Retaking the High Ground of Digital History for the Civil War (Part 1)

From the beginning of digital history in the 1990s, Civil War scholars have led the way in creating ambitious digital projects. By far the most famous was Edward Ayers’s Valley of the Shadow project, a digital archive that gave many of today’s leading digital historians their first experience in using computers to answer historical questions. Valley of the Shadow has inspired many other historians to create their own works of digital history. The project led to Ayers’s award winning book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2004), proving that digital projects can both supplement and inform traditional print scholarship.

Although there have since been many innovative digital projects about the war and the sectional crisis, many of which are outlined in my essay on the subject for Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum, the Civil War is not a prominent as it once was online. Having worked on several large-scale projects devoted to the eras of the American Revolution and Early Republic, I think Civil War scholars and the institutions that support their work should think strategically about what kind of digital projects will be useful to digital humanists, traditional scholars, students, and enthusiasts alike.

Here in Part 1, I offer two of my five ideas about digital Civil War projects that I would like to see undertaken. Both suggestions are based on my experiences researching the mid-19th century in archives and online and from my time working on two large-scale digital history projects.  Three more ideas will appear in Part 2 next week.


(1) “Civil War Online”: A Freely Accessible Digital Archive of the Leading Figures of the War

FO Main Page
Founders Online, a collection of the writings of six of the major Founding Fathers in American History. I am currently employed on this project as an Assistant Editor.

In 2013, the National Archives launched Founders Online, a free website delivering digital versions of the major documentary editing projects devoted to the most important Founding Fathers in American history. I worked on the Early Access portion of the site as an Assistant Editor at Documents Compass. On the site, users can search or browse through over 160,000 letters written to or from George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin. This is an incredible resource that has already generated a lot of positive user feedback and has opened up the study of this period to people around the world. Imagine if there was a “Civil War Online” that similarly collected all of the letters from major figures during the war such as Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, as well as the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Being able to search these documents on a single site, and having the option to facet results by author, recipient, subject, and date would be a tremendous help to Civil War scholars. While some war-related resources like the Official Records are online, these sites are showing their age and the collected primary source I envision would represent a major upgrade in search capabilities, accessibility, and the sheer number of Civil War documents available in one central location.

Connected Histories: A great model for a Civil War or 19th century collection of online primary sources.

If, however, the various Civil War projects would prefer to remain separate, there is another solution that could allow them to keep their own websites while making discovery of their resources much easier than visiting and searching each site individually. JISC, a British company specializing in digital humanities work, has created a search portal called Connected Histories that allows users to search dozens of major collections and databases of British manuscripts, newspapers, and other primary sources. These primary sources cover the period 1500-1900  and come from both subscription and free access sites. A Civil War version of this site could pull from the Lincoln Papers, the Walt Whitman Archive, HarpWeek, the Richmond Daily Dispatch, the Grant Papers, Alexander Street Press’s Civil War Letters and Diaries, the Official Records, and many more sources to make online research as efficient and easy as possible. Such a search portal for the Civil War would be a great tool for researchers and would set the online study of the war apart from any other period of American history.

(2) “People of the Civil War Era”: A Prosopography and Social Network of Mid-19th Century America

PFE Main Page
People of the Founding Era, a prosopographical approach to studying the 18th and early 19th centuries. I worked on this project as a graduate student at Virginia.

Like my previous idea, this one is also based on a digital history project I have worked on called People of the Founding Era (PFE). PFE takes the tens of thousands of person identifications found in major Founding Father documentary editions and puts them into a single combined database. The database provides basic biographical data, citations to the letters and footnotes the person was mentioned in, and relationship links between different people in the collection. While most of the individuals in PFE are white men, the site also includes many slaves, Native Americans, and women.

A similar project on the Civil War period could create a picture of wartime Americans’ social ties and relationships. Civil War scholars have become increasingly interested in showing connections between the home front and battlefield and this kind of project could digitally illustrate these connections in a similar way to how Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters and Six Degrees of Francis Bacon do. Instead of trying to be all inclusive, there could be a series of mini-prosopographical projects that might each focus on a particular region, city, racial or ethnic group, or army unit.  A study of the Army of the Potomac, for example, could draw upon census records, muster rolls, and letters back home in order to produce digitally a collaborative study of the Union’s principal army. Such a study would be similar to what historian Joseph Glatthaar’s award winning book General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (2008) did for the Army of Northern Virginia. A series of thematic and collaborative prosopographical projects could be created by historians of women, ethnicity, race, religion, and many other fields. These projects could create digital databases and interfaces for examining and dynamically illustrating connections between their subjects in different cities, states, regions during the war in way that was never possible before the internet or modern computing capabilities. Eventually, I hope to create just such a project focusing on Catholic women during the war, in the hope that a digital study of their lives, relationships, and social networks might reveal their stories, which have been neglected in traditional print scholarship on women during the era. Such smaller projects as the examples above could be the basis of an increasingly ambitious and comprehensive project in the future. This larger “People of the Civil War Era” project would be collaborative, almost indefinitely expandable, and ultimately very useful to anyone interested in the mid-nineteenth century.