History Online: N.H. to Digitize Thousands of Records, Photos
Concord — Civil War nurse Sarah Low met Abraham Lincoln on April 20, 1864, writing in her diary that the president shook hands with everyone at a crowded White House reception. One year later, the Dover woman would see Lincoln again, this time as he lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
“The flowers on the coffin that had been beautiful the day before were faded and it seemed forlorn that they had not been replaced by fresh ones,” she wrote on April 20, 1865. “Lincoln’s face looked very thin and shrunken, the face was dark and it seemed to me that he looked like a murdered man.”
Her writings, which challenge norms and vividly describe the carnage of the war between the states, are among 2 million pages of documents and 250,000 photos the New Hampshire Historical Society is working to digitize, transcribe and post on a website that will take the state’s rich history to the Internet. The New Hampshire History Network is part of a $10 million endeavor that also includes upgrades to the society’s century-old Beaux-Arts building. So far, $5.5 million has been raised.
“The project is to make as much of the collection available digitally as possible,” said Bill Dunlap, the society’s executive director. “So some kid in the boondocks, sitting in his own house, can get access in a way he never could before.”
The collection sparkles with some of the brightest names in American history, all linked to New Hampshire. George Washington informs Gen. John Stark, a New Hampshire native and Revolutionary War hero at Bennington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga, that he can’t fill Stark’s request for funds.
“There is not a single farthing in the Military Chest,” Washington laments in the letter dated Jan. 3, 1781. “P.S. I have not been able to obtain any money for my own expenses, or table for more than three months.”
Stark gets good news from John Hancock, who advises him in an Oct. 5, 1777, missive that he’s being promoted to brigadier. The letter is signed in Hancock’s distinctive hand.
David Morrissette, social studies department chairman at Berlin High School, said the project will benefit students and teachers.
“There’s such an emphasis on primary source analysis in history with artifacts and documents and it’s difficult in some of the more rural areas — Berlin and even farther north — to get your hands on them,” Morrissette said. “The big publishers do provide collections, but there’s a cost.”
The digitizing and transcription is meticulous work that involves society staff reading and rereading the originals, then consulting with one another to make sure they’ve got it right. Katelynn Vance, the society’s digital project manager, said one of the project’s goals is to better protect the originals.
“You can’t just let them out for the public to handle because it would destroy them eventually,” Vance said.
Ultimately, Dunlap said, the society hopes to include artifacts from the state’s 206 local historical societies. The project is modeled after the 12-year-old Maine Memory Network.
The sweep of voices in the collections includes the famous and the obscure, all with different perspectives on touchstone moments in American history.
Just before hostilities between the states begin, Jefferson Davis pens a mournful note to former President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, under whom Davis served as secretary of war. Davis, who in January 1861 was a senator from Mississippi, tells Pierce his state will secede.
“Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend,” Davis writes.
Malia Ebel, the society’s reference librarian and archivist, said she especially admired letters from Low, who described the terrible suffering she saw as a nurse.
“Nearly opposite my table he’s a man, who will die to night,” Low wrote to her mother on Oct. 21, 1863. “He was brought in two or three weeks ago wounded through the lungs.
“The man opposite I pity more than any man I have ever seen.”