Mount Vernon Civil War-Era Newspapers Now Online!

Front page of the Democratic Banner, July 30, 1861, via Ohio Memory
Front page of the Democratic Banner, July 30, 1861, via Ohio Memory

This week, we’re featuring a guest post from John Chidester, Director of the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County. Enjoy!

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Mount Vernon retired history teacher Lois Hanson was in the middle of an extensive project researching the history of Jewish citizens in the community when she discovered a surprising fact: the microfilm archives of local newspapers at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County did not extend as far back as the Civil War.  Given that the Civil War Sesquicentennial was just getting under way, she thought something should be done about that.  She and her husband, Burt, made arrangements with the Mount Vernon News to borrow the newspaper’s microfilms, had copies made, and donated them to the Library, Kenyon College and the Mount Vernon Nazarene University.  But her interest in bringing the Civil War’s local history back to life didn’t stop there.  Having found digitized copies of Mount Vernon’s Democratic Banner spanning the period from 1910 to 1922 in the Library of Congress’s digitized collection Chronicling America, Lois conceived the idea of getting the Civil War papers digitized and available online.  She floated that idea by the Library and a project was born!

Poster courtesy of John Chidester
Poster courtesy of John Chidester and Lois Hanson

After conferring with the Ohio Historical Society’s Jillian Carney and Jenni Salamon, it was determined that the project would cost around $9,000.  With moral and conceptual support from the Library staff, including director John Chidester and assistant director Mary McGavick, Lois turned her grant-writing skills toward finding the money.  A short while later, she had secured grants from the Ariel Corporation Foundation and the Mount Vernon/Knox County Community Foundation.  The microfilm rolls were sent off to OHS for processing in May 2012, and the digitized images were uploaded to Ohio Memory the following October.  A few weeks later, posters designed by Lois were appearing in public spaces all over Mount Vernon and Knox County, and special postcards were being sent out to notify interested parties that they could at last browse and keyword-search the Mount Vernon Civil War-era newspapers.

The two newspapers publishing in Mount Vernon during the Civil War were The Democratic Banner and The Mt. Vernon Republican (two titles that suggest a local civil war of their own, which could sometimes get hot, though it never got as far as gun play).  Both papers had a venerable history, with the Banner going back to 1838 and the Republican to 1842.  After several changes in its early ownership, the Banner was sold in 1853 to Lecky Harper, a Steubenville native who moved to Mount Vernon after having worked for the Pittsburgh Post.  A fiery Democrat with a frequently acid pen, he would own and edit the Banner for 42 years until his death in 1895, when the paper was taken over by his sons.  The Republican’s owner-editorship was more stable in its early years, but not so much during the Civil War.  Its founder, William H. Cochran, was owner and editor until 1860, but that year began a period of frequent changes.  For most of 1860, the Republican was edited by J. W. Schuckers, who was replaced near the end of the year by H. M. Ramsey, whose editorship lasted until his death around the middle of 1862.  From that point, apparently through most of 1863, the paper operated without an editor.  The Republican’s editor in 1864 was William McClelland, and in in 1865 it was William T. Bascom.  Throughout the Civil War period, the Democratic Banner and the Mt. Vernon Republican were both published weekly.

"Mrs. Surratt's Last Moments," from the July 22, 1865 edition of the Democratic Banner, via Ohio Memory.
“Mrs. Surratt’s Last Moments,” from the July 22, 1865 edition of the Democratic Banner, via Ohio Memory.

The digitization and online availability of these two newspapers opens a new window into Mount Vernon’s life during one of America’s most wrenching experiences.  Both papers followed the common editorial conventions of their day, with long columns of print unbroken by illustrations.  There are no headlines to speak of—the headings of individual articles appearing in only slightly larger type than the text.  The largest fonts (and occasional illustrations) appeared in advertisements.  Most issues contained poetry and stories for children, as well as quite a bit of national news cribbed from other publications.  The viewer will find browsing through these pages a bit challenging, but it can be exciting to come upon accounts of events like Morgan’s Raid or the last moments of Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt (seen at right).

Historical research in Mount Vernon has taken a new leap forward, thanks to Lois and Burt Hanson, the Mount Vernon News, The Ariel Corp. Foundation and the Mount Vernon/Knox County Community Foundation.

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