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Consensus Transcriptions, or, What Is Our Hard Work Doing?

We’re 10 months into Decoding the Civil War, and some people may be wondering when they’ll see some fruits for their extensive (and greatly appreciated!) efforts. Well, we have published two of the ledgers to the Huntington Digital Library (3 and 24), and we hope to have another one later this week.

But how do we get from the mass of data to the finished transcription?

It is a bit like sausage making. Our clever DCW developers take all of the data from your transcriptions, run the data through an algorithm, figure out what the most common text for each and every word is, and then uses those most common words to create the consensus text.

Take this page, for example:

april 18 - mssEC_24_087 - demo of consensus transcription.jpg

The text returned to us from the consensus algorithm was:

23 Di 23 Aug 1130am 30am axis Byron will Corps will will Come to alexandria. I cannot yet decide as to Belgrave Corps new Yoke will be sent to replace Barnard as soon as possible but just now we Have no time to make the Exchange we bought are momentarily Expecting handsome war near Warrenton and every a vessel must be immediately sent discharged for your youth sign applause Eleven back Mes Wash 7th for Sheldon agate send to Pagoda as promptly as possible the first China China velsmay & third & fourth Cuba stanhope now at nasty signed applause gertrude gertrude

This may look like a bit of a mess, but consider the transcription that we had before DCW:

 

That’s a big old empty spot, in case you were wondering. Once we receive this data, Project Leader Mario E. and I do a quick scan of the text, in order to correct obvious errors and identify words that might require further investigation. So, looking at that same text, we might come up with this:

23 Di 23 Aug 1130am 30am axis Byron will Corps will will Come to alexandria. I cannot yet decide as to Belgrave Corps new Yoke will be sent to replace Barnard as soon as possible but just now we Have no time to make the Exchange we bought are momentarily Expecting handsome war near Warrenton and every a vessel must be immediately sent discharged for your youth sign applause Eleven back Mes Wash 7th for Sheldon agate send to Pagoda as promptly as possible the first China China velsmay & third & fourth Cuba stanhope now at nasty signed applause gertrude gertrude

Some of the issues that pop up are merely a result of volunteers spacing the words in a variety of ways – obviously some people typed “1130am” while others typed “11 30am”. Others require a more critical examination of the text, such as the end of the first telegram, where “Eleven back Mes” is reinterpreted as “Eleven a M”.  And still other, like that misplaced “a” in the middle of the text, are accurate, if odd, parts of the transcription.

The transcription as it appears in the Huntington Digital Library looks like this:

Fr Di 23 Aug 11 30 am
for axis Byron Corps will
come to Alexandria I cannot
yet decide as to Belgrave
Corps new Yoke will be
sent to replace Barnard as
soon as possible but just
now we Have no time
to make the Exchange we <deletion>caught</deletion>
are momentarily Expecting handsome war near
Warrenton and every a vessel must
be immediately sent discharged for your
youth signed applause Eleven a M

Wash 7th
for Sheldon agate send to Pagoda as
promptly as possible the first China <unclear>velsmay</unclear>
& third & fourth Cuba <insertion>NY</insertion> Stanhope
now at nasty signed applause gertrude

We can’t guarantee that our interpretations are correct, but we hope to provide a faithful transcription of the text as it appears on the page. And we no longer have that big old empty spot, but rather usable, hard data. That is some pretty sweet fruit!

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Take up the Challenge

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Today, April 17th, 2017, marks the first day of a two-week challenge, a challenge for not only our current volunteers but for all who would like to join in. The goal is a simple one: complete 10 ledgers in Decoding the Civil War between April 17 and May 1.

Our volunteers have been doing yeoman’s work turning out 200 classifications a day (a classification is equal to a page of transcription). However, we have fallen behind where we had hoped to be at this stage of our project. Thus, the challenge and the selection of 10 ledgers. We need roughly 425 classifications per day, a bit more than double our current number. We can do this and it will help get us back toward the long-term goal of having the majority of ledgers finished by June.

But why accept the challenge? The canard is often repeated that libraries and archives are dead, or if not dead, then they are simply morgues for outdated material. Our work, all our work, has demonstrated that active collaboration, research, and discovery are vital. Remember that the work that is being done on Decoding the Civil War brings together resources from four institutions — The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; North Carolina State University; and the Zooniverse with its team at the University of Minnesota — and the hard work of over 3,000 volunteers. There is also the generous backing of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The collaboration of these groups has brought back to life telegrams from the Civil War, presenting the United States Civil War to the world in a continuous stream, not neatly packaged and organized.

Finally, Decoding the Civil War has created new and exciting paths of research—paths that have been cleared by the hard work of the citizen archivists, who have generously volunteered countless hours to this collaborative project. A hearty Thank You to them!

Starting today, let us see what new paths can be carved and cleared. To keep track of our progress we will be resetting the statistics page to reflect only the ten ledgers in the challenge. The numbers will not be set to zero as some work on the chosen ledgers has already be done. Rather, the numbers can be used as a base line to mark progress going forward. And we, as well as you, will be able to see the number of classifications per day clearly. Come back to our blog daily to see updates and new posts.

Go to our Decoding the Civil War project website, register as a new volunteer, or dive in!

Let us continue to prove that our work is vital! Take up the challenge: 10 ledgers in 2 weeks!

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On Illegal Leaks and Fake News

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

photcl 300 v 1 p 92 - NY_Herald_in_the_Field.jpg

New York Herald in the field, August 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

By the time the Civil War broke out, news had become a saleable commodity, with the New York Associated Press (AP) acting as the leading broker that enjoyed a close relationship with the Lincoln administration. President Lincoln dispensed with the practice of relying on newspaper editors and instead used AP as the news conduit. The flow of news, however, was tightly controlled by the War Department: AP received only information that had been cleared by military censors.

Although the system overall worked reasonably well, there were glitches which resulted in loud scandals. In June 1862, Charles C. Fulton, the head AP agent in Baltimore and the editor of the Baltimore American, was arrested for publishing an unauthorized account of the Seven Days’ Battles which the War Department considered a serious leak of military intelligence.  Following public outcry, Fulton was released after forty eight hours and immediately published an account of his ordeal, much to the delight of Confederate and the Union opposition press.

On the morning of May 18, 1864, two morning New York newspapers published an AP wire asserting that President Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the draft of 400,000 into the Union Army. The news, which indicated that the Union side was losing the war, crashed the New York stock exchange sending stock prices tumbling down and raising the gold. The news, however, was fake, planted by two gold speculators well familiar with AP’s delivery system. This “bogus proclamation” incident became the only known instance when Lincoln actually issued an order to suppress the newspapers.

photcl 300 v 1 p 91 - A_group_of_four_men_stand_around_a_horsedrawn_cart_looking_at_newspapers.jpg

Newspaper cart, November 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

As seen in Eckert’s letterpress books, on August 1, 1864, AP again found itself in a predicament. On July 31, Fulton transmitted to New York a report which he had received from a source in Fortress Monroe. The first part of the report, which contained the news of the loss of the Battle of the Crater of July 30, had been cleared by William Bender Wilson, the head of the Baltimore office of USMT.  However, Fulton tacked on an additional bit of news:  his Fortress Monroe source also “says Gen. Grant has arrived from City Point at 9 a.m. & was met at Ft. Monroe by President Lincoln who arrived from Washington at 10 o’clock both embarked on the Baltimore & after going in direction of Cape Henry steamer returned towards Norfolk there avoiding all interruption during interview at 3 p.m. President returned to Washington. General Grant returned to army.”

This meeting was not supposed to be publicized. A private meeting with the commander of the Union army coming on the heels of the shocking loss of the battle of the Crater could be seen as a sign of panic. As soon as Eckert got wind of the report, he ordered Daniel H. Craig, AP general agent, to suppress the news.

According to Craig, it was too late, as he had already sent out Fulton’s report “all over the country fifteen minutes before the order to suppress it came to hand. We are now trying to suppress it but I have no idea we shall necessarily.” He also tried to minimize his role in the leak: “There is intense excitement & anxiety here & all over the country & the substance of the news was undoubtedly known to Wall St. an hour before we got our own report and that is always the case when there is important news.”

 


Sources:

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 91: Center right (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49338)

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 92: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49339)

Hooray For Us!

It’s always nice to earn recognition for your achievements, so we were thrilled to learn that we were 2nd Runner Up in the Public Engagement category of the Digital Humanities Awards! The nominees included projects from Mexico, Japan, Spain, Italy, and France, in addition to the English-speaking countries, so we were in excellent, and diverse, company.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and everyone who has participated in Decoding the Civil War in the last nine months!

military_band_fortress_monroe

Pictures Please! Telegraph Operators

telegraph_operators_richmond

Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection

Ever wonder what the telegraph operators of the United States Military Telegraph looked like? In earlier posts we have shown the men who ran the USMT,  Anson Stager and Thomas T. Eckert, and even one of the few women operators, Louisa Volker. But what of the other operators? The above image is a popular photograph of the men in the USMT, taken in June of 1865. It was reproduced in the 1911 edition of The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 8, Page 363, which provides the following identifications:

“…The members of the group are, from left to right: 1, Dennis Doren, Superintendent of Construction; 2, L.D. McCandless; 3, Charles Bart; 4, Thomas Morrison: 5, James B. Norris; 6, James Caldwell; 7, A. Harper Caldwell, chief cipher operator, and in charge; 8, Maynard A. Huyck; 9, Dennis Palmer; 10, J.H. Emerick; 11, James H. Nichols. …”

There is a variant of this image at the Library of Congress:

telegraph_operators_richmond_loc_var_cropped

Richmond, Virginia. Military telegraph operators

Identification is, from left to right: James Caldwell, J.H. Emerick, Charles Bart, L.D. McCandless, Thomas Morrison, James B. Norris, A. Harper Caldwell, Dennis Doren, Dennis Palmer, Maynard A. Huyck, James H. Nichols.

Pulling from these two images we get these close up of the operators:

Charles Bart

A. Harper Caldwell

James Caldwell

Dennis Doren

J.H. Emerick

Maynard A. Huyck

L.D. McCandless

Thomas Morrison

James H. Nichols

James B. Norris

Dennis Palmer

Finally, there is this image, which we have used in several posts, of Thomas T. Eckert with a few of his operators in 1864:

UDID_49424_crop_Eckert_PH

There is no identification given, save for Eckert. But now some of the other men are identifiable, including A. Harper Caldwell immediately behind Eckert, and Dennis Doren to Eckert’s left, staring at the camera. Behind Doren, in profile, is J.H. Emerick. But the other three men? Time and others will possibly identify them.


 

Thanks to Zooniverse users OlEnglish and absoluteforth for the idea of connecting a few faces to a few names.

Sources:

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 90: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49337)

The Library of Congress: Richmond, Virginia. Military telegraph operators, Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) cwpb 03642 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.03642 Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Col. Thomas Eckert and telegraph assistants, 1864, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook Two, page 55: Top (photCL 300, vol. 2, UDID 49424)

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!

UDID_49424_crop_Eckert_PH

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

mssec_12_269-confederate-records-seized-absoluteforth

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.