History Buzz January 26, 2012: Huntington Library acquires trove of Lincoln, Civil War telegrams, codes


History Buzz


Huntington acquires trove of Lincoln, Civil War telegrams, codes

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens purchases a collection of telegrams from Abraham Lincoln and Union generals, plus code books.

Source: LAT, 1-26-12

A long-unknown, 150-year-old trove of handwritten ledgers and calfskin-covered code books that give a potentially revelatory glimpse into both the dawn of electronic battlefield communications and the day-to-day exchanges between Abraham Lincoln and his generals as they fought the Civil War now belongs to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

The collection, acquired in a private sale on Saturday and disclosed Wednesday, includes 40 cardboard-covered albums of messages that telegraph operators wrote down either before sending them in Morse code, or transcribed from telegraphic dots and dashes at the receiving end. There are also small, wallet-like booklets containing the key to code words Union commanders used to make sure their messages would remain unfathomable if intercepted by the Confederates.

“This opens up some new windows that we haven’t really been able to look at. It’s a major find,” said James M. McPherson, a Princeton University historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 study “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” Had it been available while he was researching his 2008 book, “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” McPherson said, “it would have enriched my own work.”

PHOTOS: Lincoln treasure trove

“Anyone doing research on the Union war effort and the communication between the nerve center and field operations would now go to the Huntington to look at all this,” he added, and it also could be important for students of communications technology and cryptographic codes.

The cardboard-covered telegraphic ledgers of up to 400 pages had been stowed away by Thomas Eckert (1825-1910), a pioneering telegraph operator who ran the U.S. military‘s telegraph office at the War Department in Washington, D.C., from 1863 to 1867. The collection also includes ledgers from 1862, when Eckert served as telegraph chief for Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

The Eckert collection’s existence wasn’t known to historians and archivists until December 2009, when an owner who’d bought it from Eckert’s descendants put the documents — 76 books in all — up for auction in New York City. The collection sold for $36,000, including a buyer’s premium, according to a record of the sale on the website of the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house.

Huntington officials said the library’s collectors’ council committed funds on Saturday to buy the Eckert collection from a dealer in White Plains, N.Y., adding to substantial Civil War holdings that include the world’s third-largest archive of Lincoln’s documents, behind only the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill. The Huntington declined to give the purchase price….READ MORE

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