The Many Vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Co.

This semester the Naval History and Heritage Command made a site visit to USNA. In conjunction with that visit, I gave a talk at the USNA Museum about one of my favorite characters in my research on the First Barbary War: Henry Wadsworth. This post is a lightly edited version of that talk. I intend to return to Wadsworth and his family once the main book is finished, perhaps fleshing this piece out into a more scholarly article or more likely, a more creative storytelling project.

If you look just down the way from Preble Hall, in between Sampson Hall and the Officers’ Club, you’ll see a big monument. Around here we call that monument the Tripoli Monument, and it commemorates the noble dead of the First Barbary War. By no means does it have the names of all those who died during the war—in fact we’re going to talk about a few whose names are conspicuously absent. It only records the names of those who died in battle or in the service of their duties. The memorials tell us only one thing about the men whose names are there—that they died. I want to tell you about the life of one of those men. His name was Henry Wadsworth, and when he died, he might have been a midshipman—or he might have been a lieutenant—and I’m happy to talk later about how it’s possible that we don’t know.

Henry Wadsworth came from an illustrious family in Maine. His father Peleg was a general during the American Revolution, and he was a Congressman from the state of Massachusetts starting in 1793.[1] If the name Henry Wadsworth sounds familiar, it might be because his nephew—and namesake—was the famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And our Henry shared a bit of his nephew’s literary flair. Henry Wadsworth joined the navy in 1799, and he spent some time in the Caribbean serving under Captain James Sever. He was 17 years old when he was assigned to the USS Chesapeake, under Commodore Richard Valentine Morris, in 1802. The Chesapeake’s destination was the Mediterranean, and its mission was to fight against Tripoli.

This is where I want to pick up Wadsworth’s story. He began writing a journal/letterbook when he reached Gibraltar on June 15, 1802. I want to shout out Kate Hanson Plass, the archivist at the Longfellow House National Historic Site, who digitized the entire journal and letterbook just for me (from which almost all of the information in this talk is taken).

From 1802 to 1804, Wadsworth wrote letters back to his family with a tremendous amount of detail about his surroundings and his feelings about those surroundings. He also made several sketches and watercolor paintings in the journal. He recorded the battles and conflicts, as you might expect, but he didn’t keep close accounting of the ship’s location or the wind speeds or the depth of the ocean, as you would expect from the official journal of a midshipman. This journal and series of letters that he wrote back to his family were meant to connect him to the things he knew and held dear. They were, for him, lifelines to home. In their pages, we find a picture of an interconnected and sophisticated space in the Mediterranean, told through the eyes of an immature kid who doesn’t always see the complexities of his situation.

Today I want to talk to you about the many vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Company. There were many high points of his career in the navy. He was one of the few officers who served without interruption under two different commodores, and the ones he served under happen to be the polar opposite of each other. He enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean under both commodores, and his enchantment with certain aspects of his life comes through loud and clear. But there were also low points in his time in the Mediterranean—though he doesn’t always see them as low points. So I want to tell you about some of these highs and lows, and think about what we can learn both about the First Barbary War and the way Americans saw themselves in the world.

Let’s start with the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community. I’ll not go into detail about exactly what the community of an American squadron in the Mediterranean looks like. Wadsworth shipped out on the USS Chesapeake, the flagship of the second squadron bound for the Mediterranean. Though US naval ships had a tightly circumscribed and hierarchical community, the captain, Richard Valentine Morris, disrupted the community from the beginning. He brought his wife and his two-year-old son Gerard on board. Mrs. Morris was a subject of fascination for Wadsworth—he wrote about her several times, and he described her in glowing terms: “All the virtues which constitute the chief loveliness of your sex” (he’s writing to his sister) “are in her conspicuous”—her love of learning, her interest in domestic affairs. And yet he can’t help himself: “her person is not beautiful, or even handsome, but she looks very well in a veil.”

But the Commodoress, as Wadsworth called her, wasn’t the only woman on board, and here we come to one of the highlights of Wadsworth’s community: the birth of a child. On February 22, 1803, he wrote that “Mrs. Low (wife to James Low Captain of the Forecastle) bore a Son in the boatswain’s store room: on the 31st inst. The babe was baptiz’d in the Midshipmen’s apartment”—that’s where Wadsworth himself would have bunked. “The Contriver of this business was Melanchthon Taylor Woolsey a Mid: who stood Godfather on the occasion & provided a handsome collation of Wine & Fruit…the child’s name Melanchthon Woolsey Low; All was conducted with due decorum and decency, no doubt to the great satisfaction of the parents, as Mr. Woolsey’s attention to them must in some measure have ameliorated the unhappy situation of the Lady, who was so unfortunate as to conceive and bare, on the Salt Sea.”

The museum collections include a portrait of Melanchthon Brooks Woolsey, the son of our Melanchthon Woolsey. This Melanchthon Woolsey was also a naval officer, following in the footsteps of his father. Our Melanchthon was a midshipman on the Chesapeake who, I’m guessing, unexpectedly found himself throwing a christening party on board. While having women on board ship—and even giving birth on ship—wasn’t totally unheard of, this ship is the only one I know of in any of the squadrons where there were multiple women of all classes on board. Morris had to get special permission from the Secretary of the Navy to bring his wife on board, but we don’t know whether that was true for the carpenter, the boatswain, the corporal, and of course James Low, the captain of the forecastle, who also brought their wives on board.

The ship wasn’t the only community that Wadsworth was a part of. The Chesapeake was the flagship of a six-ship squadron, and Wadsworth kept tabs on the lows of the community as well as the highs. In the month of October 1802, he recorded five deaths in the squadron. Four were from accident—a boat from the USS Enterprize overturned and the four men in it were drowned near Livorno. The other death was from a duel: a lieutenant on board the Constellation killed the captain of the Constellation’s marines, Captain McKnight. Wadsworth has little to say about this death, but the captain of the Constellation, Alexander Murray, was more voluble about the hazards of dueling. “The unhappy catastrophy, of Capt McKnight, who was a very deserving Officer, tho rather irritable, induces me to wish that an article might be incerted in the regulations for the Navy, rendering every Officer liable to heavy penalties, & even to loss of his Commission, for giving or receiving a Challange, & also the seconds, for aiding & abetting in such unwarrantable acts, especially upon Foreign Service, I woud even extend it further, & make every Officer Amenable to such penalties, if they did not make their Commander acquainted with events of that serious nature, for had I have had the least hint of the meeting, I coud have prevented it, & saved a worthy Member to his family, & Country.”[2] Murray didn’t get his wish—duelling remained in the navy for half a century. Historian Charles Oscar Paullin puts the last duel of the navy in 1849; between 1799 and 1848, he says, “the mortality of naval officers resulting from duels was two-thirds that resulting from naval wars.”[3] And this duel in October 1802 was one of three that Wadsworth had a personal connection to.

I could go on for a while about the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community—including Wadsworth’s unflattering descriptions of his fellow midshipmen, his closest associates but certainly not his friends. But for Wadsworth, this tour in the Mediterranean was about more than just his closest community. He wanted to see the sights, to feel like a part of something bigger, both temporal and geographical. Every time he had the chance, he went out to tour the country wherever his ship was docked. He quoted extensively from guidebooks he read, and he invoked ancient stories of the history of the places he went.

Wadsworth was a very educated young man, and he seems to have wished to bring his education to bear on his naval career. For instance, when the Chesapeake passed within view of Carthage, he lamented that he could not take a boat to shore and explore the ruins. He noted that some of the crew from the USS Enterprize had done just that, but they had almost been captured and held to ransom, so it was deemed unsafe for any other Americans. Perhaps it was the crew of the Enterprize or a similar excursion who brought back the jar helpfully labeled “Ruins of Carthage” that resides in the museum’s collections. I’m sure Wadsworth was jealous that he wasn’t the one to acquire those ruins.

The young midshipman did not miss his chance to take other souvenirs, however. On many occasions, he visited religious sites with his friend Lt. Crane. In Pisa and in Palermo, he decided to take souvenirs of his visit. In Pisa, he describes how he took “the hand and arm as high as the elbow of some old man,” while Lt. Crane took “a thumb” and a third man “two fingers more.” It’s not clear to me whether these were actual body parts or pieces of statuary. But in Palermo it was definitely body parts. The two young men visited the catacombs of a Capuchin monastery where the burial practices were unique, to say the least. In this monastery, which you can still see today, bodies weren’t buried—they were suspended from hooks unwrapped or embalmed in any way, and then the bodies essentially mummified. Many of them didn’t totally mummify, so the bodies rotted on the hooks. Each body was accompanied by a card with the deceased’s name.

Wadsworth and Crane decided they wanted to have pieces of these bodies. Wadsworth “endeavor’d to break off the fingers of Countess Daina, but her Ladyship was too damn’d tough.” Lt. Crane was more successful; he “bore off a toe of Michael Angelo, who died in 1693.” Wadsworth did get his souvenir eventually: he took a paper from the hand of a dead friar, “tearing apart his hand, which I hope may be no detriment to his entering the Gate.”

It is doubtful that Wadsworth and Crane took the least bit of thought about whether what they were doing was legal. Certainly it wasn’t thoughtful, and I can imagine that the locals weren’t that happy about Americans coming in and defacing their dead loved ones. But it wasn’t strictly illegal. Anglo-American law, insofar as it spoke to the idea of body-part thievery at all, maintained that there is no property in a body, and thus stealing body parts was of no consequence. (The development of body-part-theft law is how we arrive at recent roadblocks over the repatriation of Native remains, by the way.)[4]

But I’m talking to you about contrasts, and I wouldn’t want you to think that Wadsworth only took things and left nothing behind. He visited Rome in May 1803, where he visited a place he called St. Paul’s Cathedral (which my NHHC colleague Travis Moger notes is not likely its actual name).  Near the cathedral, Wadsworth discovered a statue of the saint, which he said was covered in names. He “penciled [his] own on a book held open in his right arm” and left.

Only once does Wadsworth think twice about defacing the things he sees. In the same visit to Pisa where he took the arm of the old man, he saw that the walls of the cathedral were covered in graffiti. He even recognized some of the names: Gustavus Adolphus, Hyde Parker. He pulled out his pencil to inscribe his own name on the wall when he noticed that next to one name someone had written “he’s a damn’d rascal.” In between two other names, someone had drawn a line and written “two fools.” He decided that, “for fear someone would pay me a compliment likewise, I threw aside the foolish ambition of writing my name among Kings and Admirals, quietly pocketing my pencil.”

These examples serve to demonstrate Wadsworth’s immaturity, but they also show us how much he wanted to set his own experience into larger contexts. He wanted to matter, and he wanted the United States to matter. This is, in part, why he judged his shipmates so harshly—he didn’t think they reflected adequate glory on the United States Navy. He also took affront when the British didn’t observe any niceties surrounding George Washington’s birthday. Wadsworth saw the new United States as worthy of notice.

But he didn’t always have the maturity to understand the politics of his circumstances. He tended to make snap judgments about events that didn’t account for the complexities of the Mediterranean community, and he was also too naïve to see when his personal beliefs didn’t align with the needs or motives of the larger mission. Wadsworth was uniquely situated to perceive how the war got fought—under Morris, he spent time in Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers while Morris tried to keep the peace with those three states. Under the next commodore, Edward Preble, he spent most of his time off Tripoli bombarding the port.

In these two commodores, Wadsworth got to see the greatest contrast: Morris, who tried to take a more politically savvy approach to fighting the war, which wasn’t politically acceptable back in Washington, and Preble, whose grasp of politics and diplomacy was thin at best and downright counterproductive at worst. Of the two, Wadsworth got on better with Morris, with whom he seems to have had a close personal relationship. He wrote that Morris furthered his career by protecting him from political intrigue. When the Secretary of the Navy floated the possibility that Wadsworth might go to another ship, the commodore told him “you had better stay with me: for as your Father is a Noted Federal Character, & as Political Principles have some influence, perhaps you might be with a commander of opposite sentiments & who would not do you Justice—so that you might hang astern even after you deserv’d promotion.” And so Wadsworth stayed with Morris even after the commodore transferred ships from the Chesapeake to the New York. This was a highlight for Wadsworth.

The low point of Wadsworth’s political understanding—and the point that most clearly demonstrates his naïveté—came just a few months later, in September 1803, when Richard Somers, commander of the Nautilus, found the New York in Malaga. He brought with him news that Richard Valentine Morris had been recalled to the United States in disgrace. He would face a court-martial for his inattentiveness to the duty of his orders—fighting against Tripoli.

Given the huge number of days Wadsworth had spent touring Italy and other places in the Mediterranean, he must have realized that the commodore had not applied himself to the defeat of Tripoli as aggressively as he might have. And yet Wadsworth alleged that this recall had political motives: “We learned! Strange to tell! That the Commodore is order’d home; still more strange!! That he is unpopular with the People & with the Government.” He was incensed that the Secretary of the Navy had sent orders to Captain John Rodgers as though he were the commodore, ordering him to take charge of the squadron until the relief squadron arrived. Wadsworth blamed Morris’s fall from grace on the officers who had served under him, whom he described as “discontented.” He wrote in fury, “Were I commodore & used thus, I’d raise such a dust about the Navy Office that one could not see the Capitol from the President’s House.”

Wadsworth was probably the only one who thought Morris’s recall was unwarranted jealousy or malcontent. The Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State had received many letters from captains and consuls about the difficulty of working with Morris. Morris himself had not kept the Secretary of the Navy updated on his whereabouts and his motivations. This fact told against him at his court martial. But Wadsworth didn’t see it.

This wasn’t the first time that Wadsworth’s unquestioning loyalty to a commanding officer had put him in the distinct minority when the officer had been censured. His first billet had been with Captain James Sever, who was removed from the Navy under the Peace Establishment Act after he became increasingly irascible and erratic. Wadsworth saw the erratic behavior and yet, he wrote in defense of Morris, “This was the way Capt Sever was treated i.e. sacrificed to the murmurings of inferior Officers & the multitude,” though he did concede “I believe the fault in some degree lay at his door.” Nonetheless, Wadsworth wrote, Sever “is my favorite and has my esteem.” Perhaps with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, Wadsworth would have been able to see that the fault lay in some degree at Morris’s door too. However he felt about Morris’s recall, Wadsworth seamlessly integrated into the crew of Edward Preble’s Constitution when the new squadron arrived.

The final vicissitude I want to tell you about is the contrast between the highs and lows of Henry Wadsworth’s connection to his home. More than most, Wadsworth had a wide and devoted cadre of letter writers who sent him letters frequently. His father, his siblings, even his more extended family wrote him often—though not often enough for his taste. In return, the journal and letters he wrote were obviously intended for dissemination amongst the family. He wrote of things that he thought specific members of the family would be interested in; his casual references to literature and art imply that the recipient of the letters would be familiar with the works he referenced. One of the low points of his journal is his notation about the death of his sister Eliza, who was frequently the person he had addressed his letters to.

Wadsworth also had a network of friends—and lady friends—that he referred to often. Though he obviously enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean, his thoughts were never far from home. But he didn’t want to come home in disgrace, as his commander had done. He wanted to return having done something noble and courageous. On January 10, 1804, he wrote angrily of the celebrations in Tripoli after the capture of the USS Philadelphia, “for these three days of pleasure, we have in reserve for you three months, weeping and wailing at the end of which thou shalt mourn thy paltry city a heap of ruins & thank the clemency of Christians, who have left one stone upon another in thy detested nest.” This is the kind of hyperbole Wadsworth was fond of, but he then adds a personal touch, linking his desire for honor and his desire for home: “God preserve my life till this is accomplished, until with exulting heart I tread the land of liberty among my friends.”

To be honest, he kinda ruins the moment by continuing, “Untill I press to my throbbing bosom, the lovely, the enchanting Miss”…and then he seems not to be able to remember her name, because all he adds in pencil is “the most adorable & divine creature to be seen, Heavenly Angel.” Apparently he had a lot of ladies to choose from back home.

The letterbook ends on July 16, 1804. By this time, Wadsworth had been seconded to the USS Scourge, a prize that had been brought into the squadron. He had seemingly received a promotion to first lieutenant at the time. During the month of August, Preble bombarded the port of Tripoli nearly every day, and on many days, sent out gunboats to fight against the Tripolitan gunboats. Wadsworth commanded one of these gunboats. It was likely during these gunboat battles that MIDN Frederick Cornelius DeKrafft acquired the sword that now resides in the USNA Museum collections, though he doesn’t mention in at all in his own journal.

But the bombardment wasn’t working quickly enough for Preble. After weeks of bombarding and fruitless gunboat battles, he decided to try a more aggressive strategy—sending a fireship into the port of Tripoli. On September 2, 1804, Nathaniel Haraden, the master of the Constitution, wrote, “Lieutenant Wadsworth and Mr. Israel midshipman, six seamen from the Constitution & four from the Nautilus went on board the Intrepid which is now completed as an Infernal.” It was commanded by Richard Somers, and its goal was to destroy the 16 Tripolitan boats that lay next to the battery, as well as the battery itself. Wadsworth volunteered for this mission. So did Midshipman Joseph Israel, whom Wadsworth had served with before (and had written a very unflattering vignette of).

Purser John Darby of the USS John Adams described the Intrepid’s mission on September 3: “at 8 the Ketch Intrepid got under way and was sent into Tripoli as a fire ship. Commanded by Capt. Summers, – he had. Our Green Cutter to make their escape from her. At 3/4 past 9 she blew up in which unfortunately perished Capt. Summers. Mr Wadsworth. Mr Israel, Midshipmen, & 10 Men it is supposed that she took fire in the Magazine sooner than was intended or that they were attempted to be boarded by the Tripolitans and blew her up sooner than suffer her & themselves to fall into the hands of the Tripoleens. … – the loss of those brave Officers and men are much to be regreted by their country & friends Capt Summers was as brave & enterpriseing an Officer as ever steped the Deck of a ship possesing every Virtue that the human hart is susceptable of. Mr Wadsworth & Mr Israel. I am told were very promising young men (midshipmen) who was held high in the opinion of the commodore & bid fare to be an honor to their country in the line of their profession.”[5]

Thus ended the life of a young officer who, more than anything, wanted to be remembered. He wrote public letters to his family. He wrote his name on monuments and took souvenirs. But he also attached himself to men who proved unable to shore up their own legacy, much less his. And despite his fondest wish to come home having done something glorious, he was one of the very few officers over the course of the entire war who didn’t make it home.

And yet, we do remember him. Three years after his death, his sister gave birth to a boy whom she named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his memory. And today, out behind Preble Hall, stands a memorial that’s far more permanent than a pencil scrawl on a Roman monument, with the name Wadsworth on every side. So maybe in the end, he got what he wanted.

[1] A total of ten kids in the Wadsworth family, including Alexander Scammell Wadsworth, who also was a naval officer and married John Rodgers’s wife’s sister in 1824.

[2] U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, 6 vols. (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939), 2:311.

[3] Charles Oscar Paullin, Dueling in the Old Navy (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1909).

[4] Susan C. Lawrence, “Beyond the Grave –The Use and Meaning of Human Body Parts: A Historical Introduction,” in Stored Tissue Samples: Ethical, Legal, and Public Policy Implications (University of Iowa Press, 1998), .

[5] BW4:506.

Where Do Circulars Go?

The circular is a staple of State Department communications in the nineteenth century–a document written with the intention of its being circulated to many different people in a region. (Spare a thought for the poor clerk who had to write out each copy of the circular!) Since multiple copies of circulars were created, they often show up in multiple people’s papers or official correspondence with the State Department. It can sometimes be fun to see whether the clerk got a little sloppy with their copying by comparing multiple versions of the same document.

Circulars allowed consuls and other officials to communicate pressing information such as declarations of war; changes in treaty status; new alliances or agreements; and many other things.

Circular from William Eaton, July 23, 1801.National Archives and Records Administration. Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Tripoli, Libya, 1796-1885.

For instance, in this circular, William Eaton, consul at Tunis, announces the blockade of the port of Tripoli to his Mediterranean comrades. Notice the range of locations this one document encompasses: it’s about affairs in Tripoli, written by the consul at Tunis, on the stationery of the consulate at Leghorn (Livorno). This copy of the document is located in the National Archives, in a collection of consular dispatches from Tripoli, so we can logically conclude that this copy is actually the one belonging to James Leander Cathcart, the erstwhile consul at Tripoli. We can also guess this based on the fact that he or his clerk wrote the dispatch number at the top of this document. (Notice the two different handwritings between the document on the left and the one on the right–I happen to know that the one on the left is Cathcart.)

We may even be able to go so far as to say that the Leghorn stationery indicates that Cathcart superintended the writing of this circular. He fled to Leghorn after being evicted from Tripoli, and it’s very possible that Eaton visited him there and they cooked up this circular together. (A copy of this document, not on the consular stationery, also appears in Cathcart’s letterbook which is held in the Library of Congress, bolstering the case for coordination.)

We can make some guesses about where circulars go based on where they end up in the archives. But those records are spotty at best. Consuls might not have even kept circulars they received, and if they did, they may not have sent them back to the State Department, presuming that the original author would send a copy there.

We can’t assume that a consul always sends circulars to the same places, of course. It could be that a circular only pertains to part of that consul’s knowledge network, so he doesn’t send it where he knows it’s irrelevant. But by and large, I suspect that if a consul took the trouble to draft a circular, he sent to as many people as he could think of. I’ve always wished we could know more about those networks.

And that’s why I was so delighted to run across a source that can help us with this question, at least for one particular consul: James Simpson. He was the consul in Tangier before and during the First Barbary War. Of the four Barbary consuls, he wrote the fewest circulars–but he did historians of the future a huge service because on one of his circulars, he included a list of where it was sent.

In this circular, Simpson relays the surprising news that the Emperor of Morocco has declared war, and thus Simpson has been forced to vacate Tangier. On the back side of the circular, he includes a list of posts to which he sent the circular.

At first glance, the list doesn’t seem too surprising. There were a few places on here that I couldn’t quite decipher–shout-out to my colleagues BJ and Ryan for their help in handwriting analysis! And there’s one that I can read but I don’t know where it is: St. Michaels. In the absence of other clues, I concluded that St. Michaels might be Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. If you know of a St. Michaels in Europe or the Mediterranean that you think it might be, please give me a holler!

Once I had the names deciphered, I plotted them on a map. A few interesting things emerged.

First, Simspon sent this circular to only the western Mediterranean, but he knew of ports in the more eastern Mediterranean that would have been interested in his news. His list doesn't even include ports such as Syracuse or Valletta, Malta, which he would certainly have known about because the American navy had been going in and out of those ports for a year now. He also doesn't include places like Rome or Venice or Constantinople. This is surprising because Simpson's presence in Tangier was a safeguard for American vessels traveling through the straits of Gibraltar, which they all had to do eventually no matter how far into the Mediterranean they went. So I would have thought he would send the circular to every Mediterranean port. But he didn't. I don't know why.

Second, I realized as Ryan and BJ and I were talking about this data that a few of the places on Simpson's list had no American consular presence. (They're the red dots on the map.) So a consular circular didn't necessarily only go to other American consuls. The places he sent the circular to mostly make sense--e.g., he sent one to Stockholm, Sweden, a nation with which the American navy had been cooperating for most of the war. And he sent one to Port Mahon, which was a major stopover port for vessels in the Mediterranean. (I'm sure there's an interesting story about why the United States doesn't have a consul there; sometime maybe I'll try to find out.) But there are dozens of other places Simpson could have sent the circular to that didn't have U.S. consular representation--and that fact makes me think that he had some kind of other connection to these ports. Someone he knew in those places needed this information.

And third, it's interesting to see, written out, the multiplier effect. Simpson specifically asks the consuls in London, Dublin, and Lisbon to send the circular through their own networks, rather than doing it himself. The United States had no consular representation in Portugal except for in Lisbon, so again here he's asking that they break out of the American consular networks to spread the news. On the map, I marked in yellow the other U.S. consulates in England and Ireland that might have received the circular based on his request, but again, we have to assume that they spread it not only amongst American consuls but much more broadly.

So, can we ever build a full network of consular communication? No, definitely not. But this one small circular from James Simpson gives us an interesting window into his world and his knowledge networks that may tell us a little bit more about the diplomatic and consular processes more broadly.

Digital Methods for Military History: An Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities

In October 2014, I ran a workshop at Northeastern University called “Digital Methods for Military History,” designed to (you guessed it) introduce digital history methods to military historians. It was a two-day event that covered a lot of ground, and many participants suggested that they’d like a longer period of instruction or a follow-up event.

A lot has changed since 2014. I was a graduate student then, not even advanced to candidacy. I was a fellow at the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, feeling my way through the wilds of digital history, mostly under the auspices of the Viral Texts project. In 2013, I attended my first THATCamp Prime, where I met Brett Bobley, the director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and he and I talked about how military historians could be brought into the digital humanities fold. From that conversation, the project was born. Looking back on those conversations today, I continue to be humbled by the confidence that Brett, the NEH, and the NULab and College of Social Sciences and Humanities placed in me, a very young graduate student, to pull off the workshop.

In 2016, while still working on my dissertation at Northeastern, I started a job at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as a part-time wage employee on the Tropy project. I defended my dissertation in April 2017, and since then I’ve transitioned from wage employee to research faculty, and now this fall to instructional faculty at George Mason University. I’ve worked on Tropy for that whole time, and continued my own research on the First Barbary War while I work on turning the dissertation into a book (as one does), as well as being involved in several other grant projects.

This grant, an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities to fund a new 2-week institute on Digital Methods for Military History, feels special, though. It’s fitting that a project that was conceived during my first visit to RRCHNM should find its way back to the Center, where so many great institutes have occurred in years past. It’s a privilege to follow in their footsteps in teaching about digital history. I’m honored that the NEH again found the instruction of military historians a worthwhile endeavor and gave me a chance to assemble a great team to do that instruction.

This institute is two weeks instead of two days, giving us a lot more time to delve more deeply into the topics that military historians already find interesting. We’ll be spending our time investigating data creation and cleaning, visualizations, and mapping. We chose those topics because they are ones that many military historians are familiar with but don’t know how to create on their own. We’ll also be thinking about how to see a DH project through from beginning to end. Our instructors are top-notch practitioners in these areas: Jason Heppler, Jean Bauer, and Christopher Hamner (and me).

The planning has only just begun, of course, but the tentative dates are July 20-31, 2020. Stay tuned for more information and a call for participants. This time, we’ll also be able to pay for people to come, which will hopefully make it possible for some historians to come who couldn’t afford to pay their own way to the workshop.

I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to introduce military historians to tools for the digital age, and I’m humbled that the NEH has funded this institute. I’m looking forward to working with a great group of military historians in summer 2020!

Civil War Navies Bookworm

If you read my last post, you know that this semester I engaged in building a Bookworm using a government document collection. My professor challenged me to try my system for parsing the documents on a different, larger collection of government documents. The collection I chose to work with is the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. My Barbary Bookworm took me all semester to build; this Civil War navies Bookworm took me less than a day. I learned things from making the first one!

This collection is significantly larger than the Barbary Wars collection—26 volumes, as opposed to 6. It encompasses roughly the same time span, but 13 times as many words. Though it is still technically feasible to read through all 26 volumes, this collection is perhaps a better candidate for distant reading than my first corpus.

The document collection is broken into geographical sections, the Atlantic Squadron, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, and so on. Using the Bookworm allows us to look at the words in these documents sequentially by date instead of having to go back and forth between different volumes to get a sense of what was going on in the whole navy at any given time.

Looking at ship types over the course of the war, across all geographies.
Looking at ship types over the course of the war, across all geographies.

Process and Format

The format of this collection is mostly the same as the Barbary Wars collection. Each document starts with an explanatory header (“Letter to the secretary of the navy,” “Extract from a journal,” etc.). Unlike BW, there are no citations at the end of each document. So instead of using the closing citations as document breakers, I used the headers. Though there are many different kinds of documents, the headers are very formulaic, so the regular expressions to find them were not particularly difficult to write.[ref]Ben had suggested that I do the even larger Civil War Armies document collection; however, that collection does not even have headers for the documents, much less citations, so the document breaking process would be exponentially more difficult. It’s not impossible, but I may have to rework my system—and I don’t care about the Civil War that much. 🙂 However, other document collections, such as the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, have exactly the same format, so it may be worth figuring out.[/ref]

Further easing the pain of breaking the documents is the quality of the OCR. Where I fought the OCR every step of the way for Barbary Bookworm, the OCR is really quite good for this collection (a mercy, since spot-checking 26 volumes is no trivial task). Thus, I didn’t have to write multiple regular expressions to find each header; only a few small variants seemed to be sufficient.

New Features

The high quality OCR enabled me to write a date parser that I couldn’t make work in my Barbary Bookworm. The dates are written in a more consistent pattern, and the garbage around and in them is minimal, so it was easy enough to write a little function to pull out all parts. In the event that certain parts of the dates were illegible, or non-existent, I did make the function find each part of the date in turn and then compile them into one field, rather than trying to extract the dates wholesale. That way, if all I could extract was the year, the function would still return at least a partial date.

Another new feature of this Bookworm is that the full text of the document appears for each search term when you click on the line at a particular date. This function is slow, so if the interface seems to freeze or you don’t seem to be getting any results, give it a few minutes. It will come up. Most of the documents are short enough that it’s easy to scroll through them.

Testing the Bookworm

Some of the same reservations apply to this Bookworm as I detailed in my last post about Barbary Bookworm—they really apply to all text-analysis tools. Disambiguation of ship names and places continues to be a problem. But many of the other problems with Barbary Bookworm are solved with this Bookworm.

The next step that I need to work on is sectioning out the Confederate navy’s documents from the Union navy’s. Right now, you can get a sense of what was important to both navies, but not so easily get a sense of what was important to just one side or the other.

To be honest, I don’t really know enough about the navies of the Civil War to make any significant arguments based on my scrounging around with this tool. There are some very low-hanging fruit, of course.

Unsurprisingly, the terms "monitor" and "ironclad" become more prominent throughout the war.
Unsurprisingly, the terms “monitor” and “ironclad” become more prominent throughout the war.

The Bookworm is hosted online by Ben Schmidt (thanks, Ben!). The code for creating the files is up on GitHub. Please go play around with it!


Particularly since I don’t do Civil War history, I’d welcome feedback on both the interface and the content here. What worked? What didn’t? What else would you like to see?

Feel free to send me questions/observations/interesting finds/results by commenting on this post (since there’s not a comment function on the Bookworm itself), by emailing me, or for small stuff, pinging me on Twitter (@abbymullen). I really am very interested in everyone’s feedback, so please scrub around and try to break it. I already know of a few things that are not quite working right, but I’m interested to see what you all come up with.

Text Analysis on the Documents of the Barbary Wars

This past semester, I took a graduate seminar in Humanities Data Analysis, taught by Professor Ben Schmidt. This post describes my final project. Stay tuned for more fun Bookworm stuff in the next few days (part 2 on Civil War Navies Bookworm is here).


In the 1920s, the United States government decided to create document collections for several of its early naval wars: the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the Civil War (the War of 1812 did not come until much later, for some reason). These document collections, particularly for the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, have become the standard resource for any scholar doing work on these wars. My work on the Barbary Wars relies heavily on this document collection. The Barbary Wars collection includes correspondence, journals, official documents such as treaties, crew manifests, other miscellaneous documents, and a few summary documents put together in the 1820s.[ref]U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939); digitized at[/ref]

It’s quite easy to get bogged down in the multiplicity of mundaneness in these documents—every single day’s record of where a ship is and what the weather is like, for instance. It’s also easy to lose sight of the true trajectory of the conflict in the midst of all this seeming banality. Because the documents in the collection are from many authors in conversation with each other, we can sometimes follow the path of these conversations. But there are many concurrent conversations, and often we do not have the full correspondence. How can we make sense of this jumble?

Continue reading Text Analysis on the Documents of the Barbary Wars

Named Entity Extraction: Productive Failure?

This past week in my Humanities Data Analysis class, we looked at mapping as data. We explored ggplot2’s map functions, as well as doing some work with ggmap’s geocoding and other things. One thing that we just barely explored was automatically extracting place names through named entity recognition. It is possible to do named entity recognition in R, though people say it’s probably not the best way. But in order to stay in R, I used a handy tutorial by the esteemed Lincoln Mullen, found here.

I was interested in extracting place names from the data I’ve been cleaning up for use in a Bookworm, the text of the 6-volume document collection, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, published in the 1920s by the U.S. government. It’s a great primary source collection, and a good jumping-off point for any research into the Barbary Wars. The entire collection has been digitized by the American Naval Records Society, with OCR, but the OCRed text is not clean. The poor quality of the OCR has been problematic for almost all data analysis, and this extraction was no exception.

The tutorial on NER is quite easy to follow, so that wasn’t a problem at all. The problem I ran into very quickly was the memory limits on my machine–this process takes a TON of memory, apparently. I originally tried to use my semi-cleaned-up file that contained the text of all 6 volumes, but that was way too big. Even one volume proved much too big. I decided to break up the text into years, instead of just chunking the volumes by size, in order to facilitate a more useful comparison set. For the first 15 years (1785-1800), the file was small enough, and I even combined the earlier years into one file. But starting in 1802, the file was still too large even with only one year. So I chunked each year into 500kb files, and then ran the program exactly the way the tutorial suggested with multiple files. I then just pushed the results of each chunk back into one results file per year.

Once I got my results, I had to clean them up. I haven’t tested NER on any other type of document, but based on my results, I suspect that the particular genre of texts I am working with causes NER some significant problems. I started by just doing a bit of work with the list in OpenRefine in order to standardize the terrible spelling of 19th-century naval captains, plus OCR problems. That done, I took a hard look at what exactly was in my list.

List of named-entity-recognition results
An excerpt from the results (before passing through OpenRefine) that demonstrates some of the problems discussed here.

Here’s what I found:
1. The navy didn’t do NER any favors by naming many of their ships after American places. It’s almost certain that Essex and Chesapeake, for instance, refer to the USS Essex and USS Chesapeake. Less certain are places like Philadelphia, Boston, United States, and even Tripoli, which are all places that definitely appear in the text, but are also ship names. There’s absolutely no way to disambiguate these terms.
2. The term “Cape” proved to be particular problems. The difficulty here is that the abbreviation for “Captain” is often “Cap” or “Capt,” and often the OCR renders it “Cape” or “Ca.” Thus, people like Capt. Daniel McNeill turn up in a place-name list. Naval terms like “Anchorage” also cause some problems. I guarantee: Alaska does not enter the story at all.
3. The format of many of these documents is “To” someone “from” someone. I can’t be certain, but it seems like the NER process sometimes (though not always) saw those to and from statements as being locational, instead of relational. I also think that journal or logbook entries, with their formulaic descriptions of weather and location, sometimes get the NER process confused about which is the weather and which is the location.
4. To be honest, there are a large number of false hits that I really can’t explain. It seems like lists are particularly prone to being selected from, so I get one member of a crew list, or words like “salt beef,” “cheese,” or “coffee,” from provision lists. But there are other results as well that I just can’t really make out why they were selected as locations.

Because of all these foibles, each list requires hand-curation to throw out the false hits. Once I did that, I ran it through R again to geocode the locations using ggmap. Here we also had some problems (which I admittedly should have anticipated based on previous work doing geolocation of these texts). Of course, many of the places had to be thrown out because they were just too vague to be of any use: “harbor,” “island,” and other such terms didn’t make the cut.

When I ran the geocoder for the first time, it threw a bunch of errors because of unrecognizable place names. Then I remembered: this is why I’ve used historical maps of the area in the past–to try to track down these place names that are not used today. Examples include “Cape Spartel,” “Cape DeGatt,” and “Cape Ferina.” (I’m not sure why they were all capes.) I discovered that if you run the “more” option on the geocode, the warnings don’t result in a failed geocode, plus all the information is useful to get a better sense of the granularity of the geocode, and what exact identifier the geocoder was using to determine the locations.

This extra information proved helpful when the geocoded map revealed oddities such as the Mediterranean Sea showing up in the Philippines, or Tunis Bay showing up in Canada. Turns out, the geocoder doesn’t necessarily pick the most logical choice for ambiguous terms: there is, in fact, an Australasian sea sometimes known as the Mediterranean Sea. These seemingly arbitrary choices by the geocoder mean that the map looks more than a little strange.

Map of named entities before cleaning
Just to see what would happen, I ran the geocoder on the raw results (no cleaning done). It turned out entertaining, at least.

A slightly more sensible map: This is one created with the clean data.
A slightly more sensible map: This is one created with the clean data. You can see from the outliers, though, that some of these locations are not correct. Given how far off some important terms are (like “Mediterranean Sea”), the text plotting made more sense for understanding than simply plotting symbols. Text plotting does obscure the places that are close to other places, leaving the outliers as the easily visible points. Those points seem the most likely to be incorrect.

So what’s the result here? I can see the potential for named-entity extraction, but for my particular project, it just doesn’t seem logical or useful. There’s not really anything more I can do with this data, except try to clean up my original documents even more. But even so, it was a useful exercise, and it was good practice in working with maps and data in R.

McMullen Naval History Symposium Recap

This weekend, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the McMullen Naval History Symposium. It was my second time at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I have had a great time.

Our Panel

I organized a panel titled “Politics of the Sea in the Early Republic,” in which the panelists looked at how the navy and maritime concerns influenced political discourse (and vice versa). Bill Leeman argued that Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the navy in the Barbary Wars was more pragmatic than idealistic. The question of who could declare war–was it the president or the Congress?–was a live one in the early republic. What were the president’s powers when a foreign country declared war first? These are the questions that Jefferson had to grapple with as he sent the navy to deal with the threat of the Barbary States.

My paper picked up the political question in the War of 1812. Titled “Naval Honor and Partisan Politics: The Naval War of 1812 in the Public Sphere,” the paper investigated how partisan newspapers approached the naval war, using exactly the same events to make exactly opposite political points. Interestingly, both political parties also used the same imagery and rhetoric. They both used the concept of honor in order to castigate the other party. I’ll be posting an edited version of the paper on the blog soon, so you’ll just have to wait to read the exciting conclusion.

Steve Park addressed how the Hartford Convention, held at the end of the War of 1812, addressed–or rather, didn’t address–the concerns of Federalists. Since the Federalists had traditionally been strongly in favor of naval buildup and the end of impressment, it was highly surprising that the delegates did not really mention these concerns at all in their convention resolutions. Nevertheless, they were not secessionist, but instead sought a constitutional solution to their perceived grievances.

We were very fortunate to have a premier naval historian, Craig Symonds, as our chair, and an excellent younger scholar, David Head, as our commentator. The audience was involved in the themes of our panel, and they asked great questions and pushed each of our ideas in fruitful directions. Even after the session was over, we continued to field questions informally, and I had some profitable conversations about the paper even afterwards during the reception.

New Connections

The historians that attend the naval history symposium are members of the community I want to be a part of. Senior scholars in the field of naval history attend every year, including many historians whose work has been integral to my research. This year, I met several of those historians. Two were particularly special, as they are essentially responsible for my desire to do naval history. Frederick Leiner, who is a historian of the early American navy only as a side interest, wrote Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798 and The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa. Millions for Defense was the book that set me on the path to studying the Barbary Wars. And Christopher McKee wrote the seminal work on the naval officer corps of the early republic, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, which has shown me the breadth and depth of the stories in the naval officer corps. These stories will undoubtedly keep me busy for a lifetime. (I also would love to make that book into a digital project, but that’s a task for another time.)

Almost as exciting as meeting a few of my history heroes, I also met some young scholars, working on their PhDs or just finished with their degrees. Several of them were women, also doing naval history. These meetings gave me so much hope for the future–for my own career and for the field at large. I can’t wait to keep up with these scholars, and perhaps even forge some meaningful relationship and collaborations with them. I also met some young scholars who are doing digital history. In light of my previous blog post about the intersection of DH and MH, I’m very excited to learn that the field is not quite as barren as it seems. Again,  I hope to establish some meaningful connections and build up a community of digital naval historians.

The symposium left me with lots of new ideas, new avenues of exploration, and new professional connections. So now I’m looking forward to jumping back into my work!


Reading List: Atlantic World

At the moment, I’m in the process of determining my PhD exam fields for a degree in world history. The “world” part is important: it means that my exams and my dissertation will have a global focus. One of the requirements is a world-history-focused field. For my world history field, I’ve chosen to do Atlantic World, since that seems most relevant to a study of the American navy.

I came up with my list based on this seminar website, as well as other books I’ve heard of, plus a few that my professor suggested. This semester I’ll be doing a directed reading of about 1/3 of the books on my list, and the rest will be for me to read before exam time.

I’ve often lamented that more graduate students don’t put their reading lists up for others to be inspired by. So it would be remiss of me not to put my own up. I’ve added it to the menu bar of this website, but here’s a link as well.

Lessons from From Enemies to Allies: Changing Scale in American Naval History

In the plenary session at From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference about the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath, several senior scholars addressed (among other things) the direction scholarship on the War of 1812 should go. One major theme that emerged was the need to study the War of 1812 in a global context. American historians of the war often treat it as if it were the only thing going on in the United States and in Britain between 1812 and 1815, when in fact it wasn’t the only thing going on in either place.

This interest in globalizing the study of the War of 1812 correlates with a session I attended at THATCamp about how changing the scale of your research can open up new lines of inquiry. The initial example in the session was a literal change in scale: blowing up a literary text to being a poster size instead of a normal book size. But we also talked about how changing the scale on a more intellectual level can also be a good thing.

Two of the keynote speakers at FETA addressed scale as they talked about the context in which the War of 1812 occurred. Andrew Lambert explored how the War of 1812 fit into the much larger story of the Napoleonic Wars, and Alan Taylor explained how the war fit into a larger context of changing borders within the United States, not just with Canada or Britain but with the Indians as well. Looking at the War of 1812 on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, or on the scale of U.S.-Indian relations, can drastically change how one understands why the Royal Navy did certain things or why certain U.S. policies seemed counter-intuitive for fighting a war with the British alone.

Taylor advocated a change in the temporal scale as well as the geographical one, suggesting that we should think of the war as spanning 1810 to 1819, rather than 1812 to 1815. This change in temporal scale highlights the border disputes that Taylor discussed in his talk, and it certainly makes one think differently about the chronology of the war (including the oft-quoted myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over, a fact that isn’t true whether you subscribe to the 1819 end date or the 1815 one).

These changes of scale bring new life to what some people, even historians, view as “stagnant” history. (Bill Pencek, the organizer of the conference, told us of a person who believed that naval history was “already settled.”) They allow us to ask new questions about the history of the United States, Britain, and Canada, and they allow us to approach the standard questions (such as the causes of the war) with fresh perspectives that may provide better answers.

Though the War of 1812 is not going to be my own main research focus, I think these ideas of scale can be easily applied to any conflict. I’m particularly excited about applying them to my own topic, the Barbary Wars. If any part of American naval history could benefit from a change in scale, I think it’s the story of the Barbary Wars, which is often written as though the United States was the only nation dealing with the Barbary States, ever. But if we change the scale, look at the more global picture of the Barbary Wars, and perhaps even change the temporal scale as well, this minor conflict in the Mediterranean may help us understand a lot more about the navy, diplomacy, foreign relations, and politics in the early republic of the United States.


Digital History and Naval History: Ships in the Night


Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
—Henry Wadworth Longfellow

This month I attended two very different professional conferences. The first, THATCamp CHNM (aka THATCamp Prime), is so unlike normal conferences that it’s billed as an “unconference.”[1. If you want to know exactly what an unconference is, read the THATCamp About page.] It brings together people from a wide swath of academic disciplines to talk about digital humanities. Sessions ranged from talking about programming languages to teaching digital history to talking about size and scale in academic research. Many of the people in attendance were relatively young; many hold “alt-ac” jobs.

The other conference could not have been more different. Even its title, “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and its Aftermath,” fits it into a tight disciplinary mold. Though it drew scholars from the United States, the UK, and Canada, all the scholars were primarily historians of the 19th century, and a large proportion were military historians. My fellow panelists and I were among the youngest there by a fair margin; very few of the attendees were graduate students or young scholars. A surprising number of panelists were independent scholars. It was very much a traditional conference, with concurrent panels and two (great) keynote addresses.

I’ll write more about each conference later. For now, I want to talk about where I hope the fields of digital history and naval history may go, based on these two conferences. It has long been my impression that digital humanities and naval history (and military history more generally) are a bit like ships passing in the night. Every once in a while, they graze each other, but they quickly separate again and carry on without much change to either field. Conversations with people at both conferences confirmed this suspicion. When I asked some people at the War of 1812 conference if they’d ever thought about using digital mapping tools or creating online exhibits, the response was generally “I don’t really do computers.” But they were drawing digital maps—in PowerPoint. Similarly, I don’t know anyone who self-identifies as a DHer whose primary academic discipline is military history—at least no one I met at THATCamp CHNM. (Big huge disclaimer here: obviously, I don’t know all the DHers in the world. If you work on military history and do DH, we need to talk. Please email me.) But military history comes up—witness one of the models for Omeka’s Neatline exhibits: the battle of Chancellorsville.

So I found it somewhat amusing that in both conferences, the most interesting outcome for me was related to the other discipline. At THATCamp, I won third place in the Maker Challenge (along with my partner in crime Lincoln Mullen) for creating an argument about promotions of naval officers from 1798-1849, which actually came in handy while I was talking to scholars at FETA. And at FETA, the best contact I made was with a scholar who wants me to help him build a database about engagements during the War of 1812 not unlike the Early American Foreign Service Database. He’s one of those who “doesn’t do computers,” but he understands the values of accessibility and openness that THATCampers hold dear.

Going to the two conferences almost back-to-back highlighted for me how much each field might enrich the other. These connections give me hope that someday soon, digital historians can “speak” naval historians with greater success. And then, not all will be darkness and silence between the two.

Who’s with me?