Finding History On The Net

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The Internet doesn’t sound like a promising place to find good history. Cyberspace is too young and ephemeral to compete with a good research library or a well-stocked bookstore, but on my first visit to the World Wide Web, I stumbled onto a site called “On the Lower East Side: Observations of Life in Lower Manhattan at the Turn of the Century” and unexpectedly found myself transported back a hundred years.

The site about two neighboring towns on opposite sides in the Civil War is thrilling

Designed as an on-line “hypertextbook” by professors at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, “On the Lower East Side” combines contemporary descriptions of New York immigrant life with wonderful photographs and drawings from the period. It wasn’t the photos or even the unfamiliar texts that moved me but a ghostly period map that materialized slowly on my screen after I clicked an icon. At home in Los Angeles I gently touched my finger to the street corner where my grandfather was born a century ago.

In fact there is a great deal of history on the Net, but, as with everything else on-line, finding it can be difficult. The Internet is mostly a collection of private obsessions on public display, and nowhere is this more true than in the public newsgroups and mailing lists where users exchange views on every possible subject. Of the thousands of newsgroups, soc.history is by far the most active history discussion. Recently George Washington’s religious beliefs were the hot topic.

Military affairs, however, tend to dominate the history newsgroups with special emphasis on Germany and World War II. Over at soc.history.war.world-war-ii people were arguing the relative capabilities of the German V-I and V-2 missiles. For the more imaginative, alt.history.what-if deals with questions like “What if Hitler had invested in jet technology?” and “What if Hitler gets into art school?” though my favorite recent thread was the less well-contested “What if Christie Brinkley made out with Boris Yeltsin?”

When you least expect it, moments of true feeling burst through. On soc.history.war.vietnam , for example, after some fairly predictable discussions about land reform, air combat tactics, and Jane Fonda, there was this response to an argument about the origins of the pejorative term REMF , which refers to rear-echelon troops. “I can remember watching from a hill to the south of Bong Son,” someone had typed in, “as the mortars came in on the REMFs at LZ English. And the unknown and unhonored REMFs that pulled a bunch of boonie-rats out of a C-130 that crashed while taking off at English. And what was left of the REMFs when LZ Tom was overrun. . . . I’ll always be proud of being Airborne, of having pounded the bush, but if you were in country, you’re OK.”

Historical discussions are also flourishing on countless listservs, or mailing lists, which you can join only by sending a precisely worded e-mail request and which tend to be more academic and less freewheeling than newsgroups. There are lists devoted to Western American history ( AMWEST-H ), Southern history ( H-SOUTH ), colonial history ( EARAM-L ), legal and constitutional history ( H-LAW ), and the history of Kansas ( KANSAS-L ). There are a maritime history list ( MARHST-L ), a list for students of the 1960s ( SIXTIES-L ), and separate ones for most American wars, including the Civil War ( H-CIVWAR ), World War II ( WWH-L ), and Vietnam ( VWAR-L ). To search for a list by subject, or for instructions on joining one, check out “Your Personal Network” ( http://www.ypn.com./search/ search.html ). And if you subscribe to the Prodigy on-line service, check out American Heritage ’s own “American Heritage Picture Gallery,” a weekly feature there.

The Internet remains so ad hoc and eccentric that trying to find specific information usually leads to disappointment. Random window-shopping, on the other hand, always produces delightful surprises, and the rich graphic capabilities and endless hypertextual links of the World Wide Web are a rambler’s paradise.

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.