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Interrogating the Text; How to Annotate a George Washington Document

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
August 17, 2o17

Moderating a panel on public engagement at the 2017 meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing, Washington Papers communications specialist Katie Lebert observed that content that explores the basic practices of documentary editing is often received favorably by and connects with a wide audience. Taking the cue from Katie, I devote this blog post to annotating documents that appear in The Papers of George Washington.

An editor working on elucidating a document for readers approaches this task by “interrogating the text” in order to determine which information is needed to comprehend it. The process begins by asking questions from the perspective of a reader. Who is mentioned? What is the purpose of the document? Are place references obscure? Does this document result in some action, especially an action involving Washington?

To identify research directions and establish the contours of the eventual annotation, the editor first must determine whether the people, places, and facts in the document already have been covered editorially. People identifications and places mentioned in The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War and Presidential Series can be located quickly through searchable authoritative files found on the “Washington Papers Resources” webpage, an internal online database through which editors and staff share resources and information. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition‘s cumulative index and conversations with colleagues also help at this stage. Ascertaining what already is known and has been presented avoids redundant research and suggests potential cross-references.

Sources most useful in annotation are those closest to the document being edited. Thus, the most relevant and dynamic pieces of annotation are texts directly linked to the document. These can be enclosed letters or extracts from letters, intelligence reports, legislative resolutions, or military returns regarding troops, provisions, or equipment. Replies, particularly shorter replies that simply address the document, frequently function better as notes to the document that prompted their creation than as separate and distinct entries.

Work then moves outward to the large universe of primary sources that might shed light on the content of the document. The Papers of George Washington offices in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library hold hundreds of these sources, including contemporary letters (manuscripts on microfilm and printed editions), diaries, journals, and governmental proceedings. Vast amounts of similar material can now be accessed through and Searchable newspaper and bibliographic databases offer ready access to an astounding amount of printed information from Washington’s lifetime. It is a challenge to avoid getting lost in this forest of source material! Contemporary writings and publications can suggest a rich array of research directions, but these can also lead editors far afield of the document. Editors must always keep the text in mind and maintain focus on answering the questions it raises.

A similar discipline must be practiced when writing annotation. Except for the occasional figure or place of relative obscurity or exceptional importance, people and places are identified in thumbnail sketches of two or three sentences that explain or suggest why they appear in that document. Quotes from manuscript documents or other primary sources are limited to the pertinent portions and introduced as plainly as possible (“In a dispatch written at New York City on 8 Nov., Hessian major Carl Leopold Baurmeister reported:”).1 Cross references further direct readers to pertinent information elsewhere in the volume or edition. (“For the instigation behind this general order, see Anthony Wayne to GW, 18 December.”)2 Rarely is it desirable to repeat information at any length.

Just as editors must resist the temptation to follow wide-ranging but not strictly pertinent research directions, we must limit—and generally avoid—free-ranging prose in the numbered notes tagged to a document. Such prose commentary can add bulk without value, cluttering the presentation and confusing readers. If research turns up sources—primary or secondary—with interesting content beyond the needs of establishing basic context, it might be included as a “see also” reference. The list of sources used while editing a volume is compiled in the “Short Title List” and becomes an enduring scholarly contribution.

As a documentary editor with more than 28 years of experience, I have condensed what I consider the ideal approach to annotation into a phrase: deploying bibliography to contextualize texts. The editor filters and structures sources—especially primary sources—to illuminate each document. Rather than interpret or narrate, the editor places, points, reports, and guides. In our case, the repetitive cycle of work is engrossing because it centers on an endlessly fascinating subject—George Washington.

Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg

An excellent example of the annotation practices discussed here is the letter from Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg to Washington, written at Fredericksburg, Va., on May 8, 1780. It appears in volume 25 of the Revolutionary War Series, which will be published soon by the University of Virginia Press.

One note offers brief quotes from his father’s diary on the travails of Muhlenberg’s family on the journey from Philadelphia to Virginia (travails which Muhlenberg kept from Washington). Several notes present lengthy quotations from enclosures Muhlenberg sent with his letter. A short note identifies Rocky Ridge, a place later named Manchester and eventually annexed to Richmond. Muhlenberg mentions to Washington that he has advertised for officers to assemble, and a note includes the text of his advertisement from an issue of The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg). A passing allusion to “Parson Hurt at Charleston” triggered a note to identify John Hurt, who served as a chaplain for the Virginia troops. Most of that note points to a 19th-century book with a sermon he preached in 1777, a letter Hurt wrote Washington during his presidency, and a biographical sketch published in a little-known modern journal.

The 14 notes attached to this document are more than the usual number, but the complexity and length of Muhlenberg’s letter justifies such handling. Please look at it yourself when the volume appears in print and let me know if you agree!



  1. See Silvanus Seely to GW, 4 Nov. 1779, n.2, in The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, Va., 2015), 23:150-51.
  2. See General Orders, 20 Dec. 1779, n.1, in Papers, Revolutionary War Series, 23:656.