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Transcription: Looking Back 200 Years

By Prajeeth Koyada
January 10, 2015

Prajeeth is a first year chemistry major at the University of Virginia. He currently transcribes documents for the Financial Papers Project.

Transcribing documents for the Papers of George Washington has been both an enlightening and mystifying experience. For every “Caleb Gibbs” I uncover, a multitude of questions arise– “who was this person?”, “why was he important”, “what are his greatest achievements, and failures?”, among others–and occupy my thoughts until I move on to the next line and my thoughts are now focused on a new individual, maybe a “Josiah Hall” this time. The entire time, from the moment I open the papers to the instant I shut off the computer, I don’t exist in that large room on grounds – I’m reading, thinking of, and most importantly, experiencing a minuscule part of the life of George Washington and his correspondents.

Sorry to sound overly Romantic, but the transcription of George Washington’s correspondence truly is an adventure in some respects. I uncover what his debts and obligations were, to whom they were entitled to, and what exactly he owed. A form of enlightenment, I gain a unique insight regarding the needs of the Continental Army during and after the Revolutionary War– something not provided in the history courses everyone has taken.

Henry Alexander Ogden’s 1897 depiction of uniforms and weapons used in the Revolutionary War

On the side, by reading some of the other transcribed diaries the Papers have produced, I follow the footsteps of Washington and his patriots; I do not just relive the same lessons taught in history class, but get to see what daily life looked like, in all of its small details. Most definitely, these papers have helped me to humanize these long-past figures, bastions of a far away age. When we think of George Washington and his soldiers, we usually see them as symbols of freedom, fighting an impossible battle for independence, which of course puts us in a certain perceptual mold. For me, reading these soldiers’ complaints about rations, stories told around the campfire, and images of their own personal lives reminds me that these soldiers were just like you and me, fighting for what they believe in. In other words, the Papers reminds me just who fought for the United States’ freedom and instills in me even more appreciation and respect for those same people.

Although I’ve made this work sound extremely serious, the truth is this work is remarkably fun and, at times, amusing! There are various stories that come to mind that these soldiers relate that would entertain even today, two centuries later. History is a great passion of mine, and being able to see a glimpse of what life was like during the birth of the United States for the people who helped achieve it is an amazing opportunity I’m grateful for.