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History Students Transcribe Civil War Letters

June 10, 2014
A Templeton letter on the transcription table.
A Templeton letter on the transcription table.

In 1862, Hillsborough, NH, native Willard Templeton enlisted in the 11th NH Regiment and went off with his fellows to fight the Civil War. He was wounded at Spotsylvania, VA, on May 12, 1864, and served as part of the color guard at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, where he was killed in the mine explosion on July 30, 1864. During the time he was in the army, Templeton wrote several letters to friends and family at home, and 140 of these fascinating accounts are held in collection at the New Hampshire State Library.

Keene State Archivist Rodney Obien reached an agreement with the State Library to bring the Templeton letters to the Mason Library archives, where Associate Professor of History Graham Warder put students from his Civil War Locally seminar to work transcribing the documents in a project called "Letters from Secessia—The Willard J. Templeton Papers." It's something of a challenge, because today's students aren't all that familiar with cursive writing. So far, all of the letters have been scanned and about 20 of them have been transcribed.

"The process takes a lot of time," Dr. Warder explained. "Each letter is quite long, though the penmanship is fairly legible once you get used to it. … A few brief portions of the letters are indecipherable, but we come quite close to complete transcriptions." Each student transcribes a letter, and then they meet as a group to proof the work. The multiple sets of eyes looking over the work insures that there are few mistakes, though there are brief sections of the letters that are indecipherable.

Senior and history major Jillian Bower admitted that the work was challenging at first, but got easier as the students became more familiar with the writing. As the semester went on, they were able to pick up the pace. "Overall, I had a really great experience working with the letters," Bowers said. "I think the most important thing for us was getting that hands-on experience that you normally wouldn't get in a history class."

"The State Library has been wanting for some time to start digitizing collections but has not had the staff, equipment, or online platform to proceed," explained Janet Eklund, Administrator of Library Operations at the NH State Library. So putting careful student researchers to work providing much needed resources has been a win/win for everyone. "The transcriber’s name is attached to the record, which gives students ownership in the project. Students had never before handled nor read this kind of primary sources," Eklund continued. "Most of the letters had typed transcriptions, but the students found that paragraphs were missing and transcriptions were incorrect. … KSC has done us a great service and we look forward to partnering with the History Department and Mason Library in the future."

"The students who worked on this loved the opportunity to touch the physical objects, but most of the transcriptions were done with scans, which gave us the opportunity to enlarge particularly difficult passages," Dr. Warder noted. "I think they really came to know and like Templeton (I sure have), and they were actually upset when I told them he was killed in the Battle of the Crater very late in the war."

The scans and transcriptions of each letter are being posted on the KSC Digital Commons, where they're available to Civil War scholars and New Hampshire historians and history teachers.