Digital History Research Digital Humanities Mapping the Civil War

A post on my final project

Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” is the final project for my Introduction to Digital Humanities course at George Mason University. “Mapping” tells an interesting story of how young volunteers from all over the north answered the call to save the Union and free the slaves in 1861. They traveled hundreds of miles (some over a thousand) from northern states and cities to camps located in Arlington, Virginia to defend the Capital. The project is a prototype of how to use historical maps to identify GPS coordinates on a modern map.

The primary resource used for the project is A powerful open source geospatial analysis tool for large-scale data sets. The primary data source were the longitude and latitude points identified by researching historic maps from the Civil War. I was able to leverage another resource provided by the David Rumsey Map Collection, called the “Georeferencer”.

The key to the project was the discovery of two 160 year old maps created early in the war. One map is called the “Sketch of the Seat of War” and the other is the “Map of the Ground Occupation and Defense of the Division of the U.S. Army in Virginia 1861”. Both maps captured the locations of over 50 regimental camps in Arlington during 1861. Once the regiments were identified it was then easy to research their individual histories and discover what city or state they came from.

As the project proceeded I realized that the data was bringing to life an interesting and relatively unknown relationship between Arlington and the cities and states of the north during the early part of the war. The timeline feature of Kepler provided an opportunity to display in a dynamic way when and where the regiments were mustered in and when and where they eventually camped in Arlington. As a prototype, I was aware that the projected needed to be scoped so that it demonstrated a capability, but did not get too bogged down in details. Kepler proved to be a valuable resource, but I would eventually like to do more with the individual endpoints and provide more interactivity, such as links to the regimental histories, the cities they came from, and individual soldier stories.

The primary goal of the project was to provide local historians and elementary school teachers/students a resource to discover and learn more about Arlington’s role in the Civil War. During the peer review process I was provided some very useful feedback to improve the project by linking the project site to the Arlington Historical Society. Their recommendation provided an opportunity to actually employ the social media communication plan we learned about doing in class. In addition, I created a list of academic competency questions that teachers and students could use to better understand how to use the maps and data provided.

Finally, the project provides a new perspective about using old resources. By employing, “Mapping” provides a way to make something as static as a map, very dynamic. The final project exceeded my expectations because it visualizes a very compelling story about how Arlington in 1861 was at the epicenter of the Civil War. Overnight, tens of thousands of Union troops arrived from cities all over the north. These inexperienced, volunteer troops, were still untested and the horrors of the war were still waiting ahead. For most of these soldiers it was the first time they took a train or traveled beyond 20 miles from where they were born. Upon their arrival in Northern Virginia it was the first time they entered the south and saw slaves. By linking the camp locations with the regimental origin points a previously unknown part of Civil War history is emerging. A history that Arlington can now claim as its own.

Digital History Research

Digital Detecting

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to metal detect at a site where Union soldiers camped in North Arlington in 1862. There are some interesting parallels with metal detecting and conducting digital research. First, the detector can only lead you to some close proximity as to where the artifact is buried. Second, you need another device, known as a “pointer,” that helps narrow your search. In digital research the pointing comes to play when you deploy the power of key words or metadata. A broader search can get you close to your subject matter, but it is the secondary or “pointing” that lets you know if you have found something of value.

Civil War artifacts discovered on Upton's Hill
A few of the items discovered on Upton Hill.

By now you realize that I am very much interested in the Civil War, and in particular what happened during the war in Arlington. Having lived in the area for almost 40 years, I am always interested in learning new facts about the people, places, and events that occurred over 160 years ago. But it has been the past five years that has been the most interesting in terms of Civil War research. All across the United States and even abroad, researchers have been digitizing, cataloging, and indexing their collections. What makes this important is that information that was once “buried” or lost is now so much more discoverable. New cognitive technologies, like facial recognition, makes historic photographs more compelling.

23rd New York Militia
Soldiers of the 23rd NY in Arlington, VA during the summer of 1861.

For example, the soldiers in the photo above can now be more easily identified. There were over eight million photographs printed during the war. Many have survived and there are special collections like the Library of Congress that provide an excellent resource for historians. The transcription of letters and diaries and their digitization is providing a fresh source of historic research. Research that is shedding new light on subject matter once thought already covered. In regard to the Civil War, these first hand accounts from the average soldier are providing a new perspective as to how the war was fought. For digital historians researching the Civil War the search for new subject matter has just gotten exciting. But as with all things uncovered, it sometimes takes awhile of poking, and investigating to determine if what has been discovered has value or just needs to be buried again.