The Reliability of the Linn Diary

All of the work that we have done in this course has focused on the Diary of James Merrill Linn.  During our time together this semester, aside from just learning the skills and tools of digital humanities research, we also developed a working knowledge of the Burnside Expedition, and the Civil War as a whole.  As a final project, I wanted to determine if our new historical knowledge was based on reliable evidence.

 Was James Merrill Linn a reliable, factual storyteller in the entries in his diary?


To answer this question, I decided to find another reputable source of information about events of the Burnside Expedition and compare the versions of events written in that source with the versions told by Linn.  In making these comparisons, I also hoped to learn more about what can be gained from looking at historical events from multiple perspectives.  I chose to compare Linn’s diary against the Burnside biography linked on our WordPress site because I believed that it could provide an objective, ‘zoomed out’ perspective on the events I wanted to examine.  I also chose to limit the scope of this project to the events leading up to and during the battle of South Mills.

Side by SideThe first step in the process was to go through the two texts and pull out lines where both authors were writing about the same event.  I viewed the two texts side-by-side, and copied over quotes of the similar areas into an organizational text document to begin a list of the events that I wanted to study more closely.

The Quote LogThough the main essence of this project is text based, I still wanted to present the results as a story; the story of the Battle of South Mills as told from two separate perspectives.  Out of all the visualization tools we worked with throughout the semester, I liked ArcGIS the most for storytelling, so I chose to use that to display my findings.  However, instead of trying to show the similarities and differences on the map, I would use it to draw the viewer’s attention to certain locations of interest, and explain the findings of the project using popups and later the map journal sidebar.

Once I knew I wanted to mark each event on the map, the next question to Linn Mapanswer was ‘how?’  I determined that by using icons available in the map notes feature of ArcGIS, I could create nodes on the map that had a visual relation to the event that it represented.  I feel that this choice of visual representation helped to keep visual clutter down to a minimum, as the icon was all that was needed to represent each point of interest in the project.

As for the maps I selected, the map of the Battle of South Mills was an obvious choice.  It allowed me to place mid-battle nodes in proper places relative to each other and to the bigger overall scale of the battle.  The pre-battle events were not nearly as location-specific, and so a less detailed map of a larger area was needed.  In this case, the other map I chose for those elements was the North Carolina east coast map.

While I was analyzing the differences between the two writings at each event, I was coming up with different conclusions at each one.  I realized that this was something I also wanted to convey to any viewers of the project, so I decided to include these conclusions along with the explanation of the interesting comparisons in the sidebar slides of the map journal publication.

The Reliability of the Linn DiaryAt each slide of the published map journal, I decided to have the pop-up caption for the current node automatically open.  These pop-ups all contain quotations from the original text which are very helpful for understanding the points being made in each slide of the sidebar.  These automatic pop-ups are also useful during the Battle of South Mills to delineate which node out of the small cluster iscurrently active and being discussed.

After finishing this project, I’m fairly confident that I managed to answer my initial question.  After cross-examination of both works of writing, I’m willing to say that Linn’s diary is accurate enough for us to gather reliable information about the Civil War and the Burnside Expedition from it.  There were differences between the two versions of the story, but most of those are able to be explained simply by the difference in point of view.  There were even a number of occasions where the Linn Diary went into more detail about an event than Burnside’s biography did, leading me to believe that Linn intended for his writings to be a reference for his actions in the Civil War.

In addition, I learned how important it is to check multiple references and points of view when analyzing a particular historical event.  By combining the information recorded in the two writings that I studied, I was able to form a more complete picture of the battle of South Mills than either one could have given me individually.  Every source seems to be likely to include some bit of data that all other references missed, and each bit can be added to the story like a puzzle piece, bringing you closer to fully understanding the event.

Overall, I thought that mapping using ArcGIS was the most effective of the methods we used in class for this project.  Although it didn’t help me to formulate or organize my thoughts about my research question, it did provide me with a way to easily share my results with others.The Reliability of the Linn Diary (1)

Works Cited

Linn, James Merrill. Diary. April 17-19 1862. MS. Bucknell University Archives and Special Collections, Lewisburg, PA.

Ibrahim, Mohamed.  Rowboat Map Icon.  Retrieved 3 Dec. 2014

Woodbury, Augustus.  “Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth…”  S.S. Rider & Brother, 1867.  As retrieved from course WordPress Site.

Letters vs. Diaries

Through this final project, I wanted to find out if James Merrill Linn wrote differently to his mother and brother than he did in his diary entries that we analyzed earlier this year. I also thought it would be interesting to analyze the different ways in which he address his mother versus his brother. In order to accomplish this goal I decided to collaborate with my classmate Rachel Harmatz that way we would have double the data to work with. I began by transcribing a letter that James Merrill Linn wrote home to his brother John on February 11th, 1862, while Rachel worked on transcribing a letter written home to his mother on February 19th, 1862. We purposely picked two letters that were written around the same time chronologically to allow us to make a stronger comparison.

snap talk1

Drawing seen in letter to John

Although the transcription process was made much easier by working with a partner, Rachel and I still faced some difficulties. For example, there was a part of the letter to John in which there was an image drawn over the words. This made seeing the words underneath a very difficult process for us. However, I think that the image might be a drawing of the company houses that he previously discusses. Therefore, even though the image serves a purpose, it made reading the letter much harder. In the letter to James Merrill Linn’s mother he also drew a picture, however the words were on either side of the picture so it did not interfere. We are not sure as to why in this case the image was not drawn in the same fashion. Additionally, there were some individual words that both of us were not able to figure out, even in context. We went to the archive to look at the original document, but even when looking at this, some of the words were still indecipherable.



For our next step we decided to color code before tagging through oxygen because we both found this a useful step while working with Linn’s diary entries. We agreed on which tags would be useful to us, and created our own key for the colors to code with. One difference between coding these letters from when we coded Linn’s diary entries, was that we decided to take advantage of the “affiliation” tag. For example, we chose to mark North Carolinians as an affiliation, because they are not just people, they are people affiliated with a specific place. This process of coding allowed us to easily see visually which word types were more prominent, which will be very useful for our analysis. We then coded using TEI before transferring this word document into oxygen so that we could create our digital edition.

Another means in which we thought would provide us with useful analysis was Voyant tools. Voyant tools allow us to see which specific words are most prominently used. Since we want to compare both the letters to John and his mother, and the letters as a whole to the diary entries, we decided to make several cirrus’ through Voyant. We made one of the letter to John, one of the letter to the mother, one of both the letters, and one with both the diary entries. We did not think it would be necessary to make two separate cirrus’ for Rachel and I’s diary entries because we deemed them similar enough.

After all these steps were completed, we were finally able to begin our analysis. Through analyzing all three documents (diary entries, letter to John, and letter to mother) through TEI and Voyant tools, I can conclude that the context he includes in each document varies considerably. The diary entries are very factual and provide a play-by-play of James Merrill Linn’s days. On the other hand, the letter home to his mother is much more personal. The letter home to John falls somewhere in the middle of the diary entries and the letters home to his mom. The letter home to John includes a mix of factual information related to his war experiences and personal emotional experiences.

Voyant cirrus of diary entries

The analysis of the diary entries has been done previously in the year. We coded the diary entries, and through this we were able to discover that the diary entries heavily focused on people, objects, and places that directly involved him in the moment. Additionally, through close reading we observed that Linn focuses on weather and the specific time of day in which he goes to certain places. He also focuses on specific accounts and details of the war. This led me to believe that Linn wrote the diary entries for himself as a reference that he could look back to in order to trace his past steps and remember when certain events took place. Additionally, the Voyant cirrus served as a very helpful form of analysis. Voyant tools allows the viewer to see which words come up the most throughout the document. The words that are at the center and the largest in the screenshot are the most prominent. The words that are the largest all relate directly to the war, such as, killed, capt, battle, men, col, boats, island, barracks, quarters, and gun. This shows that Linn was very concerned in his diaries to have an accurate account of each day during the war. Although this would serve as very helpful in order to map James Merrill Linn’s path, through this we do not get to know Linn on a personal level. I was curious to see if Linn also wrote to his mother and brother, John, about these same details, or if he opened up about his experiences and emotions to them.

After transcribing the letters to John and Linn’s mother, and analyzing both of them through TEI and Voyant tools, it can be concluded that both of these letters are much more personal in comparison to the diary entries. Some aspects that made these letters more personal was that they included stories and Linn expressed both his humor and emotions. When reading these letters I felt a closer connection to Linn than I felt while reading any of Linn’s diary entries. However, one main distinction between the letter to John and the letter to his mother was that the letter to John still included specific accounts and details from the war, where as this was not seen as much in the letter to his mother.



Through analyzing James Merrill Linn’s letter to his mother, I believe that its purpose served to inform his mother of how he was doing through telling her stories of his personal experiences. For example, Linn includes his responsibilities, i.e. being military commander, and what he specifically does such as issuing out food and arranging cooking. Additionally, there are many instances after doing a close reading that led me to see that Linn cares deeply for his mother. For example, in one part of the letter, he discusses how he wants his mother to know that he is safe, and apologized for being too busy to write. Also, even by just taking a glimpse at the color coding document, I can see that grey is one of the most commonly seen colors, which corresponds to states, i.e. emotion. However, I remember from coding Linn’s diary entries that states was one of the least seen word types. Throughout this letter to his mother, Linn expresses emotion heavily. For instance, he expresses excitement when he talks about the amazing food he receives. Through the voyant cirrus, we were able to see that two commonly used words were hope and wish. This illustrates that Linn was very expressive throughout the letter of his feelings. Lastly, it is important to note that in order to make his mother feel connected to his life, he includes funny stories. One story that I enjoyed from this letter was how one of the doctors mistook a man named Foster, as General Foster, and did not notice until after he finished treating the man. Therefore, although Linn does not focus heavily on accounts related to his war experiences, some stories about the battles and prisoners do come up in this letter on some occasions.

Letters to John

Voyant cirrus of letter to John

The context of the letter to James Merrill Linn’s brother, John, had a balance between war accounts, and personal details. This letter was not nearly as factual as the diary entries, but  discussed details of war significantly more than he did to his mother. When analyzing the color coding document for the letter to John, one of the most commonly seen colors is light green, which correlates to affiliation. Some things that we categorized as affiliation are regiments and companies. Since these word types are seen frequently, we can conclude that Linn discusses specific occurrences that happen during his time at war a good amount. However, this does not mean that Linn cares about his mother more than his brother, it might be because his brother is a boy and can relate to these types of details better. For example, Linn discusses his fraternity Phi Kappa Psi in this letter, which is something reasonable for his brother to be more interested in than his mother. Looking at the Voyant of the letter to John also proves this point. Some of the most used words relate to war such as company, men, island, wounded, and condition. However, unlike the Voyant of the diary entries, not all of the words are solely related to war. This letter did have some emotional and personal aspects and Linn took the time to let John know that he is safe and he explained his living situation and gave him details such as the good bread the cook heats up for him. Therefore, the context included in the letter to John was a nice mix between the other two documents. Linn did not only discuss details of the war, but through this letter we also go to learn about him and his experiences on a personal level.

Overall, this project allowed me to compare the writings of James Merrill Linn, and this analysis was made possible through both TEI and Voyant tools. I thought it was interesting to learn about the different aspects of his life Linn decided to mention and discuss in his own diary, versus to his mother and brother. It is important to note that my personal interpretations played a huge role in the coding that I did and therefore the conclusions that I made. A different person could have chose to code different word types, and based off of that come up with different conclusions. Despite this fact, I enjoyed this project very much and it was nice to get to know more about James Merrill Linn and not just of his whereabouts during the war.

The links to my digital edition and TEI file can be opened through the links below…

Works Cited

Linn, James Merrill. Diary. February 5-7, 8-12, 1862. MS. Bucknell University Archives and Special Collections, Lewisburg, PA.
Linn, James Merrill. Letter to John. February 11, 1862. MS. Bucknell University Archives and Special Collections, Lewisburg, PA.
Linn, James Merrill. Letter to Mother. February 19, 1862. MS. Bucknell University Archives and Special Collections, Lewisburg, PA.