Margaret Cochrane Corbin and the Papers of the War Department

Claude Joseph Sauthier, "A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King's troops, on the 16th of November 1776."  col. map, 48 x 27 cm.  Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Claude Joseph Sauthier, “A plan of the attack of Fort Washington, now Fort Knyphausen, and of the American lines on New-York Island by the King’s troops, on the 16th of November 1776.” col. map, 48 x 27 cm. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Within the records of the early United States War Department, amidst the pay receipts and accounts of treaty negotiations with Native American tribes, there are glimpses into the life of relatively ordinary Americans, many illiterate, who served their country during the war for Independence.  Although the official copies of these records were destroyed in a fire in November, 1800, a project to approximate the papers of the early War Department in digital form reconstructs that resource by bringing together digital copies of letter books, sender and receiver copies from archives in the United States, France, and Great Britain.

Included in the papers of the War Department is a letter book kept by William Price, Commissary of Military Stores at West Point from 1784 to 1787.  In the early years of the 1780s, West Point was home to the Corps of Invalids, a regiment of permanently disabled Revolutionary War veterans that had been established in 1777.  Although the Corps was disbanded in 1783, at least one of its members remained in the Hudson Valley and appears in Price’s letter books:  Margaret Cochrane Corbin, also known as “Captain Molly.”

Corbin was born in south-central Pennsylvania in 1751, and she was raised by relatives after her parents were killed in a conflict with local Native Americans when she was only five years old.  She married John Corbin around 1771.  When John enlisted in the army during the American Revolution, Margaret accompanied him, joining the many women who provided necessary support services for the American army.  When John, an artilleryman, was killed during the British attack on Fort Washington in November 1776, Margaret took his place at the cannon for the remainder of the battle.  She received permanent wounds to her left arm and the left side of her chest and face.

In 1779, Congress awarded Margaret a monthly pension equal to half of a soldier’s pay to last “during her natural life, or the continuance of the said disability” (Journals of the Continental Congress, Tuesday, July 6, 1779), and she was the first woman to be awarded a military pension by Congress.  Margaret was also enrolled in the Corps of Invalids that same year, during which time the Corps was stationed in Pennsylvania.  She traveled with her regiment to West Point in 1781 but remained in the Hudson Valley after the unit was disbanded–likely lacking anywhere to go or at least sufficient means to travel, especially given her continued disability.  Because Congress guaranteed Corbin a lifelong pension, her welfare became the responsibility of Price, West Point’s Commissary.

According to Price, “Captain Molly” was “such an offensive Person that People are unwilling to take her in Charge” (William Price to Henry Knox, Jan 31, 1786).  She cursed, was rude, and was a generally unpleasant person with whom to live.  Nonetheless, Price took his responsibility to Captain Molly seriously.  His reports to the War Department describe the difficulty of finding someone willing to provide Corbin with room and board, but he was willing to remove her from a situation where she was “not so well treated as she ought to be” (William Price to Henry Knox, October 7, 1786).  It is unclear whether it was Corbin’s identity as a veteran or as a woman, or the combination, which guided Price’s sense of how she ought to have been treated.  He may have been simply trying to ensure that her treatment was equal to what she had received before the Corps of Invalids was disbanded.

Corbin was a woman from a farming family whose presence in the archives rests upon one extraordinary action.  While the Papers of the War Department collection contains many famous names—Judith Sargent MurrayHenry KnoxJames McHenry—it also holds the stories of many ordinary people who otherwise left little or no documentary records.  Although we do not have Corbin’s own hand to tell her story, Price’s letters and reports allow us to discover something of her life after the revolution, a period often overlooked by those recounting her history.  The Papers of the War Department digital collection allows anyone with an internet connection to access and explore the stories of Corbin, her fellow veterans, and others whose experiences were long presumed lost.

The Papers of the War Department is an online, open-source documentary edition of papers of the War Department in the last decades of the eighteenth century.  All are welcome to volunteer as transcribers and contribute to the scholarly project.

Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures

Faculty and students at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg are working on a long-range digital project (Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures) to code and analyze the voyage narratives of eighteenth-century European expeditions to the Pacific, together with the English poetry and print media that responded to the published accounts of Pacific voyages.  We are attempting to study the cross-cultural significance of European voyages in the Pacific and cultural contact experiences in Oceania and Australia, using digital coding and “text-mining” to collect information from very long voyage records in systematic ways through computational methods.

One phase of our work involves preparing digital editions of Pacific voyage publications by Hawkesworth, Cook, and the Forsters in TEI XML (the language of the Text Encoding Initiative) to meet a world standard for accessible and consistently encoded digital texts.  (For more on the Text Encoding Initiative, please see http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml).  Some of the voyage accounts we have prepared for the site have not been freely available online in any searchable form before.  Some are available in proprietary or public databases but have not, to this point, been united in one place.  In addition to preparing editions, we have collected the geographic coordinates recorded in these publications using regular expression matching and autotagging, in order to generate Google Earth & Map views of the voyages.  Our Google Earth projections of Wallis’s and Cook’s voyages offer a clickable interface, so that selecting a compass rose point along the voyage brings up a paragraph or block of text from a voyage record describing events recorded in connection with this place.  Here is an example.

We have also been preparing TEI XML editions of poems, plays, and excerpts from literary and philosophical texts that respond in some way to the Pacific voyage publications.

These texts were located by searching the ECCO and ECCO TCP databases, and we will be adding more material from these resources and the Burney Collection.  Our students have been preparing and marking these files to code specific kinds of cultural interactions so that we can study how English texts represented Pacific encounters and identify the types of interactions which seem to have caught the interest of Atlantic-bound media.  We’ve also provided an interactive clickable interface to “color-code” the poems, highlighting names of people and places as well as the cultural markup our students have applied:  See our edition of Anna Seward’s “Elegy on Captain Cook” (1780).  Please see also our edition of Gerald Fitzgerald’s “The Injured Islanders” (1779), produced just before the news of Cook’s death became known in England.  We offer Fitzgerald’s poem as a significant contrast to the cultural representations in Seward’s work.

The project began and is developing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus, but the site’s initial development joined a team of faculty and undergraduate students at the Pittsburgh and Greensburg campuses.  As the project continues to develop, it combines classroom teaching of digital humanities research methods together with new research to build a publicly accessible resource.  Our texts and markup and our data visualization experiments are very much a work in progress and are freely available to the public for reading or to download as the basis of new digital projects under a Creative Commons license.  Our site will continue to expand over the next few years as we experiment with topic modelling the Pacific voyage texts and as we develop new maps, search tools, and network graphics, working with new groups of students.

 

What Jane Saw: New Virtual Gallery Reconstructs Art Exhibit Attended by Jane Austen

What Jane Saw 201331959

What Jane Saw.  (Photo by Marsha Miller).

I am proud and pleased to finally be able to invite you to attend an online reconstruction of a famous art exhibit as novelist Jane Austen saw it on 24 May 1813 – exactly 200 years ago to the day.  Our website and virtual gallery is titled What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org).

The original exhibit featured 141 paintings by British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, which were displayed at the 1813 exhibition at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London.  The show amounted to the first large commemorative exhibition devoted to a single artist.  The What Jane Saw e-gallery displays these same Reynolds paintings on virtual walls, in precise imitation of the show’s original curatorial “hang.”

Although I provided the historical research for the site, this digital humanities project was a large collaborative and interdisciplinary effort.  What Jane Saw was constructed over several years by a talented team of student assistants and staff in the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) at the University of Texas at Austin.  For a short narrative about the making of the site and some of the people involved, see this story on the UT English Department’s website: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/english/news/6550.

Even if Jane Austen had not attended this public exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing.  The British Institution’s show was a star-studded “first” of great magnitude for the art community and a turning point in the history of modern exhibit practices.

Among the canvases in the retrospective gallery, the many celebrity portraits of 18th-century politicians, actors, authors, and aristocrats offer concrete examples of just how someone like Jane Austen, who did not personally circulate among the social elite, was nonetheless immersed in Georgian England’s vibrant celebrity culture.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen joked how she would be searching for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy among these pictures. Two hundred years to the day after Austen attended, the What Jane Saw website restages this Regency blockbuster.

The website takes advantage of the current digital toolkit to help transport visitors back to a specific event in 1813, the same year that Austen published Pride and Prejudice.  Today, the paintings that took part in the 1813 exhibit are dispersed across the globe while the original building in Pall Mall that once housed the British Institution is so altered as to be unrecognizable.  Virtual reality was the only way to put these objects back together.

Seeing the art in situ also revives the interpretive consequences of proximity and distance.  For example, some sitters are judiciously juxtaposed while others – rival politicians or high-profile socialites – are hung at painstaking removes from key members of the royal family.  Only a visual reconstruction allows the retrieval of these hidden narratives, hinting at the implied concerns of the original curators.

We hope you will take a look at: www.whatjanesaw.org.  This educational website is free and open to the public.  So, come and see the celebrities Jane Austen saw in 1813.  Step back in time to walk among the paintings in the virtual gallery.  This may be the nearest thing to time travel on the web!

Afterwards, let us know what you think on the What Jane Saw Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatJaneSaw.

HASTAC Reviews The 18th-Century Common

 

Elias Martin, “The Happy News” (1778). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Prints and Drawings. B1977.14.11918

In her recent piece for HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), Kirstyn Leuner reviews our recently-launched website and provides a range of insights concerning the period-based public humanities project.  Leuner’s post, entitled “Touring The (Launched) 18th-Century Common,” is the third and final review of 18thcenturycommon.org for HASTAC and appears simultaneously on the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism’s Graduate Student Caucus Homepage.