Preservation Champion

Kay Jorgensen

Civil War News editor
Kay Jorgeson and her late husband Pete.

The new year marked a special kind of transition for American history lovers, as Kay Jorgensen, longtime owner-editor of the Civil War News, announced her pending retirement. Following nearly 30 years as the voice of the Civil War community, Jorgensen has sold the publication to Atlanta-based artillery expert Jack Melton, who also took over the Civil War News’s sister publication, The Artilleryman, earlier in the year.

Although the Civil War News will continue in its current, beloved format — a mix of current events, book reviews, event listings and other tidbits that appeal to a broad cross-section of the history-loving public — the lack of a Jorgensen at the helm will nonetheless constitute an emotional departure.

“I wanted to retire because almost my whole adult life I have lived by deadlines,” said Jorgensen.

The origins of Civil War News can be traced to suburban Philadelphia and Boston, where Kay and the late Pete Jorgensen, respectively, grew up surrounded by historic sites, instilling in them a lifelong love of the subject matter. The pair met as journalism graduate students at Boston University and married a year later. For five years after graduation, Kay worked a number of journalism gigs — daily newspaper reporter, college English department instructor and newspaper advisor and summer weekly newspaper reporter — and Pete as a weekly editor and corporate publications director, while they sought a newspaper to buy and oversee.

They acquired their first publication, a weekly newspaper in suburban Boston, in 1969, which gradually grew to become a chain of six similar titles. A decade later, inspired by Pete’s enthusiasm for artillery, they founded The Artilleryman magazine.  After selling their weekly titles in 1986, they purchased the Civil War Book Exchange from founder Mike Cavanaugh. After evaluating the viability of a book review–only publication and deciding that they genuinely missed the news business, the Jorgensens launched Civil War News as a current events newspaper “for people with an interest in the Civil War today” in April 1989.

“We aimed from the beginning to have content that reflected the many interests in the Civil War community — ‘cross-fertilization,’ Pete called it — with special emphasis on books and historic preservation,” Jorgensen recalled. “We aimed at readers much like ourselves who cared about and read about history; visited sites; attended seminars, tours and events; collected; took part in living history; and otherwise followed their Civil War interests.”

The second issue of Civil War News featured stories and photos from Jekyll Island, Ga., where the iconic movie Glory was being filmed and where, serendipitously, the Jorgensens had a vacation home. The publication soon took the shape readers still recognize, with familiar bylines beginning to appear regularly, and gradually became a voice and resource for the entire community. Reporters researching their own stories would reach out to Jorgensen for perspective — often with the same question: How many reenactors are there? 

“I didn’t have a good answer, but I would tell them there was a much larger community [than just soldiers],” laughed Jorgensen. “Living historians include people portraying civilians, slaves, contrabands, Sanitary and Christian Commissions, nurses, clergy and many other nonmilitary figures.”

In something of a departure from the modern, 24-hour news cycle, Jorgensen pledges that she never trolled the Internet for items to include. “Our briefs came from news releases and newsletters sent to Civil War News and from readers who forwarded clippings, news tips and news links from their areas.”

Following Pete Jorgensen’s death in 2009, Kay continued editing and publishing the paper, which became an even greater asset to the community during the Civil War sesquicentennial by promoting anniversary events and sharing a tremendous number of local news stories.

If a newspaper is the rough draft of history, then Kay Jorgensen and the rest of the Civil War news staff had a unique perspective on the evolution of the Civil War community’s attitudes, interest and profile. The recognition of previously ignored narrative threads, like the contributions of minority groups — African Americans (hastened by the success of Glory), women and others — and civilians deepened public understanding of the period.

The emergence of new technologies to aid in the discovery and restoration of archaeological resources has been groundbreaking, particularly in regard to long-submerged artifacts. The Civil War News has reported on the discovery, raising and conservation of the Confederate submarine H.L Hunley, including the moving burial of its crew. And although the USS Monitor’s wreck had been first discovered in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with Civil War News correspondents following the process closely, that her propeller, turret and other elements were raised to the surface for study. Undreamed of when the story first captured public imagination, modern forensic science and computer technology eventually put faces to the crewmen lost in the wreckage.

From [MK1] the outset, issues of battlefield preservation have been of particular interest to the Civil War News team. Hundreds of little-known battlefields gained recognition — and, consequently, local friends groups — following the release of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission report. In the newspaper’s pages, one can trace the growth of the Civil War Trust from a relatively small collection of Virginia-based historians to a major national force in historic-land preservation adept in securing federal and state funds for purchase and easement-based protection of these sites.

Jorgensen has followed the minutia of numerous struggles for preservation over the last 26 years — from fighting Disney at Haymarket, near Manassas, to thwarting Walmart at the Wilderness and watching Franklin emerge as a posterchild for battlefield reclamation. She has kept abreast of the seemingly never-ending string of controversies at Gettysburg, the most beloved of battlefields — operation of the park visitor center with a private partner, removal of the National Tower (soaring vista or just an eyesore?), restoration of historic viewsheds with tree removal, demolition of the original cyclorama building (groundbreaking architecture built on hallowed ground?) and two casino proposals, among others.

Keeping to the original spirit of the publication they purchased, book reviews have remained an integral part of the Civil War News. Jorgensen notes with approval that a new generation of scholars has definitively proven that there is certainly plenty more to learn and share about the war. In fact, after running an all-time high of 306 book reviews in 2013, the decision was made to make some of these pieces online-only content to adequately cover the full universe of quality tomes being published.

As the Civil War News evolves, Jorgensen looks forward to having more free time to spend with family and pursuing personal interests. “I might even get out of the Vermont hills and visit some battlefields and museums!”