NO event in the history of the United States attracts more public interest than the Civil War. Visitors flock to its battlefields, where re-enactments are the rage. Truckers and accountants boldly storm Gettysburg's Little Round Top or Chickamauga's Horseshoe Ridge in the tailored uniforms of "Billy Yank" and "Johnny Reb." The Civil War shelves in bookstores are crammed with best-selling novels and histories like Michael Shaara's "Killer Angels" and James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." More than 40 million people watched some or all of Ken Burns's 1990 documentary, "The Civil War."
The interest is understandable. The Civil War pitted brother against brother in the bloodiest conflict in American history. The North put 2.2 million men in uniform, half of its entire draft age population; the South mustered 800,000 men, an astounding 75 percent of its white draft-age population. More soldiers died — about 625,000 — than in all of America's 20th-century wars.
Some states took decades to recover. A third of Mississippi's 78,000 soldiers were killed in battle or died from disease. And more than half of the survivors brought home a lasting disability of war. Mississippi resembled a giant hospital ward, a land of missing arms and legs. In 1866, one-fifth of the state budget went for the purchase of artificial limbs.
The sheer carnage led each side to stress the virtues of the cause. The winner thanked Providence for a victory that had preserved the union and cleansed it of slavery. The loser viewed its ghastly sacrifice as proof of the gallantry of the "Southern way of life." In myth and in history, the Civil War became synonymous with freedom, courage, regional pride and national reconciliation.
No outlet better reflects the war's enduring popularity than the World Wide Web. The reach of the Internet has opened a vast archive of Civil War material to the public. Anyone bold enough to check a search engine for, say, Robert E. Lee will find several hundred thousand matches. There are sites for every political and military figure of the era, every battle and skirmish, every regiment and artillery piece.
How does one maneuver through this information logjam? A new book, "The Civil War on the Web," offers much needed help. After exhaustive investigation, the authors — Dr. William G. Thomas, director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia, and Alice E. Carter, project manager for education at New York Times Digital — recommend 95 sites based on the richness of sources, ease of navigation and visual appeal. These criteria are flexible, they say, because most sites were not made by professional Web designers but by "librarians and archivists, re-enactors and preservationists, students and educators — people more interested in the Civil War than in slick appearances or sophisticated menus." Put simply, most sites are stronger on content than on aesthetics.
Dr. Thomas and Ms. Carter take a broad approach to their subject. Their survey gives equal time to both the battlefield and the home front, where important social, cultural and racial changes occurred. One chapter reviews the best Web sites on women in the Civil War, and another examines sites on slavery and emancipation.
But even the chapters on Web sites concerned with military matters go beyond battles and armaments to the experiences of common soldiers. Want to learn about the treatment of wounded troops? The University of Toledo has a good Web site (www.cl .utoledo.edu/canaday/quackery/quack8 .html). Need some material about Jews in the Civil War? Click on www.jewish-history.com/civilwar.htm. Curious about the layout of the Civil War prison at Andersonville, Ga.? A National Park Service Web site, www.nps.gov/ande, has details.
Among the most prominent Civil War Web sites is the Valley of the Shadow, (valley.vcdh.virginia.edu) a remarkably ambitious project that began at the University of Virginia in 1992. (Both Dr. Thomas and Ms. Carter have also worked on this project.) The Web site examines two Shenandoah Valley counties — Franklin in Pennsylvania and Augusta in Virginia — in the late 1850's and 1860's.
Created by Dr. Edward L. Ayers, a history professor at the University of Virginia, the Valley Web site contains primary information, including maps, photographs, letters, diaries, newspapers, census data, church documents and military records. The objective is to make the raw materials of history available to the widest audience, allowing users to ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions about the Civil War by studying one Northern county and one Southern county in detail.
The Web site averages about 7,000 page- views per day. Although the site attracts scholars and history buffs, it also appeals to students. A survey published in 1999 showed that a typical week included requests from Harvard and Stanford, a community college in New Mexico and high schools in California, Wyoming and Indiana. An eager fourth grader recently asked the project: "Fax me everything you have on the Civil War."
That would take awhile. The sheer size of the Valley Web site archive can be daunting. A well-directed student should have no problem navigating through the mammoth collections, but others may be confused.
That is not the case with the Valley of the Shadow's new CD-ROM, a user-friendly guide that spotlights Augusta and Franklin Counties in the critical years between 1858 and the spring of 1861. Titled The Eve of War: Valley of the Shadow, it comes with an excellent book by Dr. Ayers and Dr. Anne S. Rubin describing both the history of the region and the roots of the conflict. Even better, the CD contains reference tools that allow a novice to find material.
Navigating the CD is a snap. Each collection is carefully introduced and indexed by name, subject and date. On one level, the user can search the census data to find an individual's occupation, race, religious affiliation and level of wealth, then follow that person through letters, newspaper accounts and enlistment reports. On another level, the user can peruse larger subjects, under headings like Race Relations and Arts/Entertainment/Leisure, to get a feeling for the pulse of daily life in the Shenandoah Valley.
The CD contains wonderful photographs, a foot-tapping music score and a time line linking Augusta and Franklin Counties to national events, like the Dred Scott decision and John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal in nearby Harper's Ferry, W. Va.
What comes through clearly in The Valley of the Shadow are the similarities of these two counties, only 200 miles apart, and the reluctance of their residents to go to war. Both were prosperous farming communities, known for their grain and livestock; both were settled by people from Germany and the British Isles; both were deeply racist places, with whites viewing blacks as inferior. The defining difference, quite simply, was that Augusta County had slavery, and Franklin County did not.
One can sift through the documents to see how slaves lived and worked in Augusta County, and how valuable they were to the local economy. Or the searcher can explore the mixed emotions of Franklin County's whites concerning the evils of slavery and its further expansion. Some viewed slavery as the proper station for those with dark skin, while others accepted its presence in the South but opposed its spread into new territory. A few demanded its abolition on moral grounds.
It is painful to read the diaries and newspapers from the Shenandoah Valley as the events of this era, like Lincoln's election and South Carolina's secession, tear the nation apart. In once-cautious Augusta County, a newspaper headline calls: "Men of Virginia, to the Rescue!" In once optimistic Franklin County, a newspaper headline retorts: "Ready, Aim, Fire." Few could imagine the horrors that lay ahead.
Although this saga ends with the coming of the Civil War, Dr. Ayers and Dr. Rubin intend to carry it forward in two future CD- ROM's. The death of Stonewall Jackson, the thunder at Gettysburg, the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the abolition of slavery, the promise of Reconstruction — all are part of the the Great Valley's amazing next chapter, and the young nation's as well.
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