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Get Your Hands On History with Howard County's Civil War Digitization Effort

December 4, 2018
        An envelope to a letter sent to Serena Brannon in Howard County.

The Howard County Historical Society in Kokomo houses approximately 2,400 pages worth of Civil War documents – letters, logbooks, photographs – from local soldiers. And most of it isn't available to the public.

The bulk of that material is too old and too delicate to be handled by visitors. And while HCHS staff can bring it out for them, there’s currently no way for someone outside the historical society to view it remotely.

That’s all changing, thanks to a joint effort between the historical society and the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, with help from a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Indiana State Library.

The groups have received over $11,000 to digitize the historical society’s collection into an online database. The documents that were previously hidden away for safekeeping will soon be available to anyone in the world and easily searchable.

“Our driving force is to make [this information] available to historians, or just people wanting to know about their own personal history,” said Amy Russell, head of the Genealogy and Local History Department for the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library.

KHCPL Digitization Assistant Ethan Patrick looks at a scan of Civil War-era currency. (Photo: Amy Russell)

Russell approached the historical society after hearing about their collection, and after reviewing the library’s scanning technology, she applied for funding.

“It all kind of dovetailed together into a project that fit the grant requirements,” Russell said.

According to KHCPL Digitization Assistant Ethan Patrick, the library is using a handheld scanner to digitize the collection. It can scan smaller documents in just a few minutes, and larger items can be digitized by overlapping multiple small scans and then “stitching” them together.

Randy Smith, assistant curator for the Howard County Historical Society, says the collection of 2,400-plus pages has taken years to culminate.

“We rely on the generosity of donations for the most part,” Smith said. “There are a few things we have purchased,” like the recent acquisition of a diary from soldier John Underwood.

“It just draws you in – misspellings, lack of punctuation and all. It is an outstanding narrative of what his camp life was like,” Smith said.

Bought on eBay for around $2,500, something as expensive as the diary is the exception, not the rule, for the historical society. But Howard County Historical Society Executive Director Dave Broman says those kinds of high-value items are worth the cost to expand the collection.

“It’s in remarkably good condition…It’s the story of his experiences in one of the most significant events in our country’s history. It was worth every penny of that money,” Broman said.

Part of what makes Underwood’s diary stand out is that it is indicative of military life for countless Howard County residents.

A letter from Col. Thomas J. Harrison to his wife. Harrison would be made a General near the end of the war. (Photo: Ethan Patrick)

“Howard County has a history of providing a large per capita number of people for various military happenings over time,” Russell said. “And the Civil War is the same.”

Smith said that over 2,000 troops from Howard County served in the Civil War, which was a large percentage of the area’s total population. According to the Indiana Archives and Records Administration, more than 200,000 from Indiana served in all.

Such a large number of soldiers means a wealth of material to pore over once the digitization effort is completed. And from what the KHCPL team has found so far, there should be some gems hidden in these documents.

“Somebody had written home, and he indicated that if he didn’t get a response from family, he was just going to quit writing,” Russell said. “I thought, ‘That kind of sounds like today, too.’ He had already written three times and nobody had answered him.”

The digitization project began back in August and is set to conclude in April, although Patrick says anything that has been uploaded should be available online as soon as January. But both teams are thrilled just to make these artifacts as accessible as possible.

A scanned portrait of William Archer of the 20th Indiana Infantry. (Photo: Ethan Patrick)

“To learn from them, in their own words, what it was like…it was dirty, there was disease, there was the horror of war, there were soldiers griping about their commanders,” Broman said, “it really humanizes what happened in the war. And it’s especially poignant because that’s somebody who came from your town.”

Records from the Howard County Historical Society and Kokomo-Howard County Public Library will be available in the coming months on the Indiana Memory site. Just search “Civil War” to find what other organizations have already digitized and uploaded.

Featured photo: A scan of an envelope for a letter sent to Serena Brannon, a Howard County resident who received many letters from friends and her brothers during the war. (Photo: Ethan Patrick)

Read: Explore Hoosiers' firsthand accounts of the Civil War with WFIU and WTIU News' Civil War Diaries.