Hands-on experience with Civil War history

The University of Iowa is seeking public help with transcribing Civil War history

Jesse Skinner Wilkerson Civil War letters (Courtesy University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives)
Jesse Skinner Wilkerson Civil War letters (Courtesy University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives)

Letter after letter, week after week, Sarahett Wilkerson pleaded with her husband.

"I wish you could come home," she wrote to Jesse Wilkerson, who was drafted in November 1864 to serve with the 13th Iowa Infantry in the Civil War.

After five months alone on the coupleís farm in Hamburg and three months caring for a new baby, Sarahett Wilkerson on April 2, 1865, penned another desperate behest of her husband.

"The baby is three months old day before yesturday," she wrote, her spelling off on some words. "I want you to send her a name."

In the letter, among 29 that Wilkersonís descendants recently donated to the University of Iowa Libraries cataloging Jesse Skinner Wilkersonís Civil War experience, his wife updates the 33-year-old soldier on their children and how much they miss him.

"The children wants to see their paw," Sarahett Wilkerson wrote. "Hatty says her paw is in the army a shooting rebels. She can talk every thing now. Mary she looks for you on evry steamboat."

The University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives has been growing its anthology of Iowa-related Civil War writings for years, adding new documents ó like the Wilkerson letters ó through donations and auction purchases.

The libraries in 2009 began digitizing its Civil War material and making the documents available online, and the UI earlier this year pushed to complete that project in time for the Civil Warís 150th anniversary.

Greg Prickman, head of the UIís Special Collections and University Archives, said the staff met its April deadline for that project and immediately launched another Civil War-related effort hinging on public participation. Itís called crowdsourcing transcription, and asks community volunteers to go online and transcribe all the documents in the UIís 73 Civil War-era collections.

The scanned letters, diaries and other historical papers appear in their original form on the transcription website, and volunteers must decipher the content ó wading through bad spelling, lazy grammar and poor handwriting ó and then copy it in text boxes.

"Anyone can transcribe for us," Prickman said.

And plenty of people have.

To date, more than 9,130 pages of Iowa-related Civil War writings have been transcribed online, including most of the Civil War diaries. Many of the UIís Civil War letters have yet to be transcribed, but Prickman said more history philanthropists are chipping in all the time.

He believes the UI Libraries eventually will have all its Civil War stories available in easy-to-read form on the website.

It will if Dave Hesketh has anything to do with it.

"I think that the University of Iowaís efforts in putting the original documents online, and later the transcribed version, are to be highly commended," said Hesketh, who has been transcribing Iowaís Civil War documents since October. "The transcriptions will be a great source of information to future historians."

Hesketh wrote in an email that he stumbled upon the UI Civil War transcription opportunity after reading about crowdsourcing at his home in northwest England. The 69-year-old retiree has never been to Iowa but, after transcribing 205 of the UIís Civil War documents, said he feels connected to the stateís history and people.

"These people come alive; you come to share their hopes, their fears, their everyday concerns," he wrote in an email. "You do become absorbed in the people, and losing one of them is like losing a relative or a friend."

Hesketh said he encourages others to jump online and give their transcribing skills a go.

"You can do it when you want as long as you want, and you are, literally, making history," he said.

Even if transcription opportunities dwindle as more people log on, the UI continually is adding to its collection through donations and purchases. The UI is digitizing the Wilkerson letters and other diaries purchased at a recent auction.

Pamela Lee, 60, of Pullman, Wash., is the great-great-great granddaughter of Jesse Wilkerson and said her family gave the documents to the UI as a way of preserving the material and making it relevant.

"For me, this was my Christmas list of everything that I thought should be done with the letters," Lee said. "Itís the perfect place."

The Wilkerson family discovered the letters when Leeís grandmother died in 1996. Lee said itís a thrill to know that future Wilkerson generations will be able to research their familyís involvement in the Civil War through the UIís online cataloging and transcription efforts.

"We are so happy that the letters are back in Iowa," she said. "Itís exactly where they should be."

Your link to Voices of the Civil War

To participate in the Civil War Diaries & Letters Digital Collection†project click here.   

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.