At the end of the American Civil War in May 1865, Thomas T. Eckert, head of the military telegraph office of the War Department under Abraham Lincoln, gathered up some 16,000 telegrams from the conflict and archived them. Contained within the collection of 35 ledger books, code books and correspondence are more than 5,000 pieces of coded content between President Lincoln, his Cabinet and officers of the Union Army.

This massive treasure trove of Civil War correspondence and insights, once thought destroyed, was acquired in 2012 by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Faced with the Herculean task of transcribing and deciphering the telegrams, the organization decided to crowdsource the effort. The result is a new online initiative that allows users to examine individual telegrams and assist researchers in peeling back the secrets hidden within.

"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," said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington.


The idea behind the project is certainly not without precedent. In 2014, the Lincoln Presidential Library published online the voluminous papers of Richard Yates Sr., a Lincoln ally and governor of Illinois during the Civil War. Like the telegrams, the idea was to give the public an opportunity to help historians transcribe the documents and unveil new details about the era.

"Military affairs make up much of Governor Yates’ correspondence, but his papers also contain extraordinary insight into political, social and economic conditions in Illinois during the war," said Daniel Stowell, director of the presidential library's Center for Digital Initiatives. "Volunteer transcribers will provide an invaluable historical and public service by making the text of the Yates papers fully searchable."

The Civil War telegrams project will be broken into three phases. The first, which kicked off last week, is expected to involve more than 75,000 people transcribing documents. The second phase will involve "combing the digital database" to identify important people, dates and times. The last phase will employ the code books to decipher the approximately 5,400 coded telegrams.

Interested in helping to uncover a piece of American history? Check out the "Decoding the Civil War" website to get started.