Edward Ayers, “Civil War and Emancipation: Visualizing American History”

Keynote Address, Thursday September 21, 2006
Welcome: Doug Seefeldt

So this is the introduction stuff—thanks to the people with the money, introduction of the theme. “History in the Digital Age”—pretty significant diversion from previous themes. http://www.unl.edu/history/news_events/pauley/

History of Pauley Symposium—honor the love of travel and adventure, “premiere gathering of digital scholars in the country”—the scholars here are from a lot of different fields, but all are held in high esteem among their peers. Consider Mary Beth Norton—one of the most well-known women’s historians in the US.

Richard Hoffmann, Dean of Arts & Sciences welcome—How do humanist scholars present their work in a digital, networked age? That is a big question, and one that I think will come up again in tomorrow night’s keynote/roundtable. Bragging on the CDRH. “Transforming the kinds of work humanists do, and the kinds of questions they ask and answer” So to what extent does the medium of presentation change the very essence of the scholarship? Does it? Hoffmann’s answer is yes, because scholars can ask new kinds of questions—Is it that they’re new questions, or that we now have the ability to fully incorporate the variety of historical documents and artifacts that can be used to answer questions in a more expansive way than ever before? Digital scholarship will now hold scholars in the humanities to the same type of “scientific” standards in the hard sciences—“experiments” can be replicated because all of the pieces used to answer the question are embedded in the answer.

Introduction of Ed Ayers—Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UVA; historian. Humor from the dean—displays Ayers’ c.v. rather than reading selections from it. How we got Professors Seefeldt & Thomas—Dean Hoffmann first met Ayers at a gathering of Arts & Sciences Deans (but the History department was already well on the way to these hires in order to build the UNL reputation for digital history).

Mobile microphone—always dangerous, but appears to be working so far. Bit of a southern accent. Quote from a memoir. Rapt audience. Who wrote it? Bob Dylan—I think a bit of surprise that someone knew the answer. Proud to say it’s a UNL history department grad student. Americans have become immune to the radical nature of the Civil War and the emancipation of 4 million people. Is the History channel to blame? Or maybe the fact that we split our history courses at Civil War/Reconstruction?

Used computers to analyze the frequency of word usage in Civil War-era newspapers. The visual display is a nice touch—the bigger the words, the more frequent the use. Same for letters and diaries (from the Valley of the Shadow project). Graph to show how word usage changes over time—shift from slavery to negro among southern Democrats. Political usage of words. This is amazing how he has visual, graphic representations of words and their importance, change over time, as a means of getting at how Americans understood the war and issues of race. “Emancipation peaked early and diminished over time.” Duty—war becomes about loyalty to a cause rather than the ideology of slavery/freedom/state’s rights. Thought: Digital scholarship has revealed a pattern among words that could revolutionize the historiography of the Civil War.

Minard’s graphic explanation of Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Makes sense of, and condenses, the chaos and magnitude of a major event. Thought: Is this one of the dangers of digital scholarship, or an advantage? “What does the history in your head look like?” Distortion: comparison between maps and history. Connection between time and space—the two go hand in hand in the process of remembrance. “Time Maps” Visualizing the connections and patterns and themes in history in our heads—how to make it visible to others? Words vs. images. Do historians have a burden to include more visual images to supplement (clarify?) their words? Need for detailed maps that do not oversimplify history. Does this still clarify and condense the past? Historians are like weathermen—terrible at predicting the future, but very skilled at analyzing the past.

The spatial environment of history—history literally takes place in a very physical space, but historians have not traditionally relied upon spatial theories as a means of understanding/analyzing the past. Maybe this is less true for urban historians, like Mahoney, Reiff, Chudacoff who use space to represent history.

In the absence of extensive written/oral accounts of freedom in the post-Civil War south, how do we as historians reconstruct that experience? What did freedom look like? Map of Barrow plantation shows shift from neatly order slave dwellings to 20 years later the scattered homes of sharecroppers. 1808 English map of the progress of abolition—looks like a tree, with each person represented by a single “tributary”; shows both Britain and North America. Visual representation of black population from 1810-1890: again, what history actually looks like on the physical plane of the United States; patterns become evident.

From the big picture to the small. Thought: Digital scholarship allows us to travel very quickly from the broad themes and experiences of history to the specific stories of the women and men who lived them. How successfully does print scholarship do this? Maybe Foner’s Story of American Freedom? This availability of primary source material in a way that connects the micro and macro makes the Civil War personal in a way that it usually isn’t. For my own purposes—thinking of assigning a writing project based on Valley of the Shadow for 201 next semester. Maybe have 2-3 essays based on digital projects?

Visual representation of marriages in Augusta County based on records from Freedmen’s Bureau. Slavery generally imagined as holding people in place, but these marriage records (at least through “L”) show that there was a great amount of mobility as enslaved people married across the county. By 1910 80% of black Virginians owned their own land. How do they achieve that? This is really hammering the ability to visualize history. How else does digital scholarship change history? Is the visual component the most important part? What about breadth of research? Access to primary sources at the site of analysis?

Lessons learned:

1. “The form and substance of the humanities are deeply related.” But how do we write such a textured history and move beyond the database collection of facts?

2. Changing the approach to sources in the humanities creates a tension in scholarship.

3. Digital scholarship forces humanists into new territories, puts them “off-balance.”

Applause. End of Talk.


1. Word analysis—what’s the importance of “white” to blacks during emancipation.
–Generally related to sharecropping contracts, etc. Whites were a central part in how blacks had to envision freedom, but also reflects the importance of blacks to the survival of whites.
–Cool thing forgotten in the presentation: Social network map ability to fully explore lives when we only have scattered references to individuals.

2. Cohabitation map—mobility of enslaved population. Theory before the image, or did the visual representation spur the new theory?
–Question upon question builds the map; now look for other sources to flesh out the story.

3. Concept of duty in the Civil War. Relative of a CW veteran. Concept of duty in the CW in the modern context and need for volunteers for war in Iraq. (I love that the audience is making the connection between past events and current events. That’s the essence of the humanities.)
–Draft riots suggest that it’s not a simple matter of ideology motivating soldiers. Military purpose isolated from the political purpose. That’s an incredibly cool way to approach the civil war, to separate the battlefield from the politicians.

4. Question about Minard from Patrick Manning. Minard’s map 45 years after the fact; is there a comparable response to the Civil War in the US?
–Absence of novels, art in the wake of the CW. Minard’s map an anti-war statement; an act of memory.

5. New York State Historical Society display on the slavery and emancipation.
–Slavery being told as a national story in the last 10 years.

6. Teaching: Quality control of student database entries in Ayers’s Southern History Database project. What did they produce? Was it good? Effective?
–180 students; HIUS 323: The Rise and Fall of the Slave South (upper division); entries approved by teaching assistants before being posted. Combination of classroom quality control with the “Wikipedia” approach. Plus the use of other’s work.
–Note, that this is one of the big questions for digital scholarship as a whole. Who are the gatekeepers? Who decides if it’s quality, worthwhile? Should we separate the professionally trained historian from the history buff who builds a website?

7. Being Ed Ayers: What are the obstacles to creating a 3-D environment that would reveal the genius of his thought?
–Talent, time, humility. Then, well, go for it. At this point, it’s the outlines of knowledge, a framework that still needs to be filled in with the expert knowledge of historians who intimately know the time/field. Inspired by the genealogies of rock ‘n roll at the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame.

8. Strategies for getting at minority voices in earlier fields, like medieval and ancient?
–“The farther away in time you get, the more inventive the historians are.” Inspired by scholars of earlier time periods in creative uses of sources as a means of visualizing history. Language mapping a way to deal with a super-abundance of sources, where earlier fields must deal with a paucity of artifacts.


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