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Huntington buys long-missing archive of Civil War telegrams

January 25, 2012 |  4:30 pm

Huntington Library director David Zeidberg with books of Civil War telegrams by Arkasha Stevenson

A lost archive of military telegrams from the Civil War, in which Abraham Lincoln and his generals gave orders, relayed information, celebrated victories and aired grievances, has been added to the collection of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

The 76 volumes -– pictured here on a cart in the Huntington’s Munger Research Center, with library director David Zeidberg sitting nearby –- include dozens of ledgers in which telegraph operators transcribed coded messages, and calfskin-covered booklets that held the key to a military code the Confederates never cracked.

While many Civil War telegrams had previously surfaced, saved by their recipients, not all of them were preserved, and the newly acquired ledgers could fill in some blanks in the historic record.

“This opens up some new windows that we haven’t really been able to look at. It’s a major find,” said James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer prize winning historian of the Civil War.

The archive, including military communications from 1862 to 1867, had been kept by Thomas Eckert, who served as telegraph chief of the Army of the Potomac, then took charge of the telegraph office at the War Department in Washington, D.C. The Huntington announced Wednesday that it had bought the archive on Saturday from a documents dealer in White Plains, N.Y. The Eckert collection’s existence wasn’t known until 2009, when it surfaced in an auction at Bonhams & Butterfields in New York, selling for $36,000.

 Here’s the full story about the telegraphic find.

Another acquisition approved Saturday by the Huntington Library’s collectors council was three photographs of San Francisco shot around 1865 by Carleton Watkins, the pioneering photographer who is widely considered to be California’s first great artist. Two of the pictures were previously unknown. The Huntington owns more than 350 photographs by Watkins.

Also added to the collection were an illuminated 16th century Latin manual setting out prayers and rituals for the diocese of Salisbury, England, and an early 1600s volume on astronomy by Christoph Scheiner, a Jesuit priest. The Huntington says the book, which contains two separate works by Scheiner, extends its holdings related to the debate over Galileo’s contention that the earth circles the sun. In another acquisition related to the Civil War era, the Huntington bought a family archive that includes the papers of Daniel Gott, a congressman from New York state who introduced an 1848 resolution banning slave trafficking in the District of Columbia. It passed the House, but was repealed three weeks later, amid threats of Southern secession.


Huntington to present a show worthy of Lincoln

Carleton Watkins on the frontier of U.S. photography

Huntington to commemorate Civil War anniversary with photography exhibition

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Huntington Library Director David Zeidberg sits near a cart holding volumes of telegraphic messages and code words from the Civil War. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times