February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
While fully and freely admitting that my knowledge of the field is not much greater than George M. Cohan’s, I will say that a great many CD-ROMs look pretty feeble to me. They are so widely promoted as the path to the future that every enterprise seems to be straining to cast its information beneath that gleaming surface, and often enough the result is: a stupid and complicated way to consult an encyclopedia; a stupid and complicated way to look up batting averages; a stupid and complicated way to plan a vacation.
I did not say any of this during meetings over the past months with the people at Byron Preiss Multimedia, who were assembling a CD-ROM that would bear our name, American Heritage: The Civil War—The Complete Multimedia Experience , but my heart was honeycombed with doubt. Then, last week, I saw the result of our long collaboration, and I was both impressed and chastened.
I think it’s very good. I’ve become jaded hearing the currently universal mantra of interactive, but this particular CD-ROM seems to me interactive in a genuinely imaginative and useful way.
It is built on the foundation of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War , our great bestseller that has been in print steadily since 1960. Bruce Catton wrote the text, and that text is available on the disk—as is the entirety of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Red Badge of Courage , and other indispensable works. Certainly the likelihood of someone calling up Harriet Beecher Stowe on the screen and then tucking in to her world-changing story is, to say the least, remote. But there’s a peculiar feeling of something akin to security in knowing it’s there. Once you’ve become tired of reading print on the screen (which has never taken me more than three minutes), you can call up songs of the North and South, hear them sung while you look at the sheet music and learn a bit about the circumstances under which they were written, then move to photographs- hundreds and hundreds of them—and then paintings, then listen to another song, then go into battle.
And here the CD-ROM offered me up another surprise. I have trouble with re-enactors. I know that many, even most, of them are scrupulously faithful historians, getting it right all the way down to the merest button and percussion cap, but seeing those inescapably modern faces over gray and blue uniforms going forward into sunny Antietams where everything’s just the way it was except nobody gets hurt—it makes me queasy. Yet as they are deployed here in a solid hour’s worth of video, the re-enactors serve to clarify and instruct. You can click on a piece of equipment and see not only a splendid museum-piece example of it, but a soldier swinging it over his shoulder or loading it or tying it to a horse, and the function of the item in question becomes vivid and accessible.
But I was perhaps most struck by the battle maps. Writing of the brand-new armies groping their way toward First Bull Run, Stephen Vincent Benêt said, “If you take a flat map/And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,/The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.… But it takes time to mold your men into blocks/And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies/Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,/They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries.…” It is all so clear in the mind—”a string of blocks curling smoothly around the left/Of another string of blocks and crunching it up”—but how hard it is to do in practice, and when it fails, “The General loses his stars and the block-men die/In unstrategic defiance of martial law.”
This CD-ROM manages, I think, to give you the blocks and the men at the same time. You see the neat rectangular units as you send them toward Gettysburg or Chattanooga, but along the way there is the shuffle of feet, and an infantryman reads his account of the march, and another one tells of the first day’s fighting, and then you hear that fighting. The cumulative effect for me was to bring those little symbols on their tremendous errands close to the human beings they represent in a way that the most dutiful study of military cartography could never match.
It will be a long time before anything a CD-ROM can dish up will eclipse the pleasure and the value of a piece of good narrative prose; but this one, with its broad variety of elements waiting on your summons, suggests quite eloquently the buzzing immensity of details that go into the making of any moment of history.
Our readers will be as unhappy as I am at the fact that Geoffrey C. Ward’s column, “The Life and Times,” does not appear in this issue. Geoff points out, reasonably enough, that he’s been writing his column for more than twelve years now and worries he’s on the verge of getting stale. Moreover, he must parcel out his energies among many projects, from the historical documentaries he scripts (the PBS series on baseball and the Civil War, to name just two) to a biography of his great-grandfather, to whom Americans owe a considerable debt: had not Ferdinand Ward cheated Ulysses Grant out of his entire life savings, the old general would never have been pressed into writing his magnificent memoirs. I am, however, happy to say that after some sulking on my part Geoff has agreed to view his absence from the magazine as a sabbatical rather than a resignation, and so perhaps we will be able to welcome him back in the future.