Preserving and Exploring Civil War Washington

Zach Sold, Reina Factor

Dr. Brian Croxall English 389


Civil War Washington


The Civil War Washington project highlights some of the key advantages of digital humanities in crafting a comprehensive historical database, but also contains some sections that could use further expansion.  The project provides a digital resource that illustrates the impact that the war had on the nation’s capital, specifically exploring the “social, political, cultural, and medical/scientific” implications of the war.  The essence of the project lies in its emphasis on investigating Washington from numerous perspectives.  The project does not focus on only the Northern or Southern perspective of the war; nor does it highlight the political implications above the social, but instead evenly evaluates the capital city in terms of the various facets of the war’s influence to provide a comprehensive body of information.

Some of the project’s most prevalent strengths lie in its structure and breadth of information.   Primarily, the structure of the site is straightforward and easy to follow.  It is divided into four sections: interpretations, maps, data, and text and images.  The interpretations section provides an overview of some of the overarching themes the project aims to address.  The map contains information regarding the locations of hospitals, forts, and theaters across temporal, and geographical layers.  This provides a visual depiction of where these structures were located in relation to one another, while also presenting the ability to search based on exact dates.  The data portion is a comprehensive collection of people and locations relevant to the war and events in Washington D.C.  Finally, the text and images section contains primary sources including newspapers, medical texts, memoirs, and other articles, allowing readers to have an accurate visual of how these documents actually appeared at their time of publication.  The site allows viewers access to these artifacts which would otherwise be very difficult to find.  Further, the collection of documents provide an accurate depiction of the war’s impact from multiple points of view.  These include “troops, fugitive slaves, bureaucrats, prostitutes, actors, doctors, and laborers,” among other Washington inhabitants, whose accounts may otherwise be forgotten.  The project does not only include the perspective of war heroes, but also of the ordinary man as it examines how the city transformed into “the symbolic center of the Union and nation.”  Additionally, the blog included on the interpretations page allows subscribers to be constantly notified about the site’s updates so that they are aware when new information is added.  It is important to recognize that the project is always improving and expanding, as more information is constantly added in order to provide as comprehensive a database as possible.

Although the project certainly succeeds in providing a comprehensive database on Washington during the Civil War, it is not void of flaws.  Much of the project’s weakness lies in the sheer mass of information it contains.  Due to the fact that it is so comprehensive, including the names of many otherwise forgotten people and equally as many locations, it becomes difficult to discern where the important information lies.  The list of names are merely sorted alphabetically, but very little is known about the majority of these people.  While the site is very navigable for those who know what they are looking for, it is very difficult to pinpoint important information amidst the extensive lists of inconsequential links.  Thus, the site is a much stronger tool when being used for specific research, as opposed to aimless curiosity.  As a result, the target audience of the project is seemingly not a wandering student, but a guided researcher who may be in search of some understated, specific information.  Still, implementing a mechanism to sort the information in terms of importance as well as alphabetically could be beneficial.

Another area of the project that could be expanded upon is the “Interpretations” section.  This area of the site seems as though it could bring the vast amounts of information together by drawing some overarching conclusions and putting forth possible interpretations of the data.  However, all this section contains at this point is three essays on the capital as a strategic, symbolic, and scientific focal point.  It is very possible that this aspect of the project is still a work in progress, but this section could act as a more analytical aspect, condensing the massive amounts of information into more easily processed conclusions.  Lastly, the map could also be improved upon.  Whereas this section could provide an interactive map with links that lead to more specific information about a location, currently it only provides a bare overview of the city.  The noteworthy locations are simply laid out across the map, but there is no information as to the significance of these places during the war.  Images of the locations on the map may also be a significant addition, similarly to the Mrs. Dalloway mapping assignment.  Incorporating this information would make this map a more useful research tool.

In considering the basic tools utilized in all forms of scholarship as outlined in John Unsworth’s article “Scholarly Primitives,” it is clear that this project succeeds in employing some of these primitives, while it fails to fully include others.  In terms of the primitive of comparison, Civil War Washington succeeds only somewhat in this domain.  The project does provide a comprehensive overview of the capital city in terms of its social, political, cultural, and medical/scientific development due to the war, and also investigates these aspects from various perspectives.  However the database fails to really draw comparisons between the different perspectives provided, and is really no more than a collection of information.   This may be due to the nature of the site and what it aims to achieve: a specific overview of the role of one city within the war, and how that city was changed by its participation.  In terms of the notion of “cross-disciplinary functional primitives,” the project does succeed in taking information from a number of scholarly fields, such as history, geography, science, visual media, and textual analysis through primary sources.  This results in a comprehensive understanding of the specific topic being explored.  The primitive of discovery is fairly well represented in this database as well.  This refers to the ability to search and find information, comparing the most structured databases with least structured, such as Google.  The site is structured well overall, allowing the quick discovery of information within the different domains.  However, within each category, most specifically the data section, this primitive is somewhat confounded, as there is such a vast amount of information that what is important gets lost within the extensive list of people without a mechanism to help a researcher sort through the material.  This could be improved upon if the site was not only ordered alphabetically but also with some filter that makes the important information more accessible.  Finally, annotation is attempted through the interpretations section.  However, as outlined above, the project needs to expand in this area and draw further conclusions about the material, as opposed to simply presenting the information.

The Civil War Washington project is a useful resource that certainly contributes to the larger body of research in this filed.  It provides a comprehensive list of individuals and locations that played a role in the nation’s capital during this time period; many of which could have otherwise been forgotten.  The database combines a variety of research fields, and exemplifies what can be achieved through collaboration.  Although this is not the most advanced example of a digital humanities project, it is a useful collection of data that allows various sources to be in dialogue with one another, while making this information more available to a wider audience.

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