Finding History On The Net

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On the Web, I wandered into the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project , a digital archive of historical images, and was led to a marvelous archive of 1,118 Civil War photographs ( http://rs6.loc.gov./cwphome.html ), searchable by keyword, where I found photo no. 0317: “Cold Harbor, Va., African-Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle.” While roaming the cyberstacks of the University of Texas library, I came across a photo exhibit on a century in the life of a single family of prominent black Texans ( http://www.lib.utexas.edu:80/Libs/CAH/cah.html ).

Most Web sites contain pointers to other sites. Useful lists of American history sites can be found at the American Studies Web ( http://minerva.cis.yale.edu/~davidp/amstud.html ), the Military History Server ( http://kuhttp.cc.ukans.edu:80/history/milhist/m_index.html ), and the American Civil War HomePage ( http://cobweb.utcc.utk.edu/∼hoemann/warweb.html ).

Every page on the Web links to other pages, and on and on. Web browsing thus has a slightly narcotic effect, and I can no longer recall what first led me to “Valley of the Shadow” ( http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vshadow/vshadow.html ), the most interesting historical Web site I’ve yet encountered. The site, based at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is an ambitious attempt to portray electronically two neighboring communities in the Shenandoah Valley—one Northern, one Southern—in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. The project is the brainchild of the historian Edward L. Ayers and contains nearly a gigabyte of information, including photographs, letters, diaries, censuses, maps, military records, tax lists, and thirty thousand pages from local newspapers, all cross-referenced, like a World Wide Web in miniature. The results are thrilling.

Only a computer project of this scale could have unearthed William Baylor—a wealthy Virginia farmer’s son who left no diaries or letters—by spotting his faint traces amidst its vast digital archive.

Baylor turns out to have been a rising young lawyer, a Democrat devoted to the Southern cause. A blurred photograph suggests an earnest young man, while faded newspaper articles reveal his political ambitions and tell of his marriage. Subsequent military-service records bluntly state the circumstances of his death, at age thirtyone, during Second Manassas. In a future version of “Valley of the Shadow” there will even be a photo of his headstone.