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Wallpaper Newspapers of the American Civil War

There was a time in Britain when fish and chip takeaways were clad in unused newspapers, prompting the wry saying that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. In a small twist on this, these items from American history below give us an instance of today’s wallpaper becoming tomorrow’s news plus an interesting symbol of the disparity in resources between two sides of a civil war.

During the American Civil War, not only did the Union have a preponderance in men, arms, munitions, industry, ships and money, but they also had most of the paper. On first thought this may not seem a terrible disadvantage, you’d prefer to have a better gun, wouldn’t you? But it did mean difficulties for the Confederacy in the communications war – that of talking to and persuading citizens via the mass media of newspapers. Though having said that, newspapers in the South were not always a help to their cause, there being several Confederate newspapers that were highly critical of their government’s prosecution of the war.

In 1860, the year before war broke out, there were 555 paper mills in the United States yet only 24 of these were in the South, making paper procurement very difficult for Southern newspapers. But some proprietors in the Confederacy found innovative ways of overcoming this shortage; of which the most remarkable was that of printing on spare wallpaper supplies. These newspapers also came to be known as “necessity newspapers”. The most famous example of one of these printings can be found in American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York.

GLC06043 Daily Citizen 2 July 1863 © the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In 1863, a town called Vicksburg on the Mississippi River came to have a vital strategic and symbolic importance. It was among the final Confederate possessions on the length of the river, New Orleans having fallen early in the war. The Union forces controlled almost the whole of the length of the river meaning that the Confederacy was almost cut in two: Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas stranded on the other side, meaning supplies and men form these states were denied to the Confederate war effort. Once Vicksburg fell this dismemberment would be complete. So in May of 1863, 31,000 Confederate soldiers found themselves trapped in the town surrounded by Ulysses S. Grant’s 77,000 Union men.

Yet remarkably the presses of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen still managed to print on several occasions during the siege despite bombardment and terrible privation. With no paper stocks, wallpaper was pressed into service – much of it rather pretty. Many of these issues were devoted to coverage of the war in the East with morale-boosting news of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and its invasion of the North. However, Lee’s army was marching to its doom at Gettysburg and a day after his retreat from that place on 3 July, Vicksburg formally surrendered to Grant.

GLC0595.20 Daily Citizen [2 July 1863] with note added by Grant's soldiers © the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Confederate hubris and/or morale-raising propaganda is very much in evidence in wallpaper editions before the final capitulation – the 2 July edition taunts Grant’s wish to dine in Vicksburg to celebrate 4 July with the words “Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it. The way to cook a rabbit is first to catch it”. When the city fell, the Union army entered the town and found the 2 July issue type in place and ready to print more editions. In a cheeky move they reset the final half column with an additional note and did some more printings: “Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gn Grant has “caught the rabbit;” he has dined in Vicksburg and brought his rabbit 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 type that was found there. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity”.

As well as becoming curiosities, these wallpaper newspapers also provide an interesting indicator of the unequal resources between the two sides – and can be quite nice to look at.

 



American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at info@amdigital.co.uk.

 

All images © the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click on the image to see the documents in the collection.






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