We’ve Been Nominated!

It’s always nice to have your hard work recognized, so we are very excited to be nominated for a 2016 Digital Humanities Award in the category Best Use of Digital Humanities – Public Engagement! It’s a pleasant development, though not entirely surprising considering the enthusiasm that Decoding the Civil War volunteers have shown on the talk boards, on this blog, and on Twitter.

Our transcribers’ commitment to the project has helped us retire 43% of the 12,921 pages of telegrams and codebooks from the Thomas T. Eckert papers. Due to their effort, we have already been able to share full transcriptions of two of the ledgers (ledgers 3 and 24), with more coming soon! The raw consensus data has let our research team pinpoint telegrams that are being incorporated into new educational materials. Gems have also been found by our volunteers, as can be seen in some of the posts on this blog.

This has been a team effort and a great collaboration. We are happy and grateful for the nomination, but the early success of this project has been a great reward already delivered. So thanks to all our volunteers, our research team, and all those who have supported us!

Now vote! Voting ends February 25, 2017!


If the Boot Fits…..

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


On April 24, 1865, as John Wilkes Booth and David Herold – pursued by the combined forces of the regular police of Washington, D.C., the military police, the United States Secret Service, the Bureau of Military Justice and officers and soldiers stationed at around Washington – huddled at Robert Garrett’s farm and the grieving New Yorkers thronged to the City Hall to pay the last respects to the slain president, Robert Murray, the United States Marshal of the Southern District of New York telegraphed to Washington.


James E. Taylor Collection, photCL 300, vol. 1, p. 94 (UDID 49341), The Huntington Library

Murray reported: “I have the order for the boots in Booth’s own hand writing. They answer the description of those found & are unquestionably the same will bring the order & the maker to Wash. with me this evening – The right Boot has a pocket inside of the leg for pistol.”

This would be the footwear discovered on April 21, 1865 in the possession of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Maryland physician and an acquaintance of Booths.

Booth showed up at Dr. Mudd ‘s house in the wee hours of April 15, with a broken left fibula. Mudd splintered Booth’s leg and let him sleep in a spare bedroom. When questioned about the incident, Mudd denied any knowledge of the identity of the man he was treating. He did produce a boot that he said he had cut off the man’s leg. The officer who arrested Mudd turned down the top of the boot to see the name “J. Wilkes” written in it.

The Bureau of Military Justice, in charge of gathering witnesses and securing evidence for the upcoming trial, had ordered to locate the manufacturer, in order to establish that the boot indeed belonged to Booth.  The order was issued by Brevet Colonel Henry Lawrence Burnett (1848-1916), Judge Advocate of the Army’s Northern Department who had been assigned to lead the investigation on April 22.

Murray seems to have done his job well. It took him less than a day to locate the manufacturer, one Henry Lux of 745 Broadway, New York. Lux later testified at the trial that found Dr. Mudd guilty of conspiring to murder President Lincoln. Mudd escaped the death penalty, by a single vote. Sentenced to life in prison, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Thank you BettanyMacc for this find!


The Pencil-Pushers Are Going To Love This — Update!


2 PM  Richmond 130 PM May 17
1 PM 17th for Secy War = I learn
that Vance was started for Wash this
morning under guard = The rebel War
Dept records Eighty one boxes weighing ten
tons will leave this evening sig
HW Halleck

An update to the post from last December regarding the ten (10!) tons of Confederate records shipped to Washington. Those records were originally shipped to the Federal War Department, were eventually transferred to the National Archives, and now are part of Record Group 109 War Department Collection of Confederate Records. This wonderful connection was made by Lucy Barber, Deputy Executive Director, National Historical Publications & Records Commission, National Archives. It is wonderful in two ways. First, it shows the importance of primary sources; this telegram – which doesn’t appear to be in the OR – illustrates the early provenance of Record Group 109. Second, it is due the generous grant by the NHPRC, that this telegram was transcribed. Without their support Decoding the Civil War would not have got off the ground.

As stated so correctly in the original post on this telegram: Go out and hug a records manager or an archivist today.



Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head


Weather during the Civil War was a constant topic — addressed by soldiers writing in their journals, or more practically, writing home — concerned about their crops or their leaky roofs or the condition of the roads. But the rain, wind, snow and temperature were of special interest to the telegraph operators, because weather could dictate war strategy, and added an extra dimension to the conflict. The Eckert telegraphs include reports on downed lines, weather preventing repairs, and affecting the supplies required by operators in the field. More generally, weather figured enormously in the conflict. “Weather fair moonlight” noted in the telegraph above would have been essential information. Conditions were everything. A snowy field made it possible to approach other troops more quietly, but it also made them much easier to spot at a distance. Rain, on the other hand, could keep dust from rising in the distance and thus give an advantage. Rain-swollen rivers could require lengthy detours. Forest fires could consume bodies lying in fields after bloody conflicts. Provisioning troops in the field was often influenced by the weather, too; food, clothing, and gear could be rendered useless, or made essential, depending on the weather.


Ledgers with Transcriptions!

Today is an exciting day! Today is a day to say thank you to our volunteers and the research team for all their hard work! Today we added the first two ledgers with consensus transcriptions to the Huntington Digital Library!

The ledgers are mssEC 03 and mssEC 24. While small in terms of the number of pages in each, 74 and 100 respectively, their addition to the digital library is extremely important. After six months of hard work transcribing, we can start to show the fruits of our joint labor. This first fruit is the result of Phase 1, the initial full transcription of all the ledgers and letterpress books. It is wonderful to see and proves that this was the correct platform for these materials. The transcriptions created by our volunteers are incredibly clean and accurate. Here is page 38 from mssEC 03 showing the transcription next to the image of the page:


A search was done for “merrimac” and the word was found 17 times in this ledger; three times on this page alone. We are so pleased with the quality of the data being produced.

Thank you to all who have made this possible, from the staff at Zooniverse, the research team, and especially our dedicated and wonderful volunteers. All that hard work is paying off handsomely. Thank you.

Letterpress Books – What Are They Good For?

With the introduction of the rotation tool we are now able to add the final 3362 images from the eight letterpress books in the Thomas T. Eckert papers. It quickly will become apparent that these volumes are considerably harder to read than the ones that were in the initial group of ledgers. So what’s their deal?


Before copiers it was a challenge to make multiple versions of a document in a short period of time. For ages the only option was to have someone write the document out by hand a second time, and that wouldn’t necessarily even be an exact duplicate due to missing words or altered spelling. Someone realized, though, that when a piece of tissue paper was placed on top of a letter while the ink was still wet, some of that ink would transfer onto the tissue paper. The letterpress books, bound volumes with hundreds of leaves of this delicate paper, were a way to assemble exact copies of documents, without having to spend time rewriting them.

In theory, they are a great idea.

In practice, the results can be a bit spotty.

mssEC_32_236 (2).jpg

Or very spotty as the case may be.

If a letter was left too long before being copied, there might not be enough ink to transfer and you end up with the ghostly messages above. If the ink was too wet, it would cause feathering (bleeding of the ink). Because the tissue paper is so thin, it tears very easily, and must be handled even more carefully than usual. Our photographer had to patiently insert a sheet of white paper behind each leaf in the letterpress books so that the copies could be seen clearly, and distinguished from the messages on subsequent leaves.

Because the operator wasn’t writing directly into the volume, the orientation of the messages varies greatly, which is why we refrained from loading them until we had the rotation tool. I can tell you from experience that trying to transcribe a message with your head turned to the side can be very tiresome, and we didn’t want to give our volunteers a literal pain in the neck!

The Mystery of Colonel Amgangil – Solved?!

mssEC_15_037 - colonels behavior is quite disgraceful.jpg

Perhaps you remember the case of the curiously named “Col Amgangil”, who was being decried in a previous post? What with the other aspects of my job, I don’t have much time to devote to tracking down the interesting little tidbits that crop up fairly regularly. Fortunately, rock star historian Daniel Stowell decided to tease out this particular quandary (as well as help me realize that I transcribed the date incorrectly – oops!). He posits that “Amgangil” is a mangling of “Anisansel” referring to Henry Anisansel, a French-Swiss music teacher who served in the Union’s 1st West Virginia Cavalry Regiment (originally the First Virginia Cavalry, a “loyal Virginia” regiment). The name is also spelled, confusingly, “Anisanel”, “Annisansel” and “Amsanzel” at times, confirming that the 19th century was not the pinnacle of regularized orthography!

The Colonel was accused of cowardice or misbehavior before to enemy for his actions at Bloomery Gap, West Virginia, by General Lander. The skirmish occurred on February 14th, but by the 27th Anisansel was already acquitted of wrongdoing at a court martial. I asked Stowell if that kind of speedy turnaround was common and he answered that it was not, but it may have been a result of concerns at the highest levels of command that breakdowns in discipline among the officers of the volunteer army could seriously hinder the Union’s success. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton responded to Lander’s request for advice strongly, noting that “Cowardice in an officer exhibited on the field of battle should receive the swift punishment of death.”

Other evidence of Anisansel’s travails has survived, including the telegram that he sent to Governor Pierpont of West Virginia, reporting on the start of his trial, and an account of the Bloomery Gap incident based on reports and trial records is detailed in Frederick W. Lander: The great natural American soldier, by Gary L. Ecelbarger (2000). Given both Lander and Stanton’s unforgiving attitudes, how did Anisansel fare? Accounts demonstrate a reluctance on his part to join battle with the enemy at Bloomery Gap, but the star witness for the prosecution was laid up in a hospital in Cumberland, and Anisansel was able to point to a hernia that had ruptured in a fall on the road as a mitigating circumstance. He was found not guilty without having to call any witnesses. In a twist of fate, it was actually his commanding officer, F.W. Lander, who would die soon, succumbing to pneumonia on March 2nd, only a few weeks after the trial ended. Anisansel would later resign from the army, in August of 1862.

There are so many ways that the results of Decoding the Civil War will augment our understanding of the U.S. Civil War, and we are only scratching the surface at this point. Thanks to Daniel’s help, we now know that “Humboldt” was an arbitrary for Lander in one of the codebooks that has not survived in our collection. Given his early death, Lander was probably dropped from most of the later codes, but by using contextual clues like this we hope to be able to reconstruct those lost ciphers.