Between 1999 and 2002, the Library of Congress tasked the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Illinois with transcribing thousands of letters sent to and from President Abraham Lincoln. Staff finished about half of the missives (mostly those penned by Lincoln himself), and in 2018, the Washington, D.C. library decided to recruit volunteers to transcribe the remaining 10,000.
Last month, the “Letters to Lincoln” project—conducted via the library’s “By the People” crowdsourcing platform—concluded after two years of work, reports Michael E. Ruane for the Washington Post. Now, transcriptions completed by thousands of volunteers are set to join the 10,000 already available online. (In total, the library’s Lincoln papers constitute 40,000 documents, around half of which are digitized. Find volunteer-transcribed pages here.)
“Crowdsourcing demonstrates the passion of volunteers for history, learning and the power of technology to make those things more accessible,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a 2018 statement.
The newly transcribed pages “represent some of the diversity of the Library’s treasure,” she added, “and the metadata that will result from these transcriptions mean these digitized documents will have even greater use to classrooms, researchers or anyone who is curious about these historical figures.”
Covering everything from general correspondence to political advice, military news related to the Civil War, and personal and family matters, the documents showcase the wide variety of information that came across the 16th president’s desk—including advice shared prior to Lincoln’s inauguration by a sender identified only as W. A.
W.A. recommended that the president “rid the house & grounds belonging to the capitol of every person male or female who has ever been employed as servants by Buchanan or Pierce,” per the transcript, which preserves the writer’s original grammar. “Why sir -- under such circumstances I wouldent trust the best of them to feed my dog.”
Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan immediately preceded Lincoln. Both allowed slavery to expand in the United States, and the latter did nothing to stop Southern states from seceding after his successor’s election. But Lincoln didn’t take the anonymous well-wisher’s advice, instead keeping some of Buchanan’s British-born domestic staff on payroll and bringing other workers from his home state of Illinois, according to the White House Historical Association.
In January 1864, Lincoln received a court-martial report that included the names of nine soldiers set to be “shot to death with musketry” on charges of desertion. Five were to be executed in front of their former divisions as a warning to others considering deserting. But less than three weeks after reading the letter, Lincoln suspended the men’s sentences, reports the Post.
Issues of personal concern to the president also appear in the transcribed letters. In 1864, for example, Lincoln learned that the men he’d entrusted with money for his stepmother, Sarah, who had moved to a 40-acre plot following the death of her husband, Thomas Lincoln, in 1851, were keeping the funds for themselves.
As John Hall, son of Lincoln’s stepsister Matilda Johnston Hall, wrote in the letter (transcribed not by the volunteers, but the Lincoln Studies Center), “I write to Inform you that Grand Mother has not and does not receive one cent of the money you send her. … I & my Mother are now takeing care of her and have for the last four years— If you wish her to have any thing send it by check, here to the bank at Charleston or send none, for I tell you upon the honor of a man She does not get it.”
Another note dated to May 19, 1860, conveys friend John C. Henshaw’s congratulations on Lincoln’s nomination for president: “[Y]ou have long been the object of my hopes, for I have abiding faith in your success,” he explains. “ ... Within half an hour after the receipt of the news I met three persons among my acquaintance who would not have voted for [opponent William H. Seward] & will vote for you.”
Two teams of volunteers contributed to the Library of Congress project, with the first completing transcriptions and the second reviewing the first’s work. A few typos are scattered throughout the letters: Per the Post, one note describes the “N.Y.S.M.,” or New York State Militia, as “N.Y.Sill.” Still, the transcriptions are a critical starting point in making the archive searchable.
“We’re providing people with a way to become engaged with the material and explore questions and interests that they might have,” Michelle Krowl, a Civil War specialist with the library, tells the Post.
Adds Krowl, “Every generation has a different sort of questions they ask of these materials. … These collections continue to be dynamic, and they continue to answer new questions.”