Digital archive reveals Civil War complexities

History: About 5,000 pages of primary documents from the war era are available on the Internet.

Gettysburg : A Remembrance

July 02, 2000|By Jeffrey R. Young | Jeffrey R. Young,New York Times News Service

Was the American Civil War inevitable?

Many popular histories, like the epic television documentary by Ken Burns, portray the conflict as an unavoidable corrective that rid a great nation of slavery. But people of the 1850s and 1860s didn't see the issues leading up to the war so clearly.

According to letters, diaries, newspapers and other records, many Northerners of the period expressed support or sympathy for slavery, and many on both sides longed for a compromise.

"I do not believe that Providence has raised up this nation to such greatness and glory, to throw it away," a Southerner, Capt. Samuel Brown Coyner, wrote on Jan. 4, 1861. Months later, however, this man was fighting for the Confederacy.

Eight years of collecting

Dr. Edward L. Ayers, a history professor at the University of Virginia, has his own theories about what caused the Civil War. But he doesn't want to give his version, at least not yet. Instead, he hopes that people will explore primary historical documents and reach their own conclusions.

With the help of a small army of graduate students, Ayers has spent the last eight years collecting and electronically scanning more than 5,000 pages of diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, church records, wills, military rosters, maps, census figures and other documents from 1857 to 1870. He is trying to capture nearly every document from two counties just 200 miles apart in the Shenandoah Valley: Franklin County in Pennsylvania, in the North, and Augusta County in Virginia, in the South. The two counties were chosen as economically and socially representative of the two sides in the Civil War.

The archive, called "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War," is available on the university's Web site (, and a portion of it will be published on CD-ROM by W.W. Norton & Co. this summer. The Valley of the Shadow project amounts to a do-it-yourself history kit. Instead of presenting a single narrative of the war, as a traditional history book or documentary would, the archive allows visitors to piece together stories on their own. Ayers called the idea of making raw historical documents available electronically digital history. It changes history from a spectator sport to a participant sport, he said. It's a move from looking at what other people have thought of history to wrestling with its complexities yourself. The raw nature of the archive can be frustrating for the uninitiated, however, and can leave visitors longing for a guide to help make sense of the minutiae.

The archive exposes readers to details of social life that are left out of most history books. Some of the personal writings deal with the mundane, like this passage from the diary of an upper-class girl named Sarah Cordelia Wright: "Nothing has happened today worth relating, everything has gone on as usual."

But there are also moments of drama, as in a desperate letter written by a slave named Maria Perkins to her husband to tell him that "my master has sold Albert to a trader." She added that "myself and other child is for sale also. I want you to tell Dr. Hamelton and your master if either will buy me they can attend to it know and then I can go afterwards," she said. "I don't want a trader to get me."

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the archive, however, is that it allows people to trace connections among the many kinds of records. If a soldier is mentioned in one letter, for example, someone could use the database to search for later census records or other evidence to try to find out what happened to the soldier after the war if he survived.

The Web version of the archive, which has been online since 1995, is widely seen as one of the most successful experiments in using the Internet as a tool for historical research.

About 3 million people have visited the site. Some have used it for research or for school assignments, while others have come to discover facts about distant relatives.

The university has set up the Virginia Center for Digital History to assist similar projects.

"I think it's one of the path-breaking projects," said Janice L. Reiff, an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, who is writing a book about projects like Ayers'.

"My hope is that digital history will somehow demystify some of what we do. It may help to bridge that distance between academic historians and the general public. Some scholars have worried, however, that the 'Valley of the Shadow' project and others like it could lead people to overlook other historical sources. The danger would be that because of the attractiveness and accessibility of it, students and historians might be tempted to use this material and to overlook the less accessible kinds of material from other parts of the country," said James M. McPherson, a Princeton University history professor who wrote the best-selling "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford University Press, 1988).

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