"Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research."
(American Library Association, Reference and User Services, History Section)
Below are some remarkable databases that have a variety of documents that cover the period of the Civil War. These are not particularly easy to use, but what you might find is incredible! Read the descriptions carefully. Take your time with them.
American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection
This is a collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, music, and graphic arts material printed through 1876 in what is now the United States, as well as manuscripts and a collection of secondary texts, bibliographies, and digital resources related to all aspects of American history and culture before the twentieth century. Before typing anything in the search boxes, look carefully and thoughtfully at the SEARCH OPTIONS below the boxes. They include important things like DATES and DOCUMENT TYPES. You don't actually even have to use search words, just choose from the options listed. For example, I just did this search (no words in the search boxes):
Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000
This is a collection of primary documents and secondary sources related to U.S. women's history. It includes 63 document projects that interpret and present documents, more than 22,000 pages of documents, a dictionary of social movements and organizations, a chronology of U.S. Women's History, and teaching tools and materials. While you can keyword search these documents, I recommend you use the ADVANCED SEARCH option instead to specify dates and types of material, like this example:
Oxford African American Studies Center
This is a core collection of articles from major reference sources and written by leading scholars in the field. Among these are incredible primary sources, images, and maps. Rather than search using words, immediately do this:
Then look at your options to limit results in the Modify Your Search column to the left. Among these options is PRIMARY SOURCE.
19th Century U.S. Newspapers
This is a collection of images of both full pages and clipped articles from hundreds of 19th century U.S. newspapers. The key to using this well is to scroll down below the search boxes and set some limits before typing anything in the search boxes. You want to keep search words to a minimum. For example, I was able to quickly do a search for EDITORIALS that mention LINCOLN from California newspapers published between 1860 and 1865.
American Periodical Series
This is a collection of articles from a variety of periodicals, popular magazines as well as trade journals. Pictures and advertisements are also included. Dates range from the colonial days to 1900.
New York Times 1851-2017
This is a searchable database of images of the pages of the New York Times newspaper from 1851–2017.
This is a joint project of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can search and view pages from many newspapers in all 50 states as well as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Coverage varies by title but the earliest begins in 1777 and it goes until 1963. Scope and coverage are ever growing!
California Newspapers Digital Collection
"The California Digital Newspaper Collection contains over 1,500,000 pages of significant historical California newspapers published from 1846-present, including the first California newspaper, the Californian, and the first daily California newspaper, the Daily Alta California. It also contains issues of several current California newspapers that are part of a project to preserve and provide access to contemporary papers. A calendar showing available issues can be found by selecting the Search Newspapers button on the left and then selecting Titles from the menu bar." (From their About page)
Richmond Daily Dispatch 1860-1865
This is a project of the University of Richmond and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. You can browse as well as search every issue of the paper.
ProQuest Congressional Publications
This is all legislative and executive publications including bills, laws and regulations, legislative histories, hearings and more. First thing you want to do is click Advanced Search and browse that screen with all your options!
Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice
This is a great way to start exploring primary sources related to slavery. It a digital collection documenting the key aspects of slavery worldwide from 1490 to 2007. As soon as you enter the database click ADVANCED SEARCH and carefully consider all your options! Don't just start typing!