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.