July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Richard Dobbins has made it his mission to gather every single record of every single soldier into one huge, organized, searchable Internet database.
We know of virtually every meal and motive of the generals, but histories of the Civil War’s four million enlisted men generally remain buried in the historical record, dug up only with the utmost patience by descendants and scholars. Who can find all such stories? The job has been taken on by Richard Dobbins, a restless 56-year-old with no formal training in history.
Working from a former transmission repair shop in Kingston, Massachusetts, Dobbins and his three employees are creating the Civil War Research Database, a tool that may reshape how we understand the war. The concept is at once simple and breathtaking. Since 1993 Dobbins has entered into a sophisticated computer database, by hand, millions of personnel records from some 170 different sources. They detail induction dates, promotions, combat service, discharge status, causes of death, and more. For 135 years, these bits of information were widely scattered in printed regimental histories and handscrawled documents issued by an assortment of state agencies and veterans groups. Gathered into a central database, the disparate shards of data can be organized into unified collections that can be analyzed and linked at will.
You may now be able to learn instantly, for example, exactly when Uncle Hiram died; you may be able to inspect a doctor’s notes on his wounds. Getting such basic information by twentieth-century methods would have required a page-by-page inspection of Massachusetts regimental histories and muster rolls. Now you need only log onto www.civilwardata.com, and for $25.00 a year, you can access a 4.2-gigabyte database pumping information through industrial-strength software normally employed by insurers and airlines.
“I used to have to go through reels and reels of microfiche to identify enlisted men,” says one user. “Now it takes minutes, and I do it out of my house.” Dobbins’s creation is about far more than convenience though. It engenders a still unexploited ability to turn raw information into broader insights about the war’s demographics, especially by using its “regimental casualty analysis,” a tabular day-by-day accounting of who in a given regiment was killed or wounded.
Take the real Hiram Spooner’s 27th Massachusetts Infantry, for instance. He was one of just five men killed on June 2, 1864, but the regiment would suffer another 16 deaths over the following two days. The database can sort the carnage by place of enlistment, and a few more mouse clicks produce a page summarizing the service of all the enlisted men from Spooner’s hometown of Southampton. There you learn that no fewer than 31 of the town’s 83 enlisted men were casualties. And, as Dobbins says, “You realize the real suffering.”
Dobbins is a former fidelity mutual fund manager and the founder of several financial databases used in the municipal bond industry. He sold off his last company in 1991, wanting to apply his technical know-how to a passion that had begun during his boyhood in Michigan, after he picked up Bruce Catton’s Never Call Retreat. Some historians might view his philosophy of history as crude. “The ultimate idea of history is at least to get a level of empathy with how people lived,” he says. But that urge has powered uncommon dedication.
He has pumped more than a million dollars into his project, and though he hopes it will someday repay the investment, it has hardly begun to do so yet. He spends much of his 60-to-70-hour workweeks squinting into dusty Civil War registers, transcribing the written information into digital form. He and his staff have entered data on some 2.6 million of 4 million soldiers over the course of 85,000 man-hours, with an estimated 75,000 still ahead. The Union database is now 85 percent complete; the Confederate records are just 25 percent finished.
He says his project will never really be done. Once he has entries on every soldier, he plans to add still more layers of data. He’ll use pension records to re-create how veterans lived and will comb obituaries to detail where and when they died. Nineteenth-century economic reports will reveal how local economies fared when men went off to war. Perhaps his grandest vision, however, is of opening up the database to contributions from the public, so descendants and historians can add family histories, diary texts, and more to each veteran’s database entry. Already, Dobbins’s 12,000 subscribers have contributed 5,500 photographs. “How far I go depends only on the hours in the day,” he says. He recently drafted his wife, Nancy, to enter cemetery records for Pennsylvania.
It’s all tedious work, and it can get especially maddening for Dobbins when he’s trying to make out frilly handwriting preserved on aging microfiche. Still, he grinds on. For him, the job is something of a higher calling, a public works project of the Digital Age. He finds pride and solace in the idea that absolutely any Civil War soldier, and at least the rudiments of that soldier’s story, can be extracted from these mountains of paper records. And he’s not oblivious to the irony in his mission. Computers, which so often can seem dehumanizing, are in this case just the opposite. “From the richness of the data,” he says, “you learn what really happened to these people.”