Like all archives, Special Collections at Virginia Tech holds a rich store of fascinating stories. One of these is the “John Henning Woods Papers,” a collection of six diaries and memoirs by a Confederate conscript who created an underground Unionist society in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War. A Southerner by birth and education who was opposed to slavery and secession, Woods was conscripted into the 36th Alabama Infantry Regiment of the army in 1862. While in the army, he was caught, tried, and charged for an attempt to organize a mutiny. His resulting execution was delayed until Jefferson Davis finally pardoned him and he was assigned to build trenches around Atlanta. Woods finally escaped and made it to the Union lines in late August of 1864, enlisting as a clerk in the 93rd New York Infantry in September of 1864. His story is fascinating and can be found in full here; however, it is not the main focus of this blog post. Outside of providing new insights into the Civil War and the experience of Unionists of the Confederate South, Woods’ collections of memoirs and diaries also provide a first-hand look into the behind-the-scenes processing practices and obstacles that arise in making archival collections accessible to researchers.
You’ve likely seen, and perhaps even used, a digital collection of archival material. Such collections can be quite expansive, containing a transcript, a scan of the archival material itself, and maybe even some contextual information, such as footnotes or suggested readings. Ultimately, the goal of making and publicizing digital collections is increased accessibility so that you can view it while in your pajamas from your living room at two in the morning. This was the goal for the John Henning Woods Papers; their unique value as a source written by a Unionist Southerner who hated slavery made it a prime collection for digitization. Thankfully, the process of scanning was done by the digitization department, decreasing the amount of work I personally had to do. However, like with all digitization projects, there were a number of issues that arose throughout this process. Woods’ papers became the prime example of the difficulty of this process, raising the usual, but also some new and unusual, obstacles to digitization.
The usual first step in digitizing a collection is to create a transcription so that
researchers don’t have to attempt to read old handwriting. Even the neatest handwriting still contains issues such as slanting lines, uncrossed t’s or undotted i’s, crossed out words, or words that are crammed into spaces that are too small… the potential reasons for illegibility are endless. Some of the more unique letters, particularly from the Civil War era when paper was expensive and even scarce, contain examples of cross-hatching as seen here, where sentences were written on top of and perpendicular to more text. While daunting at first, reading cross-hatched lettering is simply a matter of focusing your eyes and
perhaps tilting your head. Some sections of John Henning Woods’ journals put such relatively decipherable space-saving methods to shame, however. Unlike cross-hatching where the 90 degree turn of the paper allows for distinction between the sentences, Woods simply wrote over top of his own writing, which you see to the left. To make it worse, the two transcriptions are almost identical with a few key differences that make transcription necessary yet almost impossible. Ultimately, transcription had to be done with a magnifying lamp that exaggerated the slight difference between the two inks Woods used. You can see this digitized page and (eventually) the corresponding transcriptions here.
Outside of writing over top of himself, two of Woods’ handwritten journals also had another quirk: in some places, he switched over to another alphabet altogether.
These instances of strange lettering were written in Pitman Shorthand, an antiquated version of shorthand that used shapes to denote sounds with which to spell words phonetically. While resources do still exist that provide basic information on how to write and read Pitman, the writing system’s rules contain a wide range of exceptions and shortcuts that are far more difficult to learn. Woods’ shorthand contains its own quirks, as well, as he used his own shortened symbols to represent common words, making it impossible to translate some sections with certainty.
Despite the difficulty, these sections are particularly important to translate because of what they contain. Success in translating the majority of Pitman within the journals has shown that Woods used the writing system largely to write about sensitive subjects. In his daily journal from 1861, Woods used Pitman to write about his success in stopping a duel, an act that would have frowned upon in the honor-based culture of the Old South. Another section of shorthand in his journal describes his former love for the local preacher’s daughter that faded after she fell from grace. While certainly unique, these notes that Woods attempted to hide are invaluable because they provide clear insight into Woods’ character, as well as his view of the world around him.
Following the process of transcription, the collection and its accompanying transcriptions and translations had to be put online, which is our current project. Along with scanning individual diary pages and providing accompanying transcriptions, accessibility requires footnotes to contextualize the people, events, or terms used in the journals. These footnotes and matching transcriptions then needed to be translated into HTML code to be used by Omeka, our online exhibit software. While this was a fairly easy process, my determination to keep Woods’ formatting made some of the pages difficult, an example of which can be seen above, where the HTML code can be seen in the top left, resulting text in the bottom left, and corresponding page scan to the right.
Regardless of all the difficulties of this process, however, I will miss working on this collection once it is successfully turned into an online exhibit. While I have plenty that I could work on once I say goodbye to John Henning Woods, I feel at this point that I know him. After all, I have spent a year reading his writing, deciphering his handwriting, and translating his deepest secrets out of shorthand. It’s hard to forget that I was most likely the first person to read those sections since he wrote them 150 years ago. As a part of researching this collection, I’ve also found the location of his grave and researched to see whether he has any living relatives; unfortunately, the closest I could find was a grandniece who recently passed in 2017. Because of my familiarity with this collection, I know his deepest wish was to be known for the sacrifices he made for his country. It may be a little late, but I do hope that this post and the online exhibit we create can make a little headway towards that goal. I know I at least will be visiting his grave even if just to say thank you.
Once the online exhibit has been completed, it will be available here. Until then, come to Special Collections to see the John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030.
By Katie Brown