Changes and New Views at Gettysburg

Yesterday on our trip up for Easter, we stopped for a few hours at Gettysburg.  I tend to get up that way at least once every few months, but in the time since my last visit there were a few changes to the park.

First off, Powers Hill is open so visitors can take in the “empowering” view.

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The park has placed a couple of authentic 3-inch rifles along with four replica guns to represent the Federal artillery that massed on this hill during the battle.

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The value gained by tromping this corner of the battlefield grew immensely after the park and its partners gained the ground directly in front of those guns.  The open field in the middle of the view above was once a private residence.  Visitors had to do their homework to understand why those monuments were placed on what seemed to be just a hill in the woods.  Once old sheds and buildings were removed, visitors can see why those batteries were placed there… more importantly, they can see exactly how those guns influenced the battle.

The other change is up on Cemetery Hill:

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After years of studies, debates, and legalities, the old cyclorama building is gone.  Others have detailed its demise, in video and photo.  So I won’t repeat that here.  As I have some personal links to that War Department monument in the background (Battery F, 5th US Artillery), I look forward to how the park restores and re-utilizes this portion of the park.

I know some have voiced displeasure of the changes to the park in recent decades.  They make some valid points.  But none that, in my opinion, would out weigh this outcome from the project:

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That’s the view from Devil’s Den overlooking the Confederate line of approach.  Priceless.  Yet, free for anyone who visits the park.   I call that tax dollars well spent.

The last change I noticed was the presence of several signs (and I should have stopped for a photo – Where’s Gettysburg Daily when we need them?).  These now delineate overflow parking.   Yes, we are just a few months away from THAT sesquicentennial.

Civil War Studies and the Digital (R)Evolution Seminar

From the Spirit of Jefferson (West Virginia):

Seminar’s goal: Bring the Civil War into the 21st century

CHARLES TOWN – Though the Civil is 150 years behind us, fresh details about the conflict are emerging every day thanks to new technologies, explains an expert from Charles Town’s online American Public University System.

“New tools are changing the way we research the Civil War,” said Brad Wiles, APUS’s archivist. “Every day, we’re seeing new arguments, new debates, in many cases, a new understanding of just what happened all those years ago.”

Saturday, APUS will host its second-annual history colloquium, a free exchange that’s open to scholars, educators and researchers as well as those with a more casual interest in the War Between the States.

“Civil War Studies and the Digital (R)Evolution” takes place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the APUS finance center at 393 N. George St.

As more libraries, schools and other institutions make official records and other primary source materials on the war available on their websites, researchers the world over have access to a vast array of new insights, Wiles said.

“With video content and graphics, researchers now also have new ways of analyzing the information that’s out there,” he said. “With access to soldiers’ diaries, memories they recorded after the fact, regiment records and other vital statistics, researchers can start to fill in blanks and get a street-level view of what happened during the Civil War rather than just knowing about the big-picture battles and events.” …. (See full article here)

The articles goes on to discuss the speakers and some of the topics of the seminar.  I do wish news of this event was posted earlier.  Several in the blogging community would probably be interested in the seminar, myself included.

The topic has received a lot of attention of late.  And re-posting the notice gives me a chance to put in my two cents on this topic.  I submit that my day job places me closer to the National Archives than anyone else in the Civil War blogging community – I can measure the distance from my desk to the archive doors in hundreds of feet.

What I’ve come to realize is a distinct difference in the research methods between “on site” and “on line” venues.  When I’m in the “on site” mode, my method is that of rapid data collection.  I identify sets of records for viewing prior to arrival.  After the records pull, I proceed through those one page at a time.  Sort of like the Forrest Gump “box of chocolates” as sometime you never know what will be found in the files (or misfiled files as the case may be).  There’s a constraint at play – one must collect what is there, at that time, and analyze it later.  No time for tangents.  And I’ll admit, maybe this is just my rigid “old school” research techniques at play here.  Old school as in “that’s the roll of microfilm currently in the reader so you’d better make the most of it” approach.

In contrast, “on line” methods tend to play more upon threading of research.  I’ve grown to enjoy Fold3, particularly for certain sets of records, for this very reason.  Often I will open a page from the Confederate Citizens Files, then feel the urge to track down a name from that document.  From there, my research threads across service records or other documents.  Such methods focus on associations, actually inviting tangents to the original research focus.

Today, I can pull up images from the Library of Congress collection directly on my phone – taking accessibility to the extreme.  Certainly enabling, but at the same time a very high bar for records which have never been cataloged to being with.  The next generation of historians may slip around the archives virtually.  But they won’t do so with complete independence of the physical records.

Furthermore, in order for the researcher to gain the most of a digital record set, the artifacts require proper tagging and metadata.  A good, flexible data definition will greatly ease the problems inherent with retrieval within a digital repository. These are, in some ways, protocols used to map the data.  Those protocols become a layer between the user and the data itself.   What’s good is when the user retrieves exactly the data needed from a query for a key word.  On the other hand, that means the user must know, or at least have an ideal about, what should be returned.  Otherwise how does anyone know the system provided all the right information?

I’ve had a hand at defining such for more modern records – you know stuff related to the current unpleasantness.  I would submit that task is much easier for records that one is creating at the time.  For 150 year old information, I’d be concerned about imposing unnatural associations by way of tagging.  Certainly a daunting task that we should be thankful for next time our query nets return results. But we shouldn’t be lulled into the assumption the query returns all there is to look over.  The researcher’s query may not play against the tags in the way that best pulls the right data (you search for “Fort Sumter” and get records for some place in Arizona, for instance).  And not all data is in the digital repository.

And there’s another “protocol” or “layer” that we should be aware of – and what I think is the most exciting.  Social media has brought the ability to present information across broader spectrum.  Not regular blogging… but more so from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and such.  Micro-blogging allows us to front small elements of information within context without toting around the whole box.  The methodology that my wife is using to find better desert recipes may well lead us to a generation’s worth of collective historical research.

That, if you ask me, is where the revolution is taking place.  We aren’t changing the underlying information, rather putting protocols in place that will aid with analysis and interpretation.  As I said, there are pitfalls – not the least of which is that not all information will ever be digitized.  But the benefits are monumental and will change the way we approach the topic in later decades.

“Computer, retrieve all information on Edwards Ferry.”

Blazing a trail to where Sherman blazed Atlanta: Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails

Marker news this morning.  The Atlanta Campaign is a year out in terms of sesquicentennial, but there are efforts in Georgia to provide new interpretation for the sites related to the campaign in advance of the anniversary.

The Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails system is populating it’s Atlanta Campaign trail complete with new wayside markers and trail blazes.  The current listing on the website includes over forty existing or projected marker locations.  The waysides offer a modern layer of interpretation.  And I would stress “layers.”  Older markers that one may encounter while touring include some Works Progress Administration projects, state markers (excellent considering their time and purpose), and other localized series.

The Atlanta Campaign trail also touches upon some of the Chickamauga Campaign sites (a “this year” sesquicentennial).  But it is unclear to me if a similar Chickamauaga Campaign Heritage Trail is part of the Atlanta Campaign series, or just overlapping.  However I don’t think the two series are competing at the sites, and we won’t see a proliferation of markers.

I would also note the Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails is a part of a three-state Civil War Heritage Trails program.  This program is NOT linked with the Civil War Trails system that covers Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I’m not in tune with why different systems exist, nor care much about the reasons.  While I’ve transcribed or reviewed hundreds of Civil War Trails markers, I’ve not seen many of the Heritage Trails markers of yet.  So I cannot comment if there is any difference with the content portrayal between the series.

I’m just glad the sites are getting attention with new interpretation with better visualizations that come with modern waysides.  And at the same time, I’m eager to see how the March to the Sea sites are interpreted (with memories of many a summer road trip seeding my preferences).