Student volunteers are helping the McClung Museum uncover the history of black Civil War troops in Tennessee.
For the past four years, hundreds of UT Chancellor’s Honor students have been transcribing more than 2,100 pages of handwritten Civil War documents.
Their efforts are helping bring to life the history of the 1st US Colored Troops (Heavy Artillery) mustered in Knoxville in 1864. The goal is to make this overlooked African American achievement accessible in a digital archive.
More than 180,000 black men officially served in the Union Army during the Civil war.
The 1st USCT Regiment was organized in January 1864, after the Union secured Knoxville as its East Tennessee base. The names of more than 1,100 free men of color and former slaves appear on the enlistment roster.
“About 75 to 80 percent of the men came from slavery. The rest were free men of color,” says project coordinator Steve Dean, a documentary filmmaker working with the East Tennessee Civil War Alliance.
Everything known about the 1st Regiment is contained in six leather-bound volumes at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. The ledgers provide the soldiers’ names, towns of origin, ages, descriptions, and professions, along with letters describing skirmishes, furloughs, and other incidents.
There are few images connected to the 1st Regiment, but one shows Sgt. Edward Kline, from what is now Loudon County, in his US Colored Troops uniform with his wife on their wedding day.
The project is funded by a Knoxville Community Action grant. The East Tennessee Civil War Alliance photographed the ledger pages and hosts transcribing sessions at UT’s McClung Museum of Natural Science and History. McClung Civil War Curator Joan Markel co-leads the transcribing effort.
Markel says the ability to search and study these records is “a great asset for all historians and genealogists, locally and worldwide.”
Student volunteers decipher the records and type them into digital documents.
“The students have learned to appreciate cursive writing,” says Dean. “To a person, they have struggled with trying to understand what has been written. Then they get a level of understanding of what happened.”
Casey Hall, a College Scholar and architecture major, became so invested in the project she transcribed once a month for four semesters.
“I do enjoy reading the documents, from the general orders to the details of how things worked in the military back then,” says Hall. “I’ve learned a lot about the Civil War that I didn’t know, but more than anything, I value seeing that the people were actually people.”
The transcribing project is expected to conclude in 2018 with the digital archive to follow at a later date.