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.