Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Huntington acquires Civil War telegraph message collection

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has acquired an extensive and extraordinarily rare collection of Civil War telegraph messages, including a number of coded communiqu├ęs between Abraham Lincoln and officers of the Union Army. The collection is a near-complete archive of Thomas T. Eckert, the head of the military telegraph office of the War Department under Lincoln. The archive, which until recently was thought to have been destroyed, includes crucial correspondence that has never been published.

"The Huntington is one of the premiere institutions for the study of the Civil War and is the repository of two of the so-called Big Five collections of Lincolniana, material by and about the 16th American president," says David Zeidberg, the Avery Director of the Library. "The Eckert archive promises to add fresh insight into one of the most heavily mined scholarly subjects—the American Civil War."

Selections from the archive will go on public view for the first time in the fall, when The Huntington presents two exhibitions relating to the war- the major "A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War" (Oct. 13, 2012-Jan. 14, 2013) and the focused "A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era." (Sept. 22, 2012-Jan. 7, 2013).

The Eckert materials were among the purchases over the weekend at the 15th annual meeting of the Library Collectors' Council. Other purchases include three rare photographs of San Francisco in 1867 by Carleton Watkins (two of which were not previously known to exist); a family archive that includes documentation of the first congressional action to limit slavery in the United States; a bound set of two 17th-century works of astronomy by a German rival of Galileo; and a 15th-century decorated manuscript containing dozens of Gregorian chants in musical notations.

The Library Collectors' Council is a group of 35 member families who help support acquisitions. It was formed to augment the collections by helping to purchase materials that the institution otherwise couldn't afford.

The council purchased the following items:



The Civil War Telegraph Archive of Thomas T. Eckert

The papers of Thomas T. Eckert range from 1862, during the early months of conflict between the North and South, through 1877, at the close of Reconstruction. The sizeable archive of 76 books includes 35 manuscript ledger books of coded telegraphs sent and received by the War Department, including 7 full ledgers of ciphered telegrams—that is, coded messages sent from Washington, D.C. Taken together, the books contain more than 100 messages from Lincoln. Also among the materials is a number of cipher books, which reveal the complex coding system used to decipher messages—including code names for Lincoln: “Ida” and “India,” among others. The Confederate Army never cracked the Union Army’s code.

“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this collection,” says Olga Tsapina, the Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts. “This is a new and largely untapped resource that will, no doubt, provide a new impetus to Civil War studies as well as to the history of telegraphic communications in the United States.”

Though a small portion of their contents had been published, until recently, it was thought that the Eckert materials did not survive. In fact, they had been kept intact in private hands since Eckert’s lifetime. Zeidberg contacted David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., to see if it was interested in the records; it deferred to The Huntington, agreeing that the institution would be an appropriate home for the materials, providing ready access to scholars for studying them.

Photographs of San Francisco by 19th-Century Master Carleton E. Watkins

The council added three rare photographs to the extensive archive of 19th-century photographer Carleton E. Watkins (1829–1916) in an ongoing drive to select strategically and to fill gaps in the holdings. Over the years, The Huntington has continued adding to its Watkins holdings through gift and purchase, building a collection of more than 350 mammoth views (produced from 18-by-22-inch glass-plate negatives) and hundreds of smaller format photographs. Of the three photographs purchased by the council, all made in San Francisco’s elite neighborhoods around 1867, only one is known to exist elsewhere and that in but a single copy.

Opening Salvo in the Political Battle that Would Lead to the Civil War

Also purchased by the Library Collectors’ Council is a family archive that includes documentation of the first congressional action to limit slavery in the United States. Daniel Gott (1794–1864), a U.S. Congressman from western New York, proposed a resolution in 1848 banning “traffic in human beings as chattels” in the District of Columbia. The Gott resolution was approved by the House but repealed three weeks later after Southern lawmakers threatened secession.


Christoph Scheiner, Galileo’s (Not-so) Secret Ally

The history of science is another major strength of The Huntington, and for the second year in a row the council has added a significant item related to Galileo Galilei (adding to the purchase last year of a book considered to be the first attack on Galileo’s famous work that dared to reinforce the Copernican observation that the earth revolved around the sun). The new acquisition is actually two works bound into one volume, each authored by Christoph Scheiner (1575–1560), a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and Galileo’s best-known competitor.

Fifteenth-Century Church Manuscript

An illuminated manuscript from the 15th century completes the remarkable set of purchases. The Huntington has an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts produced in England in the 14th and 15th centuries, including liturgical books used in regulating the worship, rites, and ceremonies of the late medieval English Catholic church. The new acquisition, a portion of what is called a Sarum Manual, is written in Latin and set out the prayers, music, and rituals for the priest or monk who officiated at critical turning points marking the main stages of a life: at baptism, marriage, final illness, death, burial, and requiem mass. The Huntington’s acquisition is of 60 leaves called the Office of the Dead, a sizeable part of the original book that deals with the end of life (final illness, death, funeral, burial, and requiem masses).

The manuscript is handsomely produced on vellum, with prominent rubrics (“stage directions” for the priest, written in red ink), intricately decorated initials, a colorful floral spray illuminated with gold leaf, and extensive selections of beautiful Gregorian chant.


About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at www.huntington.org.



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