Who are “We the undersigned”?

We recently featured the case of William Brockman, a German man appealing his murder conviction to Governor Bramlette (read the full transcription here). Our previous post pointed out the fascinating diversity of topical subjects CWG-K will bring to the attention of scholars — the immigrant experience, violence and public arms bearing, micro-economies of military posts, and the environmental and urban history of the Ohio River.

KYR-0001-004-0787But who signed the petition to pardon William Brockman? Why did they do so? What can we learn about a war-torn and refugee-swelled Ohio River city from analyzing the actors in William Brockman’s world?

Each of the document’s 65 glossary entries contains a list of associated documents (Read the full glossary here). In those 65 entries, this document makes 4,353 connections across the CWG-K corpus. Excluding the four best-connected entries (Thomas E. Bramlette, Louisville, Jefferson Circuit Court, and Tennessee), the remaining 61 entries yield 441 connections to a web of 248 unique documents spread across 25 unique collections in 3 separate archival repositories. The glossed people, places, and institutions in this document link to a median of 5 other records.

Though these appear to be no more than numbers on the page, this is the raw data of a complex series of geographic, economic, social, personal, and political networks that bound 1860s Kentuckians to one another, to the nation, to the war, and to the world. The patterns in these accession numbers suggest fascinating research questions which the user can further explore through documents themselves. What shared interest led twenty of the signers of this petition to appear in another document KYR-0001-004-0121? What political or personal factors inclined the individuals named in this document to appear more frequently in collections associated with Bramlette (145 documents) than Magoffin (50 documents)? What does the appearance of Zachariah Sherley and his business partner Richard Woolfolk in documents from all three repositories suggest about the breadth of their interaction with state institutions? Might this suggest ways in which their steamboat-supplying firm benefited from military mobilization?

The entries from this document also highlight what CWG-K can do with even the most fragmentary information. A man named Donheimer, for example, testified in the case related to Brockman’s petition, but we know nothing further of him—not even his given name. CWG-K will, nevertheless, create a glossary entry for him and include what information can be gleaned from the document. Even though what we know of Donheimer is limited now, the open-ended nature of a born-digital project allows CWG-K to expand the entry as new documents are identified and transcribed and as the CWG-K universe becomes populated with more interconnected historical actors. The point is not that we know very little about Donheimer now. Rather, it is that we may learn more about him in the future, and, even if not, scholars will use the networks of which he forms a part.

This document reveals how researchers will be able to visualize and study the interactions Kentuckians had with their neighbors, their governments, and their enemies, linking an untold number of individuals—enslaved and free, men and women, Union and Confederate—together in an interconnected web of relationships. CWG-K will be an unimaginably powerful tool for studying the whole of a society under the strains of civil war.

Patrick A. Lewis is Project Director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.