provide essential information about the war and life in the city during a time of crisis. In Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, nearly 30 daily and weekly newspapers chronicled the war.(1) These papers included English-language dailies and weeklies and several German-language weeklies. The papers were published out of standard newspaper offices as well as out of impromptu and makeshift offices in hospitals and military camps. Three issues of the Camp Kettle, for example, were published by the field and staff of the Roundhead Regiment of Pennsylvania while members were stationed at Camp Kalorama in DC. (Later issues of the Kettle were published aboard a steamer, as the regiment moved South.) Given the wealth of material in these diverse newspapers, we would like to include all of them within Civil War Washington, offering users both full-text transcriptions and high-quality page images. Yet, a number of factors, including both resources and technology, require that we temper this ambitious goal. (See the Methodology section below for more information.) Therefore, since the most prominent newspapers—the Daily National Intelligencer, Evening Star, National Republican and Daily National Republican, and Washington Chronicle among them—are available as microfilm copies and through online collections, we have prioritized the work of presenting digital images of rare hospital newspapers. We expect our collection of freely available newspapers to grow over time and for our focus to expand beyond the hospital newspapers.

During the war, at least nineteen different newspapers were published in military hospitals throughout the U.S., with five such newspapers published in the District. The DC-area hospital newspapers include the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, the Cripple (U.S. General Hospitals in Alexandria, Virginia), the Finley Hospital Weekly, the Soldiers' Journal (Convalescent Camp/Augur General Hospital at Rendezvous of Distribution, Alexandria, Virginia), and Reveille (Carver General Hospital). Issues of all of these newspapers are rare. In some cases, as with the Reveille, only a few issues are extant. It appears that no complete run of any of the papers now exists. In the best of cases, nearly complete runs are available from a single institution, as with the Wisconsin Historical Society's holdings of the Soldiers' Journal. In the remainder of the cases, all that can be done is to put together the most substantive runs of the newspapers possible by working with multiple individuals and institutions (our work on this front is ongoing). Currently, we provide access to 150 issues of the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, the Soldiers' Journal, and the Cripple.

In its first issue, published January 6, 1864, the Armory Square Hospital Gazette declared that “The hospital is an episode in a soldier’s life—sometimes a painful termination of it, which has many an event worthy of a chronicle.” Writing in Specimen Days, Walt Whitman remarked that “During the [Civil] war, the hospitals at Washington, among other means of amusement, printed a little sheet among themselves, surrounded by wounds and death, the ‘Armory Square Gazette,’ to which I contributed.”(2) Whitman’s succinct description captures the role played by hospital papers in offering diversion in the midst of pain, illness, mutilation, and death. Yet, Whitman also was convinced that the real war would never get into the books, and he made it abundantly clear that the tragedy of the Civil War could only be understood by experiencing the hospitals from within. Given Whitman’s insight, it is surprising that hospital newspapers such as the Armory Square Hospital Gazette and other like it have been so little studied. Oriented away from military accomplishments, each of these papers offers a valuable perspective on Washington and the war, and they all present remarkable opportunities for research and scholarship.

Methodology and Procedures

Each newspaper issue is represented in its own XML/TEI file, which includes information about the title and date of the issue, as well as about the repository that holds the copy of the paper we are presenting. The most developed portion of these XML/TEI files is the TEI header, which features description—rather than transcription—of the newspapers. In addition to information in the TEI header, within the body of the TEI file we have encoded the newspapers’ page breaks, which allows us to point to the corresponding digital images. Details about the preparation of each file are available in the TEI header.

Digital images of the newspapers have been prepared from original issues and from microfilm reproductions. Whenever possible, original issues have been scanned in color at 600-dpi and have been archived as TIFF images. In some cases, original issues have been photographed by project staff. Scans from microfilm have been prepared as 2700-dpi, grayscale TIFFs. From these TIFF masters, we have generated JPEG derivatives for web display. Digital images have been prepared by project staff and by staff at holding institutions.

At present, we do not offer transcriptions of the newspaper content. The absence of full-text transcriptions is the result of both limited project resources and project principles. Ideally, Civil War Washington would feature encoded, full-text transcriptions prepared by hand, as this method would ensure the highest level of accuracy. To date, however, Civil War Washington has had limited resources for the preparation of the newspapers, and full-text transcription and encoding is a major task. Facing similar situations, other projects have relied on automated optical character recognition processes to generate transcriptions of newspapers. These processes remain highly inaccurate for dealing with historical newspapers. Further, in the case of the hospital newspapers presented here, where so much of the content is personal names, even OCR post-processing methods, such as consulting standard dictionaries for automated clean-up, would fail to provide highly accurate transcriptions of the text. Meanwhile, experience suggests that despite best intentions, once a faulty transcription has been prepared via OCR processes and is published online, there is little support to go back to these transcriptions and improve them in the future. As a result, we have decided to wait until we have the resources and/or the technology to prepare highly accurate transcriptions, rather than post transcriptions we know to be highly inaccurate, if not all but unusable. In the future, Civil War Washington hopes to pursue full transcription of the newspapers, whether completed by hand or via improved OCR with significant manual post-processing to ensure the accuracy and usability of the text. Intermediate steps may include the addition of keywords to the TEI header or descriptions of each issue’s content.


1. This number has been determined using the US Newspaper Directory available at the Library of Congress's Chronicling America ( [back]

2. [back]

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