A Digitization of a Rebel War in a Border State: The Tennessee Civil War GIS Project

When considering why and how digital history seems so revolutionary for public historians, I still find myself thinking in terms of technological innovations instead of considering how our use of the technology changes what we can do with the sources. Digital history is certainly changing the way many of us think about public history, but is there merit to the idea of doing history from the comfort of your couch? Does it mean we see digital history as an integral part of the public historian’s training? Or is this merely a new way of exploring the past?

Part of the answer for me came in the form of a new state-funded GIS project devoted to exploring Tennessee’s role in the Civil War. The aptly named “Tennessee Civil War GIS Project” is a massive undertaking, dedicated to graphing and exploring every battle site within the state. Similarly to Google maps, viewers can switch between aerial photography and overhead street views of the state, with roads traced in yellow and battlefield sites marked with red pins. Viewers have the chance to browse the state county by county via drop-down menus. For example, selecting ‘Bedford’ county pulls a brief listing of 1860 state census information regarding the area’s population, including; “Total White Persons,” “Total Slaves” “Total Free Blacks” “Total Free Colored Persons” and “Total Slave Holders”. The number of farms of 1000 or more acres and the number of “Manufacturing Sites” are also displayed. Additionally, hotlinks to the regimental histories of every unit that occupied the county at some point in the war (both Union and Confederate) provide downloadable unit histories in PDF form. The same treatment is given to a list of engagements and historic markers within the county.

While this site in particular may not revolutionize the field of public history, I think it shows some promising potential. Site designers proudly proclaim this project to be “the first of its kind,” and it shows us the potential for constructing similar projects in other states.  The census information included in each county may be limited for now, but the demographic breakdown it provides for each area is a boon to local residents, out-of-state historians and any member of the general public looking to gather information on the Civil War. It allows us to look at the war from broad and narrow perspectives. Imagine the discussion that can be created from knowing the local high school or your own homes stand on sites where perhaps a thousand men or more laid down their lives. What were they fighting for? Why did we choose to commemorate one site over another? How does knowing the history of this hallowed ground change student engagement with the past? All are ripe for exploration.

What’s more, you can tour the state’s history from the comfort of your couch or classroom. The state’s civil war history is open not only to local residents but to the wider public as well. Reading through a dairy of a Tennessee soldier and wishing you could track his movements? It’s but a few clicks away to pull up the soldier’s unit, listing the men who served in it and the battles they fought in. It puts a digital face on what is previously only recognizable only through text or with an onsite visit. As the first of its kind, this project has proven that such undertakings can be successful and enlightening.

This potential for learning is magnified by a sister project, “Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee.” In honor of the 150th anniversary of the civil War, diaries, photos and other artifacts held in private collections are being digitized by state historians for display in an online exhibit. Although still under construction at present, when taken in conjunction with the GIS project, this collection has the potential to further contextualize the war by offering digital access to equipment, uniforms and documents typically used by soldiers during the war, adding a distinctly local and personal tie to the past.

As historians, we’re constantly reminded not to let personal biases cloud our judgment. I freely admit that my interest in the Civil War may be leading me to “over-hype” what may seem like just another pair of disconnected point-and-click sites. To be sure, each is far from perfect; for all my talk of the power of context, both sites do little more than put items on display for now. Yet both appeal to me because I can see the potential for a future where further advances may lead to such sites becoming more in depth. Instead of merely viewing overhead shots of former battlefields, visitors may be able to zoom in and witness reenactments of the engagements or read the diaries of men who fought in them, transforming a point-and-click navigation of the past into an immersive virtual experience with history on a personal level.

Of course, obstacles still need to be overcome, time and money being the most obvious. But the audience is real. The very fact we are still discussing and even reenacting the war 150 years after Appomattox is proof of this. Yet, digitization of the past poses a more significant problem—at least for historians. Given that such sites are open to the whole world, might we be tempted to put a positive spin on things? Maintaining authenticity is a very real threat, after all. If this GIS project is any indication, the future is looking bright; every county’s African-American population—both free and enslaved—is accounted for. Though the experiences of these men and women are currently limited to statistical representations, it gives me hope that perhaps digital history may give us the chance to embrace a more objective, open-ended discussion of the past.


2 thoughts on “A Digitization of a Rebel War in a Border State: The Tennessee Civil War GIS Project

  1. Tim,
    I was really excited by your post as I am a big Civil War, particularly Tennessee which I have written several papers on and my family is from. I have to say, however, that I was really disappointed by the website at this point. I appreciate the attempt to document where “all” the “battle” sites were, but I think in attempting to be comprehensive they have lost the entire context. Small skirmishes are listed in the same way as major battles such as Chickamauga. Related “battles” are not grouped together to show the nature of the campaigns. Local guerrilla fighting activities, very important in Tennessee, are not addressed. Small “battles” such Chattanooga June 1862, are marked “generically” in downtown Chattanooga, when the description that is posted does not match up with the geo-location.
    Thinking of audience, how is this site supposed to be used? Who is the audience? What is the point of the Census Data on the site? Tennessee has real differences across the state in demographics but if you are not looking at guerrilla fighting I am not sure why it matters the demographics of Hamilton County, for example, when looking at the reasons the battle of Chickamauga was there. It is more a function of transportation networks and food supplies. What is the need for present land use and flood-plain information for the end user?
    There are real geo spatial issues related to campaigns. For example, the “Battle of Orchard Knob/ Indian Hill, ” and I use term very loosely, was in that specific place because Union troops were enjoying the hospitality of Unionist in the area, including William Clift, and there was corn and other supplies there, when most of the surrounding landscape had been well scavenged. As Unionists, the Clift’s were providing guides to the Unionists. In fact, this skirmish isn’t even properly located, only down to the right quadrant, and not taking into account the creek and the hill. Looking at landholding patterns, topography and other factors can have a big impact, as you well know, on battle interpretation, but I am not sure this site does it.

    1. Angie,

      Thanks for your feedback! Your insightful comments concerning the loss of context and ability to differentiate between large battles and small skirmishes in the sea of red locator dots is something I should have addressed in my post. As the first of it’s kind, issues like these, while somewhat expected, should not be overlooked and I’m glad someone noticed what I overlooked in my excitement.

      While flaws of organization, authenticity and ease of layout are disappointing in retrospect, I still think this site’s existence is encouraging. After all, there is something to be said for learning from our mistakes. I’m reminded of a quote from game designer Warren Spector: “I’m a firm believer that it’s better to fail gloriously at something really hard than to succeed in mediocrity at something well-understood.”

      Similarly, I believe that Tennessee, in trying to bite off more than it could chew (perhaps under pressure to make the site accessible for the sesquicentennial?), has shown us that it might be better to concentrate on smaller, more manageable projects. I believe Sword echoed this point when discussing the power of digital resources in last week’s JAH Roundtable discussion on digital history. And, as Dr. Robbins persistently tells us “Feasibility should be your number one concern!”

      That said, as a growing historian and aspiring reenactor, I’d still like to see something like this succeed in the future. Digital history’s potential for collaboration on projects that step outside the boundaries of traditional on-site presentations and museum displays and involve traditional professionals and ‘amateurs’ alike is still something that fascinates and excites me. It may not happen years yet, but hopefully this site can still serve as a useful example of what NOT to do when digitally mapping your state’s Civil War history.

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