The Civil War in a New Age: Blogs, Technology, and the Internet

A few months back I was contacted by George Rable to take part in the yearly luncheon/dinner panel of the Society of Civil War Historians which meets as part of the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  This year the meeting will be in New Orleans and needless to say I am very excited and honored to be taking part.  The panel includes the following:

Presiding, George Rable, University of Alabama

Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s – Belfield School, “Blogging the American Civil War”
Anne Sara Rubin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “Mapping Memory: Digitizing Sherman’s March”
Mark Grimsley, Ohio State University, “The Virtual Archive Rat: Exploiting the Online Availability of Traditional Sources”

I asked both Anne and Mark to forward their presentation abstracts, which will be published in the next issue of the society’s newsletter.  They can be found below.

Kevin M. Levin

There is an ongoing conversation that is taking place covering just about every aspect of the Civil War.  Twenty-four hours a day – seven days a week you can sign onto a host of message boards, listservs, and blogs and discuss just about every conceivable topic related to the Civil War from the ever-popular battlefields and commanders to complex issues such as secession, emancipation, politics, and the role of women.  Unfortunately, these discussions are taking place with little input from professional historians employed in the academy, state archives, historical societies, and National Park Service.  This is not meant to impugn those employed in these professions, as they are all centered on education and public outreach, but to point out the possibilities which the Internet offers those of us who value accurate and meaningful history as part of the public discourse. As historians we are fortunate to have a general public that continues to be fascinated by the Civil War era and with the Civil War Sesquicentennial set to begin in 2011 there will no doubt be an increase in public awareness and interest in this crucial moment in American history.

In November 2005 I launched a weblog (or blog for short) titled Civil War Memory. I was strongly influenced by Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, which addresses questions related to military history.  I was impressed with the range of issues discussed and Mark’s audience, which is made up of professional historians, military personnel, and general readers. Mark’s blog works to bridge the divide between more casual readers of military history and scholars working in the field.  He addresses complex issues and abstract ideas related to gender, post-colonialism, and race and does so in an intellectually stimulating and entertaining manner.  I set out to do the same thing with Civil War Memory.  As the title suggests I concentrate on issues related to historical memory and public history. I’ve managed to engage readers from all walks of life, including professional historians, history educators, archivists, and National Park Service personnel as well as a wide range of Civil War enthusiasts.  My regular readers come from just about every state and as far away as Italy, India, Australia, Japan, and Poland.

I see myself as occupying a unique position as both a high school history teacher and Civil War historian. My interests extend beyond strictly military themes, which remain the preoccupation of most Civil War enthusiasts and while I did not have specific goals in mind when I first started blogging I did hope to introduce and discuss questions and subjects that are often overlooked in certain circles such as memory studies, race/slavery, and social/cultural history.  Many of my posts include references to recent scholarship, which is intended to demonstrate that only through careful study can we claim to speak with any authority about the past.  In addition to introducing new and important scholarship to my readers I have also enjoyed commenting on public issues surrounding our collective memory of the war.  Examples range from the public display of the Confederate flag to questions of how battlefields ought to be interpreted by the National Park Service to the recent proposal to place a statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber on the grounds at Tredegar.

Professional historians are trained to contribute to a body of scholarship through careful research and thorough analysis, which is ultimately judged in the form of a monograph or journal article.  This will no doubt remain the core of the profession, but at the same time, historians are increasingly aware of their responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.  With the sesquicentennial set to begin in a few years published studies will no doubt increase as they have in connection with the anticipation of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth; however, it is likely that most people will not follow up their curiosity about a particular Civil War topic by purchasing or reading a book.  Rather, they will go to the Internet.  For those of you who see yourself as having a responsibility to take part in a dialog that extends beyond the walls of your college or university than blogging may be for you.  I look forward to discussing the opportunities and challenges that blogging presents to professional Civil War historians. 

Anne S. Rubin

I will use the example of my digital project-in-progress, entitled Mapping Memory:  Sherman’s March and America to explore the ways that digital technologies can enhance historical writing on the web.  This project looks at the place of 1864′s March to the Sea in American culture, through maps, literature, film, memoir, and oral histories.  Working in conjunction with artists and programmers, I am building a site that explores the contours of collective memory.  Rather than simply presenting evidence in an archival form, I am using it to present a strong argument, though one that is not exclusively textual.  In so doing, I hope to “push the envelope” of what digital history can be in the 21st century.

Mark Grimsley

Through World Cat, historians can instantly search the holdings of libraries around the globe.  Academic journals are online, as are older secondary works now in public domain, and one can read or at least sample current secondary works via Google Books and similar tools. The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies has long been available online, as are the Congressional Globe, dozens of Civil War era newspapers and magazines, hundreds of letters and diaries, and a rapidly growing number of published memoirs, reminiscences, and regimental histories.  There are also numerous databases; e.g., the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors system maintained by the National Park Service, which makes available the compiled service records housed in the National Archives.  And there are focused digital archives like the Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia.

Most of these sources are keyword searchable, which can fundamentally alter the research strategies available to a historian.  While working on The Hard Hand of War, I spent hundreds of hours poring through bound volumes of the Official Records in search of references to “pillaging,” “foraging,” etc.  I could now find every passage that used those words within seconds, and through Boolean searches could identify patterns that might otherwise elude me.  All in all, I could duplicate the research for the entire book in less than half the time it required less than twenty years ago, and I could have examined many more sources in more innovative ways. Moreover, the Internet itself has opened up new subjects for study, particularly in the realm of Civil War memory, where one could investigate the subject through analysis of many Civil War related discussion groups, blogs, personal web sites, and so on.

What are the implications of this?  Plainly, the Internet makes a wealth of traditional sources more readily available and allows them to be interrogated in new ways, though many academics still have a knee jerk suspicion of electronic media.  Web browsers first became widely available in the mid-1990s, but it took years for some historians even to reconnoiter the Internet, and many still have only a rudimentary grasp of its potential.  Yet their suspicions are not wholly misplaced.  The Ohio State University library, for example, is in the throes of a full-scale makeover.  When its renovation is complete, it will no longer look as if designed by Albert Speer, its reading rooms will no longer be cramped, and its stacks will no longer be so labyrinthine that one is tempted to leave a trail of bread crumbs.  It will also be a nice place to get a cup of coffee.  But the number of books it contains will plummet from 2.2 million to 1.5 million, with 700,000 books sent to off-site storage.  The logic behind this is driven largely by the emergence of electronic media.  And what that means, in part, is that one of the best traditional research strategies—that of simply skimming through books on the shelf—will be compromised if not crippled.

Were this development confined to Ohio State University, it would be of concern only to historians at my home institution.  But an increasing number of library renovations reflect the same trend.  The Gutenberg Age is over.  The Digital Age is here.  Civil War historians had better get used to it—and learn to love it.

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2 thoughts on “The Civil War in a New Age: Blogs, Technology, and the Internet

  1. Lisa

    Kevin,

    Thanks for pointing this out. It’s close to home so I might just be able to make it, maybe. I’m excited if it works out…

    Reply
  2. Harry

    Kevin,

    A couple of years ago I was contacted by a magazine to write an article on how internet resources were affecting the way research was being done and also how its methodology was being taught. So I surveyed six members of the academy, all of them Phds and all of them folks you know or have heard of. The cumulative result was gobbldygook to the extent that it was apparent that the “academy”, for lack of a better term, had not looked at the topic in any organized way. With one or two exceptions, it seemed that these folks were a) unaware of many of the resources available and or b) more concerned with the disadvantages than the advantages they presented. There was such a lack of consistency in the responses that I had nothing to work with, dropped back fifteen and punted – that is, I wrote an article on CW blogs instead. It’s good to know that the SCWH is tackling this (BTW, you got some nice press in the newsletter I received today).

    The digitization of resources represents a quantum leap in historical research, similar to that of the early 1800′s when archives became available to the public. The internet has helped lower the barriers of time and money. Twenty years ago you needed good friends in dozens of repositories. Now you need one good friend, and his name is Google!

    Reply

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