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Witnesses to History, Keepers of the Flame

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This is a guest post by Cheryl Fox of the Library’s Manuscript Division

The First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas (July 21, 1861) set many precedents in American history—key troops were transported by train, battle reconnaissance was attempted via observation balloon, battle scenes were sketched and the battle’s aftermath, photographed to be published in newspapers.  And word of the results of battle was transmitted via telegraph.

War correspondent and Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford
War correspondent and Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford

Two men among the many journalists and battle spectators who observed the battle have special significance for the history of the Library of Congress – – Ainsworth Rand Spofford, correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial, and John Russell Young, for the Philadelphia News.  Both later became Librarians of Congress, Spofford from 1864-1897, and Young from 1897-1899.

Both Spofford and Young transmitted news of the “rout of the Union forces” via telegraph.  Young wrote in his article for the News that he had rushed to Manassas Junction, Va. to reach a telegraph line, while Spofford wrote to his wife that he had to use “them legs” to return to Washington to be able to send his report via telegraph.  Spofford signed his reports with the pen name Sigma.

Oddly enough, the reason Spofford had an opportunity to become Librarian in 1864 was that his predecessor, physician John Gould Stephenson, was less interested in his library duties than in using his medical knowledge to assist the wounded in Washington, D.C. hospitals, and then as an aide-de-camp to Union officers, notably General Meredith at the battle of Gettysburg.

Stephenson began his tenure as Librarian in June 1861, just one month before the first Battle of Bull Run indicated that the Civil War would be a prolonged and bloody conflict.  Stephenson left Spofford in charge of the work of the Library until 1864, when Stephenson resigned.  Shortly thereafter, Spofford was officially appointed Librarian of Congress by President Lincoln.

Spofford is credited with taking a tiny Congressional library with a staff of seven and just 82,000 books and convincing Congress to build a new home for it – the Library’s beautiful Thomas Jefferson Building – and place the Copyright Office within the Library.  Those steps set the Library of Congress on the path that has made it the world’s largest, most comprehensive library. Today its collections in all formats number more than 155.3 million items.


  1. History is a wonderful lesson in repetition. And these two gentlemen no doubt experienced more than is noted in this article. The time and era was a grand time, when business’s were started and industries created. Its sad, that the conflicts have continued. And industries have escalated to productive necessities to most humans, but the original industrial founders have closed their doors per-say.
    The archive’s certainly are full of content needed to show what has happened, and statistics to show how to prevent the negativeness of the past.

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