Today we use our digital devices to text, tweet, and email, but during the Civil War, telegrams were deployed to do things like request artillery or even to say “We have met with a serious disaster.” Now, a new project is bringing thousands of telegrams that carried information between Union officers, Abraham Lincoln, and his cabinet into the digital age.
The work is being done by “citizen archivists” on the Zooniverse website, which is a place for the public to help with large projects that need crowdsourcing, like identifying animals captured by cameras on the Serengeti.
The fascinating trove of documents came to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in 2012, and contains almost 16,000 telegrams. Many were written in code, which remained unbroken by the Confederates throughout the war, according to the Huntington.
“The archive was thought to have been destroyed after the war and includes crucial correspondence that has never been published,” the Huntington explained in a statement. “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.”
Volunteers who log onto Decoding the Civil War to help transcribe the archive might see a page from a codebook; one line, for example, contains the typed words “Republic” and “Refute” with the handwritten phrase “Secretary of State” written in between them. A volunteer could also see the contents of a telegram or the cover image of a book.
The project, launched on June 20, is 47 percent complete, according to a statistics page for the project, and nearly 45,000 classifications have been made.
Lucy Fortson, a founding member of Zooniverse and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, said in an email to FoxNews.com that a third of the telegrams are "retired" because a consensus has formed on what they say.
Now, she said, the development team has moved on to "phase 2," which is "the actual decoding step in which we will ask the volunteers to assist in locating coded segments of the telegrams and identifying the codebook that may hold the key to the decryption."
"We are really looking forward to seeing many of these telegrams decoded for the first time ever and discovering any secrets they may contain about the Civil War," she added.
Feel like reading dispatches penned over 150 years ago? Head over to Decoding the Civil War.
Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger