The rapid growth of the internet has provided a new avenue for Civil War enthusiasts to share their passion for the nation's bloodiest conflict.
The rapid growth of the internet since the early 1990s has fundamentally changed the way we read the news, buy goods, work, and communicate with friends and family. It has also provided a new avenue for the vast number of Civil War enthusiasts to share their passion for the nation’s bloodiest conflict, from websites dedicated to a particular state or regiment, to blogs discussing certain aspects of the war such as medicine or slavery, to collections of primary sources online. Without the internet, creating such a large collaborative project such as the Essential Civil War Curriculum that can be quickly and easily updated as necessary to include new books, new interpretations, and new contact information for scholars, would be costly if not impossible. Civil War scholars have often been at the forefront of the larger field of American history in putting quality historical information, primary resources, and innovative digital history projects online. Within academia the fastest growing subfield is digital humanities (DH), or digital history in the case of history departments. It is important that all who study, research, write, blog, or tweet about the war recognize this trend and seek to keep the Civil War at the forefront of the latest developments online.
This essay will discuss a selection of these efforts, showing how important scholars and enthusiasts of the war are in helping to bring quality information about American history to an online audience. It argues that groups dedicated to the study of the war, whether they are the Civil War Trust, the Society of Civil War Historians, or local Civil War roundtables, should support and collaborate on innovative and ambitious digital projects. It suggests that creating a large repository of Civil War era primary sources and a prosopographical database of Americans during the 1860s are two future projects that would be of great use to scholars, both traditional and “digital,” as well as students, enthusiasts, and the general public.
The Civil War has been one of the most popular subjects in American history online since the beginning of the internet. Much of this early growth was driven by amateur enthusiasts who embraced websites and blogs as an inexpensive way to write about the war. As the library journal Choice remarked in the 1990s, “Some days it appears that the Internet consists of equal parts Star Trek, stock market reports, soft-core pornography—and Civil War sites.” Although this is certainly an exaggeration, the Civil War is arguably one of the most popular historical subjects on the web based on the large number of sites, blogs, and Facebook pages dedicated to it. The Civil War Sesquicentennial has helped to keep public interest high, with popular blogs such as the New York Times’s Disunion and the Civil War Trust’s website providing freshly written and new multimedia content on the war to hundreds of thousands of internet users.
Even today, much of the information about the war on the internet can be traced to the hard work of Civil War amateurs and enthusiasts. Admittedly, not all of it is of high quality, and educators and professors rightly lament that a Google search can favor un-reviewed, outdated, or biased material over more scholarly peer-reviewed books or articles. Wikipedia, for example, can provide a useful starting place for students unfamiliar with a battle or person while pointing them toward useful secondary sources. Its articles on the war, however, are often of uneven quality and specialists can find something to criticize in even the best ones. Worse still are personal websites that “broadcast old prejudices, ancient theories, and long-disproved arguments about the Civil War.” These often play down the importance of slavery or focus narrowly on military subjects to the detriment of the larger picture.
Despite these admitted shortcomings, many non-academic sites are of high quality and offer useful information to those interested in learning about the war, and these sites do so in ways that are often more accessible and less expensive for the general public than visiting a distant archive. The Civil War Trust’s excellent collection of free interactive maps, useful battle summaries, and videos about social, cultural, and military aspects of the war are great resources for students and those looking for a good general introduction to the war. Civil War blogs, most of which are run by non-academics, provide useful information about everything from cavalry tactics, to Irish American soldiers, to wartime medicine. Other amateurs’ sites contain primary sources about famous Civil War leaders, regiments, and individual soldiers that otherwise would have to be consulted in an archive. For example, Russell Scott’s Civil War website contains a number of official documents, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries from the German American men of the 26th Wisconsin Regiment. These sources wonderfully demonstrate how important connections between the home front and battlefield were, making them useful to both scholars and family historians. The fact that Germans are an often overlooked group in Civil War scholarship makes this collection, which has been translated into English, very valuable.
While scholars, students, and enthusiasts continue to read about the war primarily in print, even professional scholarship and research has increasingly moved online. Rather than spend their days in front of microfilm readers pouring through old newspapers, researchers can take advantage of subscription-based primary source databases such as Harpweek to be able to keyword search for relevant articles, editorials, and even cartoons. Alexander Street Press’s excellent Civil War Letters and Diaries collection is available at most major university libraries while subscriptions to Ancestry.com provide a range of documents including a large number of military service records from the National Archives to paying customers. Both popular and scholarly journals are available in some form online and academic and non-academic presses usually release their latest publications as e-books. Unfortunately, online access to these excellent primary and secondary sources is often limited to scholars and students fortunate enough to reside at major institutions that are willing to pay large subscription fees for journal, newspaper, and other primary source databases.
Thankfully, there is a large variety of free collections of primary sources about the war that are useful both to history buffs and scholars. The Library of Congress’s American Memory boasts a wealth of digitized letters, maps, and photographs covering the history of the United States, and its digitized content on the Civil War is particularly strong. Civil War publications, from books to blogs, frequently use the Library’s vast collection of open-access wartime photographs. This photograph collection is a remarkable resource that is continually being expanded by the Library’s staff. In addition, the Library’s collection of Abraham Lincoln Papers is freely available and has been transcribed to make searching easier for users. The library also contains extensive digitized finding guides to its Civil War-era book and manuscript collections.
After the Library of Congress, perhaps the most valuable collection of Civil War sources can be found at Making of America, a joint digitization project between Cornell University and the University of Michigan. Although it has since been dwarfed by Google Books, Making of America provides users with excellent searching tools and access to The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (OR). The OR is the single most useful collection of primary sources for any Civil War historian, but buying or even borrowing the over one hundred volumes is well beyond the means of many. Thanks to Making of America, scholars can now quickly keyword search through the tens of thousands of pages comprising the OR, saving them time while providing convenient access for anyone with an internet connection. In addition to the OR, a number of archives and documentary editing projects have made their letters freely available online, providing a huge boon to scholars and war enthusiasts. Some of the more useful ones include the University of Notre Dame’s William T. Sherman Family Papers, the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, the Walt Whitman Archive, and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Scholars of the Civil War have also been at the forefront of the digital humanities field. Digital humanists have used the web to present information in new and more widely available ways and have harnessed computing technology from other fields to study old problems in new ways. Foremost among digital Civil War scholars is Edward L. Ayers, the current president of the University of Richmond. Prior to serving in this position, Ayers was a history professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History. At Virginia, Ayers helped direct a famous project called The Valley of the Shadow. Valley of the Shadow was not simply a digitization of an existing collection. Rather, it collected a wide range of sources on two counties in the Shenandoah Valley, Augusta Co., Virginia, and Franklin, Co. Pennsylvania respectively, to create a unique digital archive highlighting the experiences of ordinary men and women, both white and black, during the Civil War era. Launched in the early 1990s, the site provided users with free access to a variety of resources from relevant documents in the OR, to personal letters, to government records, to local newspaper accounts. Ayers eventually published an award-winning book based on the project called In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (2004).
Veterans of the Valley project have since gone on to be leaders in the digital history field. After leaving UVA, Ayers took an active role in supporting the work of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. One of Richmond’s extremely useful resources for American historians, the digitized Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, contains a plethora of maps depicting the extent and growth of American slavery and Civil War battles. Visualizing Emancipation is an exciting project documenting the history of emancipation during the Civil War. It allows users to track over time instances of African Americans escaping slavery, being recaptured by Confederates, and encountering the Union Army. The project employed the labor of a small army of undergraduates entering in data from easily accessible primary sources such as the OR in order to create a visual representation of the four-year process of ending slavery in the United States. William G. Thomas, Ayers’s student who worked on Valley of the Shadow project, has written extensively about the usefulness of digital methods for the study of the war. He helped to create projects such as Railroads and the Making of America, and Civil War Washington at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Thomas, along with fellow Valley of the Shadow collaborator Alice E. Carter, published The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites (2001). This book picked out the best 95 sites out of several thousand that the authors personally reviewed. Sorting them into categories such as “Women in the Civil War,” “Battles and Campaigns,” and “Life of the Soldier,” the book provided a helpful guide to the war online at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It noted important trends in online content as well. Thomas and Carter argued that amateur historians created most of the Civil War websites then currently online and that these sites focused on battles, regiments, and military figures rather than on the larger causes of the war, slavery, or social history. While the book still serves as a useful guide to many of the best Civil War websites, the mere fact that it was published in print gave it only a temporary claim to comprehensiveness or accuracy. As soon as it was released, the constant growth and expansion of Civil War web pages soon made the book obsolete. Only an online index of Civil War sites, one which can be regularly updated much more quickly and efficiently than a second edition of an academic monograph, can come even remotely close to cataloging most of the new internet material about the war since 2001.
Other notable digital projects include Professor Robert K. Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch, a digital study of Richmond’s Daily Dispatch from 1860 to 1865. Mining the Dispatch is an excellent example of the power of topic modeling to “uncover categories and discover patterns in and among texts.” Building on web transcription technology developed by the George Mason Center for History and New Media, the University of Iowa created Transcribe, a tool that allows for efficient project management of crowd-based transcription of primary documents online. Both Iowa and the Library of Virginia have used the tool to provide searchable transcripts of their extensive Civil War letters and diaries collections. Such crowd-sourcing projects offer exciting new ways for the historical community to reach out to non-academic audiences and give them a stake in the preservation and presentation of the Civil War online.
The excellent digital history work of Ayers, Thomas, various institutions, and countless enthusiasts should continue to be encouraged and supported into the future. How might Civil War historians accomplish this? First of all, professional organizations devoted to the study of the war should modernize their website design, incorporate social media, and include forums or other web tools to promote scholarly collaboration. The redesigned sites for the American Historical Association and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic are two excellent models to follow. Current professors and graduate students should be encouraged to experiment with new techniques in the digital humanities. The Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) already offers workshops and grants for students and young professionals to learn about digital humanities techniques and to launch their own projects. Educating academics and enthusiasts about how the internet can expand their findings to a larger audience can be done relatively inexpensively online. Furthermore, the collective interests of scholars, students, and amateurs will help ensure a comprehensiveness that will allow Civil War topics on the internet to be expanded from a focus largely on military events and important figures to how the conflict affected families, the economy, government, and the future development of the United States into a world power.
Based upon my own work in the digital humanities and digital history, I would suggest that Civil War historians initially focus on projects that can be of use to both traditional and digital scholars. While traditional scholars favor close readings of a selected number of primary sources, digital scholars like to employ computer programs to analyze large bodies of text or data. Both, however, would agree that free and convenient access to Civil War era letters, diaries, and records is beneficial for everyone. One such project could involve digitizing and compiling into a single website as many primary resources as possible. All scholars, students, and enthusiasts benefit from greater access to primary sources online. Not only does free access online cut down on travel expenses for scholars and their departments, but it would help encourage the larger public to engage directly with primary sources regarding the war as well, something that is hard to do when they are scattered across the nation in hundreds of archives. Founders Online already does this extremely well for those who study the America Revolution and Early Republic period, by granting access, free of charge, to the papers of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.
By contrast, sites containing access to the OR, Grant’s Papers, Lee’s letters, or Walt Whitman’s correspondence exist separately, making integrated searching of their wartime material impossible. Unfortunately, important scholarly documentary editions such as Frederick Douglass’s Papers or Jefferson Davis’s letters are not yet digitized. A “Civil War Online” site could take the lessons learned by the National Archives in creating Founders Online and provide a single platform for achieving much more ambitious results for the Civil War. While the letters of the elite white men on Founders Online do reveal much about the larger society of which they were a part of, a Civil War project should expand its scope to include letters of prominent women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other non-political figures. If projects were hesitant to roll their content into a single digital repository, creating a compiled search engine is another solution that would allow users to go to a single website in order to search a large variety of primary resources. One advantage to this approach, which would allow digital projects to maintain greater control over their content, would be to allow simultaneous searching across both free and paid content online, for example the free version of the OR and the subscription-based Harpweek. An excellent example of this kind of search engine is Connected Histories, which combines important databases on British history from 1500-1900 in a single location.
Another area in which the Civil War lags behind other periods of history is that of digital prosopography. Stanford University’s excellent Mapping the Republic of Letters shows connections between leading intellectuals of the enlightenment across Europe and North America in the 18th century. Other notable examples from European history include Kindred Britain and People of Medieval Scotland. In the field of American history, the late 18th and early 19th centuries are covered by a number of projects including the Craftsman Database and People of the Founding Era (PFE). PFE combines biographical information mined from several documentary editing projects to create an online prosopographical database of tens of thousands of individuals who lived in British North America and the early United States. Just as PFE benefitted from the work of previous scholars, so too might those interested in a digital prosopography project of the Civil War start with individuals mentioned and described in the annotated letters of leading figures of the war (Lincoln, Davis, Douglass, Chase, Clara Barton, etc.). This sample could then be expanded using information available in the OR, Ancestry.com, and the National Park Service’s free Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) database. The complementary nature of a primary source project with this kind of prosopography project means that both could be undertaken collaboratively at the same time and would be a substantial contribution to our understanding of the Civil War.
The expanding and pervasive presence of the Civil War online and in digital humanities is a sign of the topic’s vitality both in American history classrooms and in the mind of the public. Essential Civil War Curriculum stands as a testament to that desire for more, better, and frequently updated information about the war online. It—like the Valley of the Shadow project, Making of America, and various amateurs’ sites such as Russell Scott’s—shows the potential of the internet and digital humanities for looking at the war in new and increasingly more comprehensive ways. Creating large-scale and ambitious projects with many primary sources will help traditional scholars find useful resources more efficiently. These projects will also give digital humanists access to the large sets of data that they need to employ such tools as text mining, GIS, and network analysis. Amateurs and students will benefit from convenient and free access to primary sources. By democratizing access to important Civil War resources for scholars, students, and enthusiasts, the internet, despite some of the current shortcomings in available online material, can help increase collaboration and break new ground in understanding the war and its importance as a turning point in United States history.
Thomas, William G. & Alice E. Carter. The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2000.
Thomas, William G. & Alice E. Carter. The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2000.
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In addition to the websites listed below the Civil War Online and Digital History essay contains dozens of embedded links to websites and explanations of the purpose and content of those websites.
The Valley of the Shadow is an online exhibit of primary sources related to Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin Country, Pennsylvania during the Civil War era. I is one of the earliest online Civil War projects and still one of the best.
This is the National Park Service’s searchable Soldiers and Sailors Database of men who served during the Civil War. It provides basic unit and rank information for both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Civil War Washington is a digital resource that uses many primary sources and multiple approaches to understand how the war changed our nation’s capital.
Mining the Dispatch is a study of the Richmond Times Dispatch during the war using topic modeling.
The Virginia Center for Civil War Studies offers a useful guide to digitized primary sources from the Civil War era online.
The official website of the Civil War Trust contains a wealth of free maps, videos, and other educational materials related to the war.
The Civil War in Blogs is a useful guide to some of the best Civil War blogs online maintained by the Civil War Trust.
Best of History Websites is a collection of useful web resources about the Civil War.
The official website of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln documentary editing project which is dedicated to identifying, imaging, transcribing, annotating, and publishing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865).
This is the official website of the state of Virginia’s Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.
The Walt Whitman Archive is a good example of an innovative and ambitious digital documentary edition, collecting a wealth of primary and secondary sources about Walt Whitman, including his career and writings related to the war.
The Encyclopedia Virginia contains a veritable treasure trove of articles, short biographies, and multimedia related to topics in Virginia history, including the Civil War.
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