Today’s post was written by Gina Perry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC
It was 70 degrees early in the morning on April 24, 1862, according to that day’s entry in the logbook of the U.S.S. Hartford, as the ship sailed its way up the mouth of the Mississippi River:
“From 4 to 8. Steaming past forts, engaging Fort Jackson, with port battery and receiving a galling fire from St. Philip to which we did not reply. Received various shots through the hull, spars and rigging. At 4:15, smoke so thick, could not see to steer, grounded on a shoal near fort St. Philip….”
Meanwhile, among the ships nearby was the U.S.S. Brooklyn, which recorded the following in its logbook:
“Commences with light breezes from NE, fine weather…. At 2:30 a.m. we proceeded up the river…. We were struck several times…. We opened fire upon Fort Jackson and also upon Fort St. Philips fighting both batteries at intervals…. and at 4:30 we succeeded in getting out of reach of their guns, and steamed up the river….”
These firsthand accounts of the Battle of New Orleans during the Civil War are just small snippets from two Navy logbooks, which are part of 653 digitized logbooks from 30 Navy vessels that recently became available in the National Archives Catalog (see list below). These logbooks were digitized in the Innovation Hub at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, by a team of five graduate student interns working on a project titled “Seas of Knowledge: Digitization and Retrospective Analysis of the Historical Logbooks of the United States Navy.” This project will continue through 2021 and will focus on digitizing Navy logbooks for the period 1861-1879, after having made 548 volumes of associated muster rolls available in the NARA catalog last year. The project is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Washington, NARA, and the National Archives Foundation, and is supported by a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (the grant program was made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation).
In addition to the five interns, various NARA staff members provide the team effort necessary to carry out the digitization workflow. It starts with a prep team reviewing the condition of each logbook page to determine whether the logbook is ready to be imaged. If issues such as mold, glued attachments obscuring log entries, or torn pages are present, the logbook is flagged and sent to NARA’s conservation lab. There, conservators perform remediation work so that the treated logbooks can be safely imaged. Each day, the Hub staff delivers the ready logbooks to the interns and returns them to a holding area at the end of the day. Once the interns finish imaging, processing and reviewing their work, a team of archives technicians audit a percentage of the images for quality control. Finally, the images are packaged with corresponding PDF documents and a metadata sheet and given one last check before they are delivered for inclusion in the NARA catalog. Anyone with online access can view the digitized logbooks to retrieve historical marine-meteorological data, environmental observations, and records of events that transpired on board. Volunteers on Old Weather, an online citizen-science program, transcribe these handwritten logbook pages. Once the weather, ocean, and sea ice data are transcribed from handwritten to digital formats, scientists use them in climate model assimilation and retrospective analysis (reanalysis) in order to better understand the past climate and thus enhance their understanding of the future global environment.
Digitized Navy Logbooks in the Catalog (current as of March 31, 2020):