Decoding the Civil War

Title page of “Cipher for Telegraphic Correspondence,” Anson Stager, Washington, D.C., 1861–62, Thomas T. Eckert Papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.In a move to gain new insights into the U.S. Civil War, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced today the public launch of an innovative crowdsourcing project to transcribe and decipher a collection of nearly 16,000 Civil War telegrams between Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet, and officers of the Union Army. Roughly one-third of the messages were written in code.

The Huntington is collaborating on the “Decoding the Civil War” project with Zooniverse (the largest online platform for collaborative volunteer research), North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“The Huntington and its partners are delighted to make this historic collection accessible to the public in a way that will help improve our understanding of this critically important period in our nation’s history,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington. “This is a digital humanities project that holds the potential to transform our engagement with the past, inspire further research, and help students everywhere gain a better understanding of U.S. history, digital literacy, and the power of collaboration.”

The Huntington acquired the exceptionally rare collection of telegrams in 2012, composed of a nearly complete archive of Thomas T. Eckert, the head of the military telegraph office of the War Department under Lincoln. The archive was thought to have been destroyed after the war and includes crucial correspondence that has never been published. Among the materials are 35 manuscript ledger books of telegrams sent and received by the War Department, including more than 100 communiques from Lincoln himself. Also included are top-secret cipher books revealing the complex coding system used to encrypt and decipher messages. The Confederate Army never cracked the Union Army’s code.

The “Decoding the Civil War” project provides public access to digitized images of the telegrams and code books through the Huntington Digital Library. In addition, the project’s crowdsourcing website on Zooniverse engages “citizen archivists” in the deciphering of the telegrams with greater efficiency and accuracy than could be accomplished by staff members at the partnering institutions.

“Crowdsourced digital projects involving transcription have begun to provide a tremendous opportunity for both institutions and interested citizens,” said Dan Lewis, chief curator of manuscripts at The Huntington. “The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress both have implemented projects that let ‘digital volunteers’ help make historical documents more accessible, to the benefit of the world beyond their walls. We expect this project to be similarly engaging for anyone interested in the history of the Civil War—and it’s accessible through just a few computer clicks.”

Excerpt, read more at: Verso, the Blog of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens