Memorial Day challenge to transcribe writings of disabled Union vets

Lauren Algee's picture


I am reaching out as a community manager for By the People, to share an upcoming project likely of interest to this group.  By the People is a Library of Congress crowdsourcing initiative that invites the public to connect with Library collections as virtual volunteers -- transcribing, reviewing, and tagging historical texts to improve search and accessibility of historical materials. In the lead up to Memorial Day (May 20-27) we will challenge volunteers to focus on review of our “Civil War soldiers: disabled but not disheartened” campaign, with the goal of collectively completing 500 pages as a way to commemorate this Memorial Day.  The campaign is comprised of materials from the William Oland Bourne Papers, primarily penmanship competition entries written by disabled Union veterans who lost a dominant limb in the Civil War. 

"There are many men now in hospital, as well as at their homes, who have lost their right arms, or whose right arm is so disabled that they cannot write with it. Penmanship is a necessary requisite to any man who wants a situation under the government, or in almost any business establishment. As an inducement to the class of wounded and disabled soldiers here named to make every effort to fit themselves for lucrative and honorable positions, we offer the following premiums..."

Thus began an announcement in the June 1865 issue of “The Soldier's Friend,” a newspaper edited by poet and reformer William Oland Bourne that focused on the needs and interests of Civil War veterans. The ad invited Union soldiers and sailors who lost use of their dominant arm during the Civil War to submit penmanship samples in competition for a monetary prize. Bourne served as a chaplain at Central Park Hospital during the war, where he was exposed to the often debilitating injuries sustained by soldiers and sailors. Winning entries were displayed in New York and Washington to advocate for the capacity and resilience of disabled veterans.

The handwritten pages include powerful reflections on war and loss, but without digital transcription the digitized images of the original documents are not keyword searchable or accessible for many users with sight or cognitive disabilities.  The writings tell the individual veteran’s stories of service and sacrifice and were used by Bourne to advocate for the injured soldiers' value and experiences in post-war society.  Focusing on review of these pages this Memorial Day offers volunteers the opportunity to honor the sacrifices of veterans by exploring and meditating on these soldiers’ experiences and helping make them accessible for others. This project also creates opportunities for the public to build skills in reading and interpreting primary sources. Resources for hosting a transcription event or using By the People in the classroom are available here.

Please share and feel free to contact us with any questions or ideas.


Lauren Algee


Lauren Algee

By the People Community Manager