Civil War: Been There, Done That

Aug. 24, 1863, telegram

A sample telegram from “Decoding the Civil War.”

After reading the Los Angeles Times’  account about the effort to transcribe nearly 16,000 telegrams, I was ready to pitch in. It certainly seemed a more productive way to pass a spare evening than playing Freecell.

But not so fast. I transcribed several telegrams and then, out of curiosity, did a Google search on a particular phrase in one message. Crushing realization: It was already transcribed, published in the 19th century and was even online via Google books.

I posted my observation and was told:

We are aware that some telegrams were published previously, and wrote a blog post on the topic to explain why we feel it is important to transcribe everything, including the previously published messages. One major issue is that we would have had to identify all of the previously published telegrams one by one to eliminate them from the subject set, and that would have delayed the project considerably. It may seem redundant, but we believe that it is important to have accurate transcriptions of these as well as the unpublished telegrams, and appreciate everyone’s hard work, regardless of how well-known or undiscovered a message may be.

If my experience is any indication, the majority of these telegrams have been done. Of three telegrams I transcribed, all were posted online. And taking the above page as two more samples, I found that that they too are online, using code words for various individuals:

Telegram No. 1, published in “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,”  Series III, Volume III, Washington, 1899.



Telegram No. 2, published in “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Series I, Volume XXX, Part III, Washington, 1890.

Five telegrams is admittedly a tiny sample and not necessarily random, but it certainly makes me question the value of this project — the phrase “utter waste of time” comes to mind.

I think I’ll stick to my other transcribing hobby: Shakespeare’s World. The handwriting in these documents is far more challenging, but I have a much better chance of not repeating work done by some forgotten and long-dead 19th century clerk.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1863, Civil War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Civil War: Been There, Done That

  1. I just posted about this project on social media–I’ll add this as an addendum!


    • lmharnisch says:

      Yes, their reasoning is rather dubious. Checking to see whether a telegram can be found via Google is much faster than transcribing one, and the original transcriptions were done by people who recognized 19th century handwriting, unlike volunteers who have to contend with digitized copies.


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