On June 21, 2016 we embarked on Decoding the Civil War, an ambitious project to transcribe 12,921 handwritten pages from 35 ledgers. These ledgers were from the archive of Thomas T. Eckert, head of the Washington office of the United States Military Telegraph, Assistant Quartermaster of U.S. Army, and Assistant Superintendent of the U.S. Military Telegraph.
The 35 ledgers record the telegrams sent and received by the War Department during the American Civil War. About one-third of the recorded messages in the ledgers were written in code, and another third may have never been published in the The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (often simply abbreviated to OR), and there are more than 100 communiques from Lincoln himself.
As of this morning, November 15, 2017, we can announce that all the ledgers have been transcribed by our Volunteer Corps! All the difficult work of parsing sentences, figuring out 19th Century hand and spelling, and even dealing with difficult to read, smeared, pages has been completed in under 17 months. An incredible achievement. It would have taken 2 staff members working nearly full time 3 to 4 years to reach this goal!
We have begun to publish those ledgers on the Huntington Digital Library; 16 are already available for researchers. As we work though the huge amount of data provided by our Volunteer Corps, the remaining volumes will be published. We are excited to provide this new trove of American Civil War material to the Public, Researchers, and Students. The work completed has already been used to create educational materials that will be published shortly.
We began this project hoping to be finished in six months to a year. We learned quickly that it would take longer, that the task was full of challenges, and that tools needed to be built to overcome some of those challenges. Through it all our loyal volunteers stayed with Decoding the Civil War. As we move forward with the next phase of our project we will call again on those volunteers to help.
Right now, those volunteers can rest. All who have worked on Decoding the Civil War deserve thanks.
Strike up the Band! A lively polka is in order!
Thank you also to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which funded a two year grant for this project and to our institutions who have provided support throughout: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; North Carolina State University; and Zooniverse with its spectacular team at the University of Minnesota. Finally, a thank you to Daniel W. Stowell, whose advice, support and enthusiasm has been fundamental since the beginning.
After a year of hard work by our volunteers on Decoding the Civil War, Phase 1, we are about ready to launch Phase 2, the marking of metadata within specific telegrams. There are two work flows to this task. The first work flow, Code Words, is marking the arbitraries, or code words, for those messages in code. These coded telegrams will then be fed into Phase 3, the final decoding of the telegrams. Having the marked arbitraries should make the process of decoding much faster, possibly aided by computer algorithms.
The second work flow, Metadata, is a little more ambitious and complex, as we are asking our volunteers to work with individual telegrams, identifying specific metadata such as the sender, recipient, date sent, time received, etc. We are asking for metadata for a total of 10 fields; most telegrams have only a few; rarely do they have all 10. What we wish to accomplish is a way to provide simple metadata that will enable researchers to find all the telegrams to, say, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, no matter whether it is in Ledger 2, or 6, or 22.
But did not Phase 1 enable full-text searching? Yes it did, and it is wonderful, but the transcriptions are accurate to the text as written in the ledger. Keeping with Stanton, if you typed in “Stanton” in the search box, you would get those pages where “Stanton” matches the search. But what if the telegram begins or ends with “EMS” or “Stantin” or “the Secretary of War”? The full-text search would ignore those pages. Furthermore, such a search looks at the whole message and returns results for any mention of “Stanton,” including other people named Stanton or places named Stanton. What if you want to look for Stanton only as the recipient? A search in a specific metadata field for “recipient” would enable that search and give you the correct results.
To aid in that search we will take the metadata tagged by the volunteers in Phase 2 and standardize the terms. So, continuing with Stanton, if the recipient is “EMS” and it is tagged as a sender or recipient, we will be able to take the consensus term and edit it to the standardized form of “Stanton, Edwin M. (Edwin McMasters), 1814-1869.” Once all the telegrams are tagged and the fields edited, if you do a specific search for “Recipient” as “Stanton, Edwin M. (Edwin McMasters), 1814-1869.” you will only get those telegrams to Stanton, not from or about him, and you will have those whether they are sent to him as “EMS,” “Stanton,” or “Stantin.”
The tagging of individual telegrams in the Phase 2 Metadata workflow will eventually enable specific searches to be done across the almost 16,000 telegrams. It will enable users to look for individuals or places or dates in specific fields. And the tagging of code words (arbitraries) in the Code Word work flow will help round out this project with the final decoding of encoded telegrams. An incredibly useful archive has been made available in Phase 1 of Decoding the Civil War. Help us leverage and categorize that hard-earned knowledge in Phase 2 to aid in the discovery of the American Civil War.
By Daniel Stowell, Decoding the Civil War Independent Researcher.
One of the most exciting aspects of digital humanities projects is the ability to make connections among materials that would not have been possible earlier. One citizen researcher, Linda Dodge, recently brought to our attention that a telegram from Decoding the Civil War connects to a receipt held at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and digitized through Chronicling Illinois.
The telegram from Mary Lincoln to Thomas Eckert reads:
640 P[M] March 1 6
Will please deliver this message
to A Williamson
To A Williamson
your letter of 27th Gen Spinner
has list that will suffice to
settle without bills. Have it
done at once. Send receipt
Alexander Williamson (1814-1903) became tutor to Willie and Tad Lincoln when Mary Lincoln hired him in September 1861. In March 1863, Abraham Lincoln obtained a clerk position for Williamson in the Second Auditor’s Office of the Treasury Department. Williamson remained a friend of the Lincoln family and assisted Mary Lincoln in her financial difficulties following the President’s death.
Francis E. Spinner (1802-1890) was Treasurer of the United States from 1861 to 1875. He also assisted Mary Lincoln in settling her husband’s estate and in obtaining a pension. On February 13, 1866, Mary Lincoln’s friend and New York businessman Norman S. Bentley sent Spinner a list of ten merchants to whom she was indebted; this document is also a part of Chronicling Illinois. It is possible that Williamson was assisting Spinner in settling the former First Lady’s accounts and that the following receipt was for his services in that effort.
The receipt reads:
17th March 1866 Received from General
Spinner, U.S. Treasurer the sum of Ten
dollars ($10.) on account of Mrs. M. Lincoln
These two documents, held in institutions 1,600 miles apart, each tell a part of the story of Mary Lincoln’s efforts to settle the estate of her murdered husband and to obtain a pension to support herself and her youngest son. Now, thanks to digital projects like Decoding the Civil War and Chronicling Illinois, researchers can access both documents and others that are a part of this tragic story.
Chronicling Illinois is a digital archive project that the writer, Decoding the Civil War researcher Daniel W. Stowell, organized and implemented.
By Daniel Stowell, Decoding the Civil War Independent Researcher.
When working with numerous collections, sometimes one stumbles across a little nugget that just calls out to be told. Working with the Eckert telegrams has made me familiar with the codes and ciphers used by the United States Army and Government. So, imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I saw the following story from August 1862:
“During all the spring months I alone in all the Army Corps was entrusted with the Government Cyphers. During General Pope’s retreat, I was one day sent for by Generals Pope & Banks, to put into cypher a very important dispatch to General McDowell, with whom direct communication had been cut off by the enemy.
I was obliged to reply that during the severest part of the Battle of Cedar Mountain when I was in the greatest danger of being killed or captured at any moment, I had felt it my duty to destroy the cypher which I tore up into a hundred or more very small pieces & swallowed some of them. My action was approved. I then offered to carry the orders, unwritten, myself to General McDowell, if I could find him, and take my chances.
My offer was accepted, but while the instructions were being prepared, the advance of General McDowells Corps came in sight, & I was relieved from a duty which would have put me in the greatest danger of capture or otherwise.”
This is excerpted from a twenty-five-page handwritten memoir written by Frederick d’Hauteville on his service in the American Civil War. d’Hauteville was writing about the the Battle of Cedar Mountain, fought on August 9, 1862. Brigadier General Crawford in his report on the battle specifically commended Captain d’Hauteville, “who from the first rendered me especial and important service, attended with great personal exposure.” Crawford probably wasn’t thinking of d’Hauteville’s willingness to eat the cipher when commending him, and it is impossible to tell whether the cipher which he ate was one of Stager’s telegraph ciphers, but d’Hauteville’s memories do illustrate the extent to which those entrusted with the ciphers went to protect them.
After the battle d’Hauteville discovered that a ball had pierced his blankets, strapped behind his saddle, with more than a dozen holes. Among the regiments in d’Hauteville’s division at the battle was the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with officers from “the leading families of the City of Boston,” many of them, like d’Hauteville, graduates of Harvard University. The regiment with fewer than 500 men suffered 173 casualties, and 16 of its 23 officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. “All of them were my friends, & very dear friends,” d’Hauteville recalled, “Their loss was enormous, but they went to their deaths with sublime courage.”
Frederick Sears Grand d’Hauteville (1838-1918) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Swiss nobleman and American mother, who returned to the United States while pregnant. Their marital conflict led to a contentious custody battle over Frederick in 1840 in a Philadelphia court, which his mother eventually won. D’Hauteville graduated from Harvard University in 1859. He was appointed volunteer aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Banks in December 1861, and served at the Battle of Winchester in March 1862. Commissioned captain on June 30, 1862, he served on Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s staff, including action at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August and at Antietam in September 1862.
By December, 1862, d’Hauteville had returned to General Banks’ staff and traveled to New Orleans, where Banks commanded the Department of the Gulf. D’Hauteville resigned his commission on March 1, 1863. Later in 1863, he married the daughter of former New York Governor Hamilton Fish, but she died the following year. In 1872, he married Susan Watts Macomb, whose grand-father Major General Alexander Macomb was a hero of the War of 1812 and general-in-chief of the United States army from 1828 to 1841. The d’Hautevilles kept a home in Newport, Rhode Island, but they spent much of their time in his paternal family’s thirty-room chateau overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
The telegraph offered a revolutionary breakthrough in communications, however, no technology could ease personal tensions or alleviate turf wars. Two telegrams spotted by hungmung, one of our valiant volunteers, offer an intriguing insight into one of such conflict.
Both telegrams were received in Washington on February 7, 1862. Both involved Henry W. Halleck (Alden), then the commander of the Department of the Missouri; George B. McClellan (Andes), the general-in-chief of Union armies; and Don Carlos Buell (Alvord), the head of the Department of the Ohio. The telegrams were part of a complicated but little known conflict over the course of action in the West.
Lincoln urged speedy occupation of the heavily Unionist Tennessee, but McClellan and his old friend Buell wanted instead to target Nashville. The heads of two Western departments, Halleck and Buell, could not get along. When Buell came up with a plan to launch a dual advance on the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers, Halleck dismissed the plan as “madness” on the grounds that the Union troops in the West were too scattered to provide for any sort of sustained campaign.
Things got even more complicated in late January 1862. McClellan, perhaps hoping to score some political points, proposed to shift the fighting to Kentucky and then move on to East Tennessee. Upon his request, the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent his Assistant Secretary Thomas A. Scott to explore the logistics of transferring some 60,000 troops from McClellan’s command to Buell’s headquarters in Louisville.
On January 29, McClellan fired off a telegram to Halleck warning him of the impending Confederate expedition into Kentucky. The next day, Halleck ordered Ulysses S. Grant to start immediately for Fort Henry.
At the same time Buell decided to go to East Tennessee after all. When Halleck, who was getting cold feet about the operation, asked Buell either to transfer some of his troops or to stage a diversion, Buell was less than enthusiastic, even after McClellan urged his friend to help Halleck by switching the line of attack from East Tennessee to Bowling Green, Ky.
In the second telegram, Buell telegraphed McClellan complaining about Halleck’s move which, although “right in its strategic bearing” had been commenced without “appreciation, preparation, or concert.” Now that it had “become of vast magnitude,” Buell noted that he was indeed contemplating “a change of the line to support” but warned that this sudden change of direction was “hazardous.”
The telegram appears in on pp. 587-588 of vol. 7 of the 1st Series of the Official Records. It is clear that the publication differs from the ledger record. For example, the phrase “without appreciation, preparation, or concert,” was edited to read “without appreciation – preparative or concert.”
Moreover, the publication does not include the telegram that, as the ledger shows, immediately preceded it. The telegram at the top of the page was published some sixteen years later; it appears on p. 206 of vol. 52 (part I). It was also printed with errors: it seems to indicate that the telegram was sent from Washington, D.C. and addressed to an “L. Thomas.” As seen in the ledger, the telegram was in fact addressed to General George Thomas and sent from Buell’s headquarters in Louisville. Because the telegrams were printed out of sequence and with serious errors, the connection between them has long been overlooked.
As the ledger shows, Buell was indeed contemplating the transfer of some Ohio and Indiana regiments. Also, the published version of the telegram from Buell to McClellan features a time-stamp that seems to show it took almost 12 hours to transmit it: the message sent at midnight of February 6 was received at 11:30 a.m. of February 7. The ledger, however, shows no time stamp on this or the preceding telegram. In fact, there were only two more telegrams that similarly lacked the time stamp. All four were received on February 7 and all followed a confidential report from Thomas A. Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War to his boss Edwin M. Stanton.
That report, which also does not appear in OR, describes Scott’s effort to facilitate the confusing and bitter communications between Halleck’s and Buell’s departments. It appears that our telegrams were attached to the report. The ledger shows that the telegrams were received along with the report by a USMT operator in Washington at 1:30 a.m. rather than 11:30 a.m. of February 7.
Generals bickering on the battlefield is nothing new. What is interesting is to see how that bickering has been captured and then reinterpreted over time. These messages offer a confirmation of the primary importance of our job here at Decoding the Civil War.
The cover of the above ledger is not all that exciting to look at. But within that cover is the first of the hard earned rewards from the Ledger Challenge. This is the cover of Ledger 7, the first ledger we received with consensus data from the 20 finished during those exciting two weeks. The consensus text has been reviewed and published in the Huntington Digital Library. Coming in at 400 pages, with some 460 telegrams, it took us a while to go through it. The contents of the ledger are varied, covering the period from late May to early July 1863, and include various (sometimes conflicting) reports from Vicksburg, potential traitors in Indiana, and the start of Gettysburg.
Our volunteers worked hard on all 20 ledgers. We want to say, again, thank you for that effort. Ledger 7 shows that the effort is bearing fruit. We are already hard at work on the next ledger, and the others are going through the consensus processing now.
As we publish these ledgers, we will link to them on the Results page of the Decoding the Civil War site.
Decoding the Civil War has just finished its two-week transcription challenge. Our original goal was simple: complete 10 ledgers. Well, we reached that goal in the first six days. Deciding to ask our volunteers for a little more, we added 10 more ledgers. The challenge became 20 ledgers in two weeks. We can happily say that we have met that goal as well.
That is correct—all of our wonderful volunteers have completed an incredible 20 ledgers! The ledgers are:
mssEC_01; mssEC_02; mssEC_04; mssEC_05; mssEC_06; mssEC_07; mssEC_08; mssEC_09; mssEC_10; mssEC_11; mssEC_12; mssEC_15; mssEC_17; mssEC_20; mssEC_21; mssEC_22; mssEC_25; mssEC_33; mssEC_34; mssEC_35.
That is a total of 9,998 classifications, an average of 714 transcriptions a day, far exceeding our goal of 425 classifications per day! We also added 727 volunteers. Welcome to all of you! You and our veteran volunteers have helped make this a very successful challenge.
The researchers now have their hands full reviewing the consensus data and getting it transferred into the Huntington Digital Library. Keep checking our Results page to see new ledgers added.
So it is time to strike up the band, and order extra rations to all our volunteers! We have 30962 classifications left. That is still quite a bit, but remember that we have completed almost 10,000 in the last two weeks, and 87,150 classifications since the project started last June.
We ask you to keep your enthusiasm up and those fingers flying. Let’s try to finish them by June 30th!
Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!