Three Months On-A Transcriber Spotlight

June 30th, 2011

Three months into our Scripto-War Department Papers partnership, we have over 200 transcribers. We thought it would be interesting to learn a little more about the volunteers who have devoted many hours to transcribing. We turn now to a short interview with one of our more active transcribers, Patricia Gerard, to learn a little more about her background and experiences with the project:

PWD: Briefly, what is your editing background, if any?
Patricia Gerard (PG): I have edited publications for over thirty years, off and on, from marketing to educational publications and newsletters.

PWD: Why were you interested in helping transcribe?
PG: As a recent graduate student and employee in the Archives of Appalachia, I was fascinated by the necessity for me to “translate” older documents to researchers because of their inability to decipher script. This led to a seminar research paper on the fading literacy of cursive writing. I have a continuing interest in both history and the role of writing in society. Providing access of archival materials to researchers and interested users is a key component of being an archivist.

PWD: What things did you find challenging about either the editing or the tool?
PG: I found that the more one spends time reading the scripts of documents, the more fluency develops in understanding the style of script and formation of letters. I have not made use of all aspects of the tool but find it quite simple to use.

PWD: What surprised you about the documents or the tool?
PG: The greatest surprise I have found was in the literacy of the writers; most of the documents I have transcribed were written by very educated individuals. I found far fewer mistakes than I would find in papers by a class of high school seniors today. All, with the exception of one, were quite simple to transcribe, requiring only a small degree of concentrated thought to ascertain the individual letters or words.

PWD: Has the tool met your expectations with regard to its utility or its ease of use?
PG: The tool is quite simple to use.

PWD: Do you have any suggestions to improve the tool, the site, or instructions?
PG: I seem to find the “editor’s note” function one which I frequently use. If there is a way to bring up this function in the same way the “strike through” and “superscript” keys operate, this would be helpful. The same suggestion applies for “[undecipherable].” I use the “signature” key to sign-off my work when transcribing is complete but I am not sure whether this is the purpose of this application.

From time to time we’ll offer theses spotlights as a way of getting to know the kids of folks who transcribe historical documents for fun.

Until next time, keep transcribing!

A Gill Filled with Taffia

June 20th, 2011

Sound like a secret code?  In a way, it is.  Both the word “gill” and “taffia” are relics from 18th century language that described a unit of measure and a type of alcohol, respectively.  The words  first appeared in War Department correspondence on September 25, 1790 in a letter from James O’Fallon to George Washington.  The letter discussed the South Carolina based Yazoo Company, the Choctaw Nation, and lists various articles for rations given to the troops by contract with the merchant Yazoo.

Research on the two unknown nouns led to the discovery that a gill was a unit of liquid measure for spirits and was approximately 1/4 pint or double the size of a jack (which is double the size of a jigger).  Taffia was a low grade rum dispersed in daily rations for troops.

In a later letter from G. Washington the McHenry, Washington advised that liquor should be removed completely from the list of approved rations due to to its two-fold evil.  First, it intoxicated the troops which caused rowdy and lawless behavior.  Second, when soldiers used it as a trade-able good, the soldier who gained the spirits would become doublely intoxicated and at a loss for the other goods he traded for alcohol.  Thus the quality of the troops was compromised.

Unfortunately, there was little alternative to alcohol for durable provisions.  Unlike water or milk (two other drinks consumed during this period), alcohol rarely spoiled and could be kept in large quantities for a length of time.  Untainted water was difficult to obtain, and was highly dependent on the availability of fresh water rivers, lakes, or ponds.  It was safer to drink alcohol than to risk infection or death from contaminated water.  Therefore, alcohol was kept in the ration allotment along with the small list of other items.

Upon first examination it seems the rations allotted the troops was sadly lacking any vegetables, fruits, or dairy.   Instead, it favored salt pork/beef, corn, flour, and various types of distilled spirits all of which were cheap and were easily stored and transported.   However the list is partially misleading.  Troops were free to purchase other food with their pay or forage for edibles in the woods surrounding their encampment.   Yet that did not mean soldiers diets were complete by any stretch of the imagination.

Have any readers encountered good documentation of the types of illnesses suffered by soldiers due to malnutrition?  Is there any documentation on how it affected troops?  From basic research, fatigue due to lack of fluids seemed to be the biggest nutritional influence on the battlefield that was documented.


Winter Quarters

June 15th, 2011

A challenging annual undertaking  for eighteenth century armies was the establishment of winter quarters for hundreds of officers and troops. With a few notable exceptions, armies did not fight during the winter so they had to find a suitable place to live. As with the British during the War for Independence, the more fortunate armies could find quarters in cities despite the fact that this arrangement caused hardships for the citizens who lived in the cities. During the American Revolution, large portions of New York and Philadelphia were comandeered for the use of the British army so the local homeowners would either have to make room for officers and soldiers or move out and find living space elsewhere. Normally, however, winter quarters would be established in encampments.

In a letter written in October of 1799, Alexander Hamilton, the Inspector General of the so-called Provisional Army, wrote a letter to Nathan Rice, a regimental commander, and described in detail the preparations needed for winter quarters. Rice’s first task was to purchase or rent the land needed for the encampment. The land had to be in an area with a source of water and sufficiently wooded so that lumber would be available for building material and for fuel. It also must be an area with sufficient game as a source of food. Since the officers and soldiers would live in huts rather than tents, Rice was instructed to purchase the number of slabs or boards needed for “the roofs, doors, and windows of huts.” Boards were preferred since they could be sold later at nearly their original cost. Although the cost of slabs was two-thirds that of boards, slabs could be sold later only for fuel. Nails would also have to be procured. Hamilton specified that non-commissioned officers and privates would dispense with flooring “as was done during the late war” but flooring for the officers’ huts would be constructed from “the fragments of wood cut from the premises.” Only officers would be furnished with beds and stools. The number of men in each hut would be allotted according to rank: one hut for every twelve corporals and privates; one for every eight sergeants with two chief musicians; one to each captain and member of the regimental staff; one for every two subalterns; and one for each field officer. Above all else, Hamilton stressed economy. He emphasized that there should be no waste of timber or wood. He closed the letter with the warning, “unless all the savings are made which can consist with propriety, it will be impossible for the government to maintain the forces requisite for security.”

In his reply, Rice announces that he has found suitable land for the encampment near Oxford, Massachusetts and can buy it for $26.60 per acre. Water can be obtained by opening springs and stones are available for erecting chimneys. He believes that each company in the regiment can be contained in two huts, each with the dimensions of 40 by 16 feet with a chimney in the center. Only 26 huts will be required to provide housing for all the non-commissioned officers and privates of the regiment. He adds that glass will be necessary but only for the windows of the officers’ huts. He closes by assuring Hamilton that, “You may rely however on my utmost attention to select [materials] as shall conduce to the greatest economy.”