Doing Digitial History

14 11 2006

Yesterday I corresponded with a friend about the possibility of his setting up a digital history project.  He is recognized as one of the leading researchers and authorities on a prominent Western Theater battle.

Brian Downey (there’s that name again) recently posted a tutorial of sorts about how to get started on a digital history project if you are sick and twisted enough to attempt it.  Below are the links to his three part posting on Behind Antietam on the Web.

Part IPart II; Part III


14 11 2006

Thanks to reader Pat Jones, I am able to offer a solution to those experiencing difficulties with the small text font used by this theme.  You see, I have no practical control over the font size within a theme, and WordPress can’t change the size of my font without changing the font size of the blogs of everyone using this theme.  But here’s what you can do at home: on your browser’s toolbar, there should be a “view” option (that’s what it is on Internet Explorer anyway).  Click on that, and look for something like “text size”.  Click that, and you can increase or decrease the size of the text displayed on your screen.  Default is usually medium.

This will change the size of the text for all sites you view.  But then, “Bull Runnings” is after all the most important site you visit.

Monster in a Box

13 11 2006

For a couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to write this summary of what I think my digital history project, the First Battle of Bull Run (BR1), is all about.  During that time, this summary has turned into the equivalent of Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box.”  In the one man play (and film) of the same name, that’s how Gray referred to his work in progress, his first novel.  The thing took on a life of its own, and Gray was having such trouble with it (and many, many other things) that it became his enemy.  Every time I try to finish this summary, I just keep getting pulled in other directions: what is it; why do I want to do it; why on the web; what is history; what is important; what role should this blog play; what is the air speed velocity of a swallow (African or European, laden or unladen)? 

It occurred to me that the trouble I’ve been having summarizing the project is probably due to the nature of the project itself – it’s very free form in a, ummm, errrr, structured (?) way.  It’s founded on a concept that my friend Brian Downey refers to as “thread pulling” – taking a story and seeing where it leads, removing the blinders formed by the “goal”.  The long and the short of it is that I’ve decided in my case thread pulling IS the goal.  The distraction is the attraction.

However, I don’t think I’m going to be able to cover everything in one post, so let’s just discuss the digital Bull Run project in very narrow terms for now.

Here’s what I want the website to do:  I want it to be a sort of one stop shop for just about anything having to do with the campaign and battle of BR1 (First Manassas if you are of a secesh leaning).  A detailed order of battle; official reports and correspondence; first person accounts (contemporary and memoir); newspaper reports; images; timelines; maps; bibliographies; and what I hope to be the centerpiece of the site, individual and unit biographies.It is in the biographies that thread pulling is most productive (or most distractive, depending on your POV).  I feel that it’s important to know more than the minimum about people leading up to the central event, because that event is only central to the researcher, not to the historical actor.  Without getting too metaphysical, their lives were bigger than that moment.  How these lives spread out through time, and how they intersect with other lives, particularly those of their fellow actors, to weave a bigger and perhaps more important “story” is what I find fascinating.

Will the project be any less useful to researchers with a more narrow focus because of these threads?  I think not.  The site will be dedicated to the gathering and storing of relevant data, with very little (if any) interpretation.  But I’m going to have fun while I’m at it, and hope to share the fruits of the thread pulling here.

So, stay tuned.

Variations on a Theme

13 11 2006

So far I’ve only had two complaints about the theme, and both concerned the white text on black background.  One was from an old – and I do mean old - friend (JUST KIDDING!!!).  The other was from the folks over at Civil War Interactive’s This Week in Blogs.  (Why do I always hear that in my head as a Mel Allen voiceover?)

For now, I’ll keep the format as is since most folks seem to like it.  If it’s a problem, just say so.  Remember, I can change the theme with the click of a button.  It’s that easy.


13 11 2006

Later today (I hope) I’ll talk about what my digital history project is all about, and why I have chosen the web as my outlet.  I’ve had some inquiries about the mechanics of such a project, and nobody has said it better than Brian Downey in a series of posts last month on his blog, so I’ll provide the links to those as well.

In recent correspondence with a friend we were discussing various individuals who later achieved some prominence in the war and were present during the battle as civilians.  I’ve added that to my list of things to discuss later.  It’s getting to be a long list, but I think I need to define the project first before I do anything else.  Even if I doubt that I’ll hold myself to any strict definition.

Here’s something weird…the spellchecker on this blog does not include the word “blog” in its dictionary.


10 11 2006

I’m pretty happy with how this is  going so far, and I’m very surprised by the number of visitors I’m getting each day.  From what I gather from the statistics provided by WordPress, the activity is due in no small part to folks navigating to this site from others that have mentioned it, or added it to their blogrolls, or both.  I must give credit where credit is due.  First and foremost, thanks to Brian Downey of Behind Antietam on the Web, who has given me so much advice and help with my digital history project and this blog.  Thanks also to the godfather of Civil War bloggers, Dmitri Rotov of Civil War Bookshelf, for giving me the opportunity last May/June to try my hand at this.  Also, thanks to the following for announcing the site and/or adding me to their blogrolls (you can find all their sites listed in the right hand column of this page):

Brett Schulte of American Civil War Gaming and Reading

Drew Wagenhoffer of Civil War Books and Authors

Mike Keopke of Mike’s Civil War Musings

Mannie Gentile of My Year of Living Rangerously (congrats on the new digs, Mannie)

Eric Wittenberg of Rantings of a Civil War Historian

It never ceases to amaze me how enthusiastically helpful to one another are people who share an interest in the American Civil War.  There are always exceptions, but for the most part I have found this to be true.

Over the next few days I’ll go into more detail on my digital history project and what I want to accomplish with it and with this blog.  Busy weekend coming up, though.

The “written with love” signature has mysteriously disappeared.  It was kinda nice while it lasted.

Take A Moment

9 11 2006

OK, up and running for a week.  I need some feedback from you guys regarding the theme of this site.  Is it too hard to read?  Too busy?  Just right?  Super wonderful the best I’ve ever seen?  Throw me a bone here, people!  It doesn’t take much to change the theme.

Tragic Prelude

9 11 2006

Tragic Prelude

It dawned on me that some readers may not be familiar with the artwork parodied by Free State Brewing Co. on their T-shirts and included in my post To Purge This Land With Beer.  Above is the original artwork by John Steuart Curry, The Tragic Prelude, one of two murals he painted for the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.  I got this image on the Famous Trials website.

Curry was born in Kansas in 1897, and eventually became a well respected resident of the Westport, CT art colony.  With Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, Curry established the US style of art that became known as regionalism.  Signature pieces of the three artists are Baptism in Kansas (Curry), Boomtown (Benton), and the iconic American Gothic (Wood).

In 1937, despite the fact that his work had never been well received in Kansas, at the instigation of several powerful newspapermen Curry was commissioned to cover the statehouse walls with paintings depicting the history of the state.  As work progressed, critics felt the murals (The Tragic Prelude and Kansas Pastorale) did not show the state in a favorable light, focusing on its troubled past and the difficulty of life on the prairies.  The Kansas Council of Women protested “The murals do not portray the true Kansas. Rather than revealing a law-abiding progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history – the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure.” In 1941, after the completion of the panels in the second floor hallways but before work began in the rotunda (this was to focus on the dangers of poor soil management), the state legislature ordered work halted.  Curry was so outraged that he left the state never to return.  He never signed the paintings, and died in 1946.  Today the paintings are considered masterpieces. 

In 1991, the Kansas Senate issued a resolution which officially recognized the legislature’s poor treatment of one of the state’s most famous sons.  More here.

We Got Us the Movin’ Pitchers!

9 11 2006

OK, here’s another challenge…insert a Youtube video into a post.  I got the instructions from WordPress’ FAQ.  You need to insert the url for the video between two pretty simple tags.

Mannie Gentile, the happiest ranger in the NPS and host of My Year of Living Rangerously, sent me this video he made of the Jackson monument.  You may need to click the big arrow twice.  Take a gander:

Body by Balco?

8 11 2006

Jackson 4 

Jim Burgess is the Museum Specialist at Manassas National Battlefield Park, and he is one of the many folks I’ve come across in the NPS who goes the extra mile to help out strangers.  I was put in contact with Jim by John Hennessy down in Fredericksburg after asking John about a relatively obscure listing in his order of battle for BR1, and together I think Jim and I solved something of a mystery while uncovering another, but more on that in a later post.  I sent Jim a note on Monday asking if he had any info on the dedication of the Jackson monument on the battlefield and, as I knew he would, he came through for me yesterday.  The following summary of how the monument came to be has been gleaned from the information Jim sent me and from the e-book “Battling for Manassas” by Joan Zenzen.

At the 75th Anniversary reenactment on July 21, 1936, a suggestion was made to erect a monument more suitable than the “poorly lettered” sign then marking the site of Jackson’s line.  When the Sons of Confederate Veterans conveyed the Henry Farm to the US government on March 19, 1938, the deed included a condition for the erection of a monument to Jackson by the State of Virginia.  Also as part of the negotiations with the SCV, the Park Service  pledged to construct what is now the visitor’s center.  These two projects effectively established the national park.

In 1939, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (after the usual wrangling with a national arts commission) chose Joseph P. Pollia (1894-1954) to sculpt the Jackson statue.  Pollia was Italian born but trained in Boston, and had previously sculpted a memorial on San Juan Hill in Cuba and a statue of Phil Sheridan.  An early model of the statue was criticized by Confederate organizations because they felt the features of the rider more closely resembled US Grant, and that the horse looked more like a plow horse than a prize mount (that is, more like Little Sorrel than Cincinnati?).  Pollia changed his design.

After casting at the Bedy-Rassi Foundry in New York City, the statue was trucked to the park where it arrived on July 14, 1940.  The State of Virginia appropriated $25,000 for the artwork and paid $22,500 to Pollia.  On August 31, 1940, more than 1,500 people gathered for the dedication, and were reminded by Douglas Southall Freeman in his keynote speech that “Jackson’s use of discipline and vigorous training…would serve current military commanders well.”

Even though I am a thoroughly unreconstructed Union man, I’ve loved this monument from the day I first laid eyes on it.  It reminded me of so many of the drawings in the Stan Lee Marvel Comics of my youth – this Jackson is impossibly muscular, like The Incredible Hulk.  In fact, this Jackson achieved a state of muscular development not seen in real live human beings until the mid 1980’s.  The dude is ripped!  And so is his horse (supposed to be “Little Sorrell” – not likely).  Striated glutes!  The horse has striated glutes!  Jackson’s diamond shaped calves are easily discernible through his heavy leather riding boots.  And his chest!  (See the banner at the top of this page.) Obviously ‘ol Blue Light spent his down time at Harper’s Ferry that spring doing lots of bench presses from various angles, dumbbell flys, and cable crossovers.  But I suspect he (and Little Sorrel) had some help.  And on my last visit to the park, I found something that comfirmed my suspicion. 

On the west side fo the monument’s black granite base are etched the immortal (if possibly ambiguous) words of Brigadier General Barnard Bee, uttered before his mortal wounding: “There Stands Jackson Like a Stone Wall.”  Everyone can see these words.  They face the visitor’s center.  Fewer folks walk to the east side of the monument, and fewer still stoop low enough to read the small inscription nearly at ground level:

“Saved the day for the Confederacy in 1861, also hit 78 home runs with 207 RBI in a secession shortened season.”

And at the end of the inscription, in a brighter etching obviously made recently:

An asterisk.


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