Earl Hess and Digital History

(At the request of H-CivilWar’s Niels Eichhorn I wrote an essay about the state of Civil War digital scholarship. I republish it below with their permission.)

Almost all of the responses to Earl Hess’s Civil War History article “The Internet and Civil War Studies,” both on Twitter and on H-CivilWar, have so far focused on the author’s fifth of six categories in which Hess discusses his survey respondents’ negative opinions of social media and blogs. For my part, I would like to discuss his fourth category and its assertion that “the internet has not fostered increased collaboration among Civil War historians.” While the essay admirably and thoroughly covers the various efforts of archives, universities, and Google to digitize primary sources and pre-1923 books, it does not discuss the wealth of digital Civil War history projects that the internet and modern computer software has made possible. These efforts, many of which were pioneering or have sometimes had an impact beyond Civil War studies, are important examples of internet-fostered collaboration that could have been addressed in category four if not elsewhere in the essay. While it is true that many of us are not digital historians, there are nonetheless a number of Civil War scholars collaborating online and contributing to both our field and the larger practice of digital humanities.

In the beginning, there was The Valley of the Shadow….

Any history of Civil War scholarship online, in fact of digital history, must necessarily start with Edward Ayers’s pioneering Valley of the Shadow project. Begun in the early 1990s just as the internet began to go mainstream, the project has launched several careers in digital history and led to two award winning monographs as well. The site represented a tremendous collaboration of resources and people at the University of Virginia and should be acknowledged as a model for how to put more high-quality resources about the Civil War online. Its success has helped pave the way for other successful digital collaborations, including such University of Richmond projects as Mining the Dispatch and Visualizing Emancipation. Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum is another noteworthy example of online collaboration given the large number of Civil War scholars who have contributed essays and content to the site. Five years ago I wrote an article on “The Civil War Online and Digital History” that discusses these and other successful digital projects, while suggesting possible areas of future collaboration.

More recent projects begun since my essay was written include Virginia Tech’s innovative Civil War Photo Sleuth and the Nau Center’s Black Virginians in Blue, an attempt to tell a more complex and diverse story of Charlottesville’s Civil War story that will be published next year. Stephen Berry’s Private Voices, about which he gave a superb talk at this year’s Civil War Institute, promises to be a useful resource for the study of common soldiers and nineteenth-century language. Anne Sarah Rubin’s Sherman’s March and America and Lorien Foote’s Fugitive Federals both make excellent use of mapping software to supplement monograph publications. Susannah Ural’s The Beauvoir Veteran Project, Judith Giesberg’s Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries, and Peter Carmichael’s Killed at Gettysburg are good examples of engaging students in historical work through digital history methods. There are several other digital projects run by our colleagues and hosted at other institutions that space does not permit me to address here.

The Nau Center’s Black Virginians in Blue digital project (Spring 2020).

Since Hess’s article’s intent was to “[assess] the internet’s effect on Civil War studies,” I think that collaboration should be defined broadly as involving our students, computer programmers, government funders, members of the public, and other institutional supporters in addition to our Civil War colleagues. Some of the digital history projects described above may not involve multiple Civil War scholars at different universities, but they do involve members of our subfield working together with other colleagues at their institutions, utilizing the expertise of digital humanities centers (such as the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities here at the University of Virginia or the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond), or working with graduate and undergraduate students to research and publish scholarship online. Crowd sourcing transcriptions of primary documents has the potential to interest members of the public in assisting in online scholarship and has proven to be quite successful as was the case with recent Civil War letter transcribing projects hosted by the Library of Virginia and the University of Iowa. A new project to transcribe USCT service records hosted by Zooniverse has already transcribed thousands of black soldiers’ records and their work will surely yield important insights into the black military experience when finished.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a Civil War version of this website? Imagine being able to filter the Official Records by date and author/recipient.

Certainly digital history and other forms of online engagement are not for everyone, although Hess’s 2016 survey respondents did express optimism about the internet’s future for increased collaboration (“At least 85 percent of all respondents answered yes when asked if they thought it would positively affect areas such as research, collaboration, and marketing.”). The Civil War community still lags behind other groups such as Early Americanists in embracing online collaboration and digital history. We do not yet have our own version of The Junto blog or a Civil War equivalent of Founders Online. But the success of digital scholars such as Edward Ayers, Anne Sarah Rubin, Stephen Berry, Susannah Ural, and many others should be acknowledged and celebrated. Perhaps recent initiatives such as Niels Eichorn’s revamped H-CivilWar will make our subfield’s practitioners more likely to see the positive merits of online collaboration and engagement in the future.