Library working to digitize trove of Civil War materials

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by Haley Cawthon, courtesy of Daily Herald

"I am in the shade, under a tree, on the side of a mountain, above a rippling brook, overlooking the town, in sight of three thousand troops, writing on the head of a drum. My health is good, so are the boys - we are all in fine spirits."

Civil War Gen. Thomas J. Harrison of Howard County was quite descriptive, and at times, poetic, when writing to his wife. In a letter dated June 17, 1861, Harrison wrote to his wife from Kentucky:  "Were it not for being absent from you and the children I should be very happy - the life is an active and exciting one and you know with what energy I prosecute anything of that kind."

Among those 3,000 troops was Kokomo resident John N. Underwood, who served under Harrison's command in the 39th Indiana Infantry, 8th Indiana Cavalry. Underwood - who later became the treasurer of Howard County before his untimely death - had a very different view of the war as detailed in his original 90-page diary.

The 18-month account was miraculously found on Ebay by Randy Smith, assistant curator at the Howard County (IN) Historical Society.  "Underwood's diary gives a really good account of camp life," Smith said, noting how sick Underwood was during his time in the service and how much he hated the infantry officers. "If he died he wanted the diary to be given to his wife."

The pocket-sized book is much too frail to be handled by all of the history buffs in Howard County, but now, for the first time, residents will have access to these rare letters and other Civil War documents online, thanks to an $11,000 grant to the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library.

Amy Russell, head of KHCPL's Genealogy & Local History Department, knew about the grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Indiana State Library, and decided to ask the historical society if they had any documents that would fit the bill.

Little did she know, the society had more than 2,300 Civil War documents, artifacts and photographs.  "When I saw how many documents they had, it was pretty much a no-brainer. I knew what all we could do with the grant, so I applied for it," Russell said.

KHCPL was awarded the grant in August and hired Ethan Patrick, a former Howard County Historical Society intern, to copy and scan the thousands of documents and make them searchable online.  "Not only is this great news for genealogists trying to find their ancestors who served during the Civil War, but it also allows people to learn more about our history," Russell said.

"Howard County is known for its patriotism and has a strong history of supporting the military. Records show that in the 16-to-35 age range, Howard County led the state in percentage of Civil War recruits."

The Howard County Historical Society could not be more thrilled with the new partnership.  "All of the stuff we have hiding in here is going to see the light of day," Smith said.

Patrick has already scanned all of the documents using a variety of equipment, like an Atiz for large books and ledgers and a Flip-Pal for enormous photographs and documents that have to be sized down and stitched back together. Currently, he is working to add metadata to the documents - in other words, making them searchable online by simply typing in a name or keyword.

Other items to be digitized include:

- A record book of minutes from the Headquarters of the Thomas J. Harrison Post No. 30 Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), dated 24 March 1905 through October 1912, and Nov. 8, 1912, through Jan. 1, 1916

- G.A.R. Hugh H. Willits Post No. 424 ledger, financial report 1899-1928 (Greentown, Indiana)

- Civil War chest and contents used by Capt. William H. Sumption, Company E, 11th Indiana Volunteer Cavalry

- Miscellaneous muster in, muster out, appointments, discharge, pension certificates, and inventory of effects of deceased soldiers

- And letters to Serena Brannen from several soldiers.

All of those documents and artifacts will be added to the dozens of obituaries for Civil War soldiers available on the Howard County Memory Project website, complied by Kent A. Smith in a book entitled "LAST TAPS: Civil War Soldier Obituaries Published in Howard County, Indiana, Area Newspapers."

Russell said the project will be finished by April 2019. Once all the work has been completed, the digitized records will be found on KHCPL's Howard County Memory Project website,, and the Indiana State Library's Indiana Memory website,