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Mapping Memory: Digitizing Sherman’s March

Here is Anne Sarah Rubin’s presentation at today’s SCWH luncheon.

I want to come at these issues from a somewhat different perspective than Kevin and Mark.  While I use online sources extensively in my teaching and research, what I want to talk about today is not using these projects, but rather creating one-the pitfalls, challenges, and opportunities.  Once we finish, I can actually show you my prototype.

Before I talk about my current research, I want to give you a little background.  I was in on the ground floor of the digital history movement:  In 1993 I started working on The Valley of the Shadow project, directed by Ed Ayers.  For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s an online look at the Civil War from the perspective of two communities:  Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  Basically, we created a massive digital archive:  maps, census records, church records, tax lists, letters and diaries, newspapers, service records, the OR, state claims, Freedmen’s Bureau documents, and images. I probably forgot something.  Anyway, the project took 14 years to complete, employed literally dozens of people (including some others in this room), and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I loved working on the Valley Project.  I found the whole process of making the raw materials of history visible to be fascinating.  I loved thinking about images and using visual means to get an argument across. I liked having different audiences and knowing that students as young as elementary school were using the project.  It was exciting and challenging, and I felt like I had picked up a range of new skills and approaches.  And then I stopped working on the Valley Project, finished my dissertation, got a couple of jobs, and really put digital history aside for many years.

But I always wanted to get back to it in some way — I had these skills, I knew I liked it, it seemed like a shame not to.  Plus, I had gradually become dissatisfied with the kinds of historical sites I could find online.

Let me explain that-there are wonderful, amazing, incredibly useful sites out there.  I could not teach my classes without them:  I use maps, documents, images, music.  I use them in paper assignments.  I use them for my research.  Some of my students have created them. But they are almost all archival in nature.  Over the past 10-15 years we’ve expanded the volume of these sites on the web, we’ve added bells and whistles, (and often things like flash animation are quite useful), but we haven’t really changed the format or the ideas behind them.  We haven’t really used digital media in  historiographical ways. We haven’t used it to express arguments, to help our ideas resonate with audiences who might not buy our monographs.  (Let me say here, that I’m not really talking about blogs here, which provide us with individual perspectives)   And this is what I’m trying to do with my current work on the memory of Sherman’s March.  I’m working on two related tracks:  I’ll ultimately be writing a book, titled:  Through the Heart of Dixie:  Sherman’s March and America.  But, at the same time, I’m also building a website, which I’m calling Sherman’s March and America:  Mapping Memory. Let me tell you a bit about the project as a whole, and then I’ll move on to describe the site.

The name “Sherman’s March”  conjures up a host of images and references, myths and metaphors for Americans.  They think of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, silhouetted against the flames in Gone with the Wind; of lone chimneys standing sentinel, all that remained of destroyed plantations; of soldiers stealing hams, and silver, chickens and jewelry; of “war is hell,” and “forty acres and a mule”; of the birth of total war.  It is, I would argue, the most symbolically powerful aspect of the American Civil War, one that has a cultural dominance perhaps disproportionate to its actual strategic importance. It has come to stand for devastation and destruction, for the birth of “total war,” and for the Civil War in microcosm.  Sherman’s march has been memorialized in fiction and film, been used to explain both America’s involvement in Vietnam and one man’s search for romance.  It has been employed as a metaphor for the burned out South Bronx of the 1970s and the gerrymandering of electoral districts.

Dozens of historians have written about various aspects of Sherman’s March-the military and strategic, the impact of the war on female civilians, the role the March played in spreading the news of emancipation, the lives of Sherman’s soldiers, and of course, about William T. Sherman himself.  My work takes a different approach.  Rather than retell the story of the March, this project explores the myriad ways in which Americans have remembered, retold, and reimagined Sherman’s march.  It looks at the March from a kaleidoscope of perspectives-African-American, Union soldiers, Confederates, women, environment-and a mosaic of sources-travel accounts, memoirs, music, literature, films, newspapers. Through the Heart of Dixie will explore the many myths and legends that have grown up around the March, not in the service of proving them true or false, but rather to use them as a lens into the ways that Americans have thought about the Civil War in particular and war in general.  The contradictions run throughout this story.  William Tecumseh Sherman has been praised for his skills as a strategist, and excoriated as a butcher.  The notion that emancipated blacks were entitled to “40 acres and a mule” had its origins in one of Sherman’s orders, yet Sherman and many of his generals did little to protect the African Americans following the armies.  Americans have praised Sherman’s men as heroes who hastened the end of the war, even as they have deplored their methods when used elsewhere.  There are stories that the scars on the landscape left by the March are still visible, yet the ones that really resonate are cultural, invisible to the eye.

So how do you make these visible?  How do you get across the complex varied ideas surrounding Sherman’s March in American culture, rather than just tell the story?  And what could I do that was different from the vast majority of sites already out there?  Fortunately, we have an amazingly talented group of visual artists/animators on our campus, who work out of someplace called the Imaging Research Center, who have been working on some of these kinds of projects or questions for years.  They have built a digital recreation of Latrobe’s Washington circa 1812, they’ve worked extensively with the political cartoonist Kal, they recreated an entire apartment owned by two art-collecting sisters, down to the files in the drawers.  So I knew that they could do the kind of work I envisioned (as an aside here, let  me make it clear that while I can build a basic website, I’m following the Valley Project model of using a technical staff for the serious programming-I know enough to ask for things, not to exactly make them).  I applied for, and received, an ACLS Digital Innovation Grant, which has allowed me to take a year off, and also given me a small technical budget-25 thousand dollars, which is enough to build a “proof of concept,” a sample that I can then use to apply for more substantial funds from places like the NEH, NSF etc.

Through a series of conversations with Dan Bailey (director of the Imaging Research Center) I decided to use maps as my guiding metaphor and interface.  The maps would be a way into the myriad strands of memory.   But I didn’t want just one map-I wanted several, in order to represent the different kinds of accounts I was using.  Then I could get the multiple perspectives across in a visual and intuitive way.  The idea of a journey seems a natural metaphor for the kind of exploration and excavation I’m doing in the larger project.  We ultimately settled on five different maps, each with a different look and feel:

  • The Sherman or Fact Map, which lays out the basic events of the march. This is taken from the 1865 John Bufford “Genl. Sherman’s Campaign War Map.” Originally we wanted to use the actual maps that Sherman carried, but they were in two pieces and didn’t match up at all.
  • The Civilians Map, for events involving African Americans and Southern civilians. This one came from the LoC, but we stripped out a lot of the details This one is very simple and basic.
  • The Soldiers Map, for events told from the perspective of veterans. This is actually handdrawn by Robert Knox Sneeden, whose work you may know from Eye of the Storm. While he was not on Sherman’s March, he was in prison nearby-first Andersonville, then Camp Lawton/Millen. It’s gorgeous.
  • The Tourism Map, which is about tourism and travel accounts. It comes from a 1960s Georgia map, that has been modified to look more like a road map.
  • Finally, the Fiction Map, which plots places both real and imagined. This one has been hand drawn from scratch by my collaborator Kelley Bell, a professor in the Visual Arts department

As an aside, this is an unusual collaboration between Visual Arts and History, but one that seems to be a fruitful one.  Especially since I want this site to be both appealing and accessible to the general public, it’s great to have to make it comprehensible to non-historians.  They help me clarify my thinking.  For example:  our introductory screen  includes a Civil War-era map of the United States, which then zooms in to Georgia-not everyone knows that’s where the march began.

Each map would then has around 15 or 20 significant points marked.  The idea is that you can toggle between the maps, and see how different people remembered or wrote about different places or events.  Not every place appears on every map, but most of them are on two or three, and Atlanta, Savannah, and Milledgeville are on all five.    But of course the maps alone can’t really tell the story, or make the kinds of arguments about the uses and possible abuses of memory.  So what we decided to do was to create an animation or a mini-movie for each one of the map points.  This is where the proof of concept idea comes in:  We couldn’t do all of this for the three states that Sherman passed through on the march, so this version focuses only on Georgia.  Similarly, if you think about five maps, with 15-20 points each, we’re talking about 100 points.  So for this version, we’re dong one point per map, and I tried to pick a range of places and stories:

  • Sherman Map-Ebenezer Creek: abandoning African Americans to drown or be captured (addressing issues of race, Sherman as an unwilling liberator)
  • Civilians Map-Oxford: The story of Zora Fair, the “girl spy of the Confederacy” (emphasizing women’s resistance)
  • Soldier’s Map-Milledgeville: The mock legislative session where Union soldiers repealed secession (veterans seeing themselves in heroic terms; march as a picnic or carnival)
  • Tourism-Camp Lawton: The story of the prison camp turned state park outside of Millen. (changing places of horror and violence into places of peace and other uses)
  • Fiction-Tara Plantation, Jonesboro, Clayton County: How could a story about the cultural memory of Sherman’s March not include Gone With the Wind.

This sounds pretty straightforward, but in fact has proved to be technically challenging.  I wanted to have an animated line that traces the path of the march, that can move forward and back, and that is keyed to the dates  of the march (we call this the time slider, and I have a preliminary version I can show you, which is, frankly, super cool).  In order for this to work, however, all the maps have to line up exactly, which is no mean feat with maps drawn by different people at different times.  We decided to use the Sherman map as our base layer, and through the magic of Photoshop (and I have some incredibly talented people working on this) have adjusted the other maps to fit-sometimes actually moving the places around slightly or hand-drawing roads and railroads.

Wait a minute, I imagine some of you are thinking-you can’t just move places around and redraw maps and documents.  I know — and this has actually been one of the issues I grappled with.  Last spring I went to Georgia and retraced Sherman’s March, driving around, seeing the landscape, and looking for the traces that remained.  I thought briefly about bringing a GPS with me, with visions of plotting the coordinates of historical markers and ruined buildings, and then thought better of it.  Forgive me for stating the obvious, but Sherman didn’t have a GPS.  And the story I’m trying to tell isn’t one about “finding the real route” of the march, or arguing that they were in one place rather than another.  Rather, I’m unpacking the layers of stories and myths.  So I basically decided not to fetishize geography and technology.

This actually raises a related issue when working with digital media.  When we write, whether an article or a book, a lecture or a public talk, we’re dealing with words, and words alone.  Maybe a couple of illustrations, or a simple power-point.  But in my project, I needed to think not just about images as illustrations, but as drivers of my narrative.  And I had to think about the look and feel of the site.  Kelley Bell, the artist with whom I’m working loves the 19th century, and uses lots of engravings and old typefaces in her work (she actually made some props for Gods and Generals).  So our aesthetic is similar.  At the same time, we want the interface surrounding the maps and animations to symbolically read “historical,” but not necessarily be informed by one specific period.  It’s too tempting for both of us to simply do everything in Civil War style, but that doesn’t really send the message we want, which is that this is an interpretation, not simply a re-creation.  So we’ve tried to go for a more stylized logo and look, though it’s still a work in progress.  We’ve also been trying to avoid the temptation to put in lots of bells and whistles (what Kelley calls “Jazz Hands”-I don’t know if you’ve seen the site for the History Channel’s Sherman’s March film, but their animation has the lines of the march bursting into flame!  Funny, but not quite the scholarly tone we’re  aiming for.

We haven’t started building the animations yet, but I have been writing the scripts.  One of the biggest differences between writing for online media and writing a book has to do with length — online is short attention span theater, and you can’t expect people to read more than two screens, or listen for very long.  So the animations are each going to be about three minutes long,  or about 500 words.  I’m not an especially verbose writer, but I’ll admit I’m having terrible trouble boiling down these stories and their meaning to so few words.  We’re also thinking through the look and feel of each one — will they all be different?  Will one use only photographs, while another only drawings?  I’ll also admit to being a bit apprehensive about having someone else add their vision to my words.  After all, when we write, it’s all ours.  In this, I have to share (though I also get to say things like, can that be more red, or I don’t like that).  Stay tuned, I guess.

I want to be sure to leave plenty of time for questions, so I just want to close by thinking more broadly about the opportunities and perhaps pitfalls accorded by the use of digital media.  I think that we’ve come far in the last 15 years.  On-line archives make the business of research and writing much easier than before.  What we still need to do is figure out how to use these new (or not-so-new now) technologies to draw people in.  There’s a lot of cool stuff out there, but not all of it tells us something we didn’t already know.  The challenge is to be innovative in both realms, not just one.

Comments (6) to “Mapping Memory: Digitizing Sherman’s March”

  1. sounds like my kind of place – will you let us have the URL when available? I’m looking forward to watching this project grow!

  2. This new trend toward the spatial organization of historical data is representative of the larger trend toward interactive history. I think that this is a great example, as were all the presentations in the panel, of how the internet can be used to teach history to a new generation, a technically and spatially enabled generation. This project will provide a spatial context for this history, however, as a GIS specialist, I have to wonder if we can really write off the importance of connecting the historical landscape to the modern landscape just because Sherman did not have a GPS unit.
    In a time when more and more people are navigating through the use of GPS feedback, I think it is essential to provide them with the opportunity to retrace the landscape of history.
    That is why the National Park Service is working with West Virginia University to create a new website for the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War to identity historical sites on the modern landscape and connect them on a map to information provided by the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors, the American Battlefield Protection Program, the National Register, and of course, websites like this one being created by Anne, to provide an interactive tool for tourists, researchers, and anyone else interested in this period. The NPS has not previously publicized this project outside of its own community, but cooperation with West Virginia University will allow the website to be launched in 2010, just in time for the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. As a member of the project team, I would be glad to answer any questions. Thank you to Anne, and to all of the participants in this panel for putting together a great presentation!

  3. I’m glad to see more use of geo-spatial resources. I’ve never understood why books are published with paper maps these days. Mash-ups and kml overlays on Google Earth/Maps or MS VE should be the order of the day.

    I agree with the problem of trying to geoposition ACW maps. I’ve done some as part of studying Antietam and it is hard work using GIS software on rasters. Fortunately for Antietam, NPS has a good deal of vector data available online that can be used to orient scanned maps.

  4. Why use paper maps in a paper book? Uniform presentation of material and immediate accessibility come to mind. As I’m reading, I usually just need the immediate reference provided by the paper map. Having digital resources to back it up when I wish to delve into something is wonderful, much as the footnotes allow me to delve further into the material behind a particular fact or quote.

    Digital is great but it’s not the appropriate solution for every need.

  5. Problem with paper maps is that they’re expensive to publish. I don’t pretend to understand why in an age of software like Page Maker, Adobe Illustrator, etc., printing a book seems as expensive as it was decades ago, but that’s the case. So most publishers will sit still for only a few maps — far fewer, and often of lesser quality, than it takes to effectively convey military operations. (Yes, I know: As with any generalization, there are exceptions to this.)

  6. I spend a great deal of my day job working out the issues regarding information presentation. Sadly, most organizations spend much of their efforts on the visual aspects, while unconcerned about how the underlying data is related. The real revolution in the digital age, is now the information presentation is not “directed” as with a book, but rather offering the ability for the consumer to “graze” based on their particular fancy. In a well constructed site, the data linkage is imperative. Otherwise, we’ve just transferred a book to the web, which is really no great revolution.