Making Linear Connections: Using Newspaper Archives to Tell a Man’s Story

 

Perhaps the most challenging and overwhelming aspect of studying historical methodology thus far has been the task of making connections or inferences from what appears to be very little substantial information. This week I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the life of a member of the class that I had yet to really address in my research.  Although none of these men are necessarily remembered in textbooks for their grandiose contributions to the human narrative, it does not mean they have nothing to say or that their stories are not wholly uninteresting. Much of our course work thus far has proved that to be true, but this week’s work with newspapers in particular provided me with great insight on how small connections, and a bit of patience, can lead to rich and satisfying results. This week I evaluated my table of students in the Dickinson Class of 1861 and decided that there was one in particular that perhaps had interesting stories, but had yet to be sufficiently explored.

Photo Courtesy of Findagrave.com
Photo Courtesy of Findagrave.com

I decided to take a look at a man who, on my data table, seemed to have a rather large list of credentials including a major in the Union Army during the Civil War and Military Secretary to the Pennsylvania governor. Henry Harrison Gregg, a man who I’d yet properly research, would deliver a rather captivating story that gave me substantial experience in how to use newspaper articles effectively. I thought, much to my detriment, that gathering information would be rather easy as the databases’ search engines would complete most of the work. I thus attempted to do a sweep of a variety of newspaper databases with just his name including “19th Century Newspapers,” “Accessible Archives,” and “Chronicling America.” Little proved to be fruitful and I found this to be odd considering the man’s long list of accomplishments.  After an hour or so of this, the method had proven to be sloppy in that it was too broad and did not focus on the man’s achievements, rather his name alone, and often the programs would not even detect his name despite it blatantly being visible in an article. I surmised that if I were to uncover the specifics of his life and perhaps an engaging story through newspapers, I needed to search for the specific and significant event in his life that might appear newsworthy, rather than his name alone. In addition, I looked at the list of accomplishments and compared it to the databases I had chosen to use; I realized I was using those that focused on too broad of topics. It was likely I would not find a small anecdote about events in a specific area efficiently in a database that spanned large topics and widespread geography.  The “Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers” database that was suggested on the blog ultimately gave me the more focused set of newspapers that I needed. I chose the credential of Gregg’s that I believed would most likely be documented in a Pennsylvania newspaper, that of his promotion to Military Secretary, and used that to begin more effective research.  Using the keywords “Gregg” and “Military Secretary,” a brief, but significant article appeared that would be the springboard for the rest of the week’s research.

A brief three paragraphs on page three of an 1865 issue of the Huntingdon Globe entitled “A Good Appointment” gave me enough information to begin discovering Gregg’s story. It described a man by the name of Harry H. Gregg to the position of Military Secretary to the governor of Pennsylvania.

Article Courtesy of "Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers"
Article  from Huntingdon Globe, Courtesy of “Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers”

This slight name difference would prove to be useful as Gregg would appear almost exclusively as Harry in all the articles I would find thereafter, and thus warned me not to rely too heavily on the accuracy of spelling and word choice when using databases. The article also proved useful in that it mentioned his time as a Major in the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and that during his military career, he was captured twice by the enemy and held in prison.  This brief article was already beginning to reveal that this man had an engaging and potentially teachable story.

I first searched the “Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers” again, but this time with the phrase “13th Pennsylvania Cavalry” assuming that an article might detail the location of their capture and perhaps some specifics about the engagement. Another brief article of value dated October 5th, 1864 appeared toward the bottom of the list of results. It merely reported the death of Private  Alfred Kenyan, a member of the 13th Cavalry and Gregg’s company who was “shot thro’ the neck” at the James River when the unit was captured. This informed me of one of the locations where Gregg was captured and a rough estimate of a date. With little more concrete results, I adjusted the search term to “Harry Gregg” and another article appeared dated November 4th, 1863. It provided a rather detailed account of a soldier who described fleeting glimpses of Gregg before he was captured by the enemy several days before the Battle of Rappahannock Station.

Article from Huntingdon Globe Courtesy of "Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers"
Article from Huntingdon Globe, Courtesy of “Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers”

Using this information, I then searched several databases with the phrases “Gregg and James River” and “Gregg and Rappahannock”  Although several articles gave me some more detailed information about Gregg’s capture, I still felt as if this didn’t give me a truly riveting story. I decided I was perhaps approaching this chapter in Gregg’s life in a too narrow-minded manner. I backtracked and reread “A Good Appointment.” I immediately  noticed I had overlooked a potential useful keyword and subsequently half of this tale. The original article mentioned that Gregg was sent to “Libby Prison,” a prisoner of war camp in Richmond, Virginia.  I then adjusted my search terms to “Gregg” and “Libby Prison.” The articles I found proved to be the most interesting yet.

The results for “Libby Prison” in the databases were abundant and varied. Many had vastly different claims about the conditions in the prison. Some claimed men were relatively well fed while others stated that they were being starved to death. In particular, an article that peaked my interest the most described a mine of gunpowder that Confederates had constructed underneath the prison to scare prisoners and prevent riot.  The most difficult anecdote to find however was an article that described a personal statement from Gregg himself or those he stayed with during his time at the prison. The terms “Gregg” and “Libby Prison” did not yield anything of value in any of the databases until I noticed one article at the bottom of the results from the “Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspapers.” A

Print of Libby Prison Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Printed Image of Libby Prison,
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

seemingly negligible piece from  Evening Telegraph dated October 30, 1863 gave a very brief description of a correspondence between General S. Greene and his son Joseph who was being held at Libby Prison. In it, Joseph had claimed that he and Harry Gregg were, “well, but dirty,

naked, and hungry.” Although not the detailed recollection of the event I’d hoped for, it made his experience seem at least partially more real and human, a notion that is essential to a teachable story.

I still feel as if there is more to be discovered about Gregg’s time in Libby Prison. I attempted to information in Confederate newspapers , but found little more than a release notice from his first time in prison in The Daily Dispatch. In the future, I hope to gather some primary sources that contain reflections from Gregg himself that may give a more complete and personal account of the incident that these sources lacked.

Article from The Daily Dispatch Courtesy of "Chronicling America" and the Library of Congress
Article from The Daily Dispatch, Courtesy of “Chronicling America” and the Library of Congress

Research this week with newspapers has proven to be of the most exciting and rewarding processes of the course thus far. The ability to search through thousands of newspapers in seconds made research efficient and gathering specific details rather easy. Essentially, newspapers served as both an accessible historical narrative and an easily assembled timeline of events. However, the databases themselves were not wholly easy to navigate. In many ways they could be unreliable and unwieldy, yielding thousands of results or none at all. This presented the challenge of  learning how the database functions and what its purpose was before I could even begin effective research. Understanding a database thoroughly and learning its limitations takes time itself and I’ve learned one should be both diligent and patient when embarking on this form of research.

 

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