Over the past few years, blogs have descended on the World Wide Web like a plague of locusts. These online journals vary in content and importance from inanity to possessing sufficient clout to influence the outcome of political contests. The American Civil War cyber community has seen an increase in blog activity as well. Over the past year, many new and varied blogs ostensibly focusing on things Civil War have appeared on the scene,some of which are still going strong while others have exhausted their heat and 15 minutes of fame after achieving pinnacles of varying heights. But what exactly are blogs, why do individuals choose to blog on the Civil War, and what can blogs contribute to the study of the war?
Web logs (better known as blogs) are like that little book your sister had,the one with the tiny lock, the one you were never, ever supposed to touch.While those little diaries held the writer’s personal, secret thoughts, blogs are intended to be read by anyone and everyone.“Bloggers”make journal entries,or posts,as often as they choose about whatever they choose,and their sites may include text, images, sounds, movies and links to other blogs that the blogger thinks are worthwhile.
The content of blogs with a Civil War focus (as described by their authors) varies from specific and organized to wide ranging and free formed. One current blog focuses primarily on Abraham Lincoln, another on historiography, another on memory and a couple specialize in book reviews. Many simply have a general Civil War theme.Some bloggers stay pretty much on topic, while others choose to discuss other aspects of their personal or professional lives as well.And like “that guy” at the company Christmas party, some just can’t resist the opportunity to discuss modern-day politics; more on that later.
As of this writing,there are about 20 blogs with a primary focus on the Civil War, but up until 2005 that number stood firmly at two. Dmitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf (http://cwbn.blogspot.com/),which focuses on historiography, has been around since August 2003. Mark Grimsley of Ohio State University began his military history blog, now known as Blog Them out of the Stone Age,in December 2003.While his blog was never specifically dedicated to the Civil War, Grimsley is a well-known author on the subject whose posts were frequently Civil War related. Grimsley subsequently started a cohosted general Civil War blog,Civil Warriors (http://civilwarriors.net/wordpress/). The current crop of Civil War bloggers includes academic historians,amateurs,published authors, an NPS ranger and a few just plain folks. It’s important to keep in mind that anyone may blog on anything.There are no rules, no qualifications.
America’s Civil War questioned four current, active bloggers about why they blog, what they hope their readers will gain from their musings,and what they think blog readers should be wary of.
Brian Dirck,Lincoln scholar,history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis:Imagining America, 1809-1865 and the upcoming Lincoln the Lawyer and Lincoln Emancipated:The President and the Politics of Race, hosts A. Lincoln Blog (http://alincolnblog.blogspot.com/), the focus of which is self-evident. Dirck says he took up blogging as a “regular (daily) outlet for my thoughts.”Through blogging,he believes he “can engage the subject of Abraham Lincoln” in immediate and fresh ways. He tries to offer his readers “a mix of scholarly, current events and pop culture commentary on Lincoln they can’t find anywhere else.”
While warning that surfers should be aware that “anyone can blog on the Civil War, including people who have no idea what they’re talking about,”he maintains that “no other medium offers…the same spontaneous format or the same give and take with other people. If those of us who care about the war and its legacy want to remain relevant and fresh,we need to use new technologies and become an integral part of the various internet communities that are constantly cropping up.”To encourage dialogue with his readers,Dirck employs a comments feature that creates an interactive blog.This has its advantages,but in the opinion of at least one blogger it can also be a distraction.
Dmitri Rotov thinks the comments feature can cause bloggers to “waste creative energy responding to comments about their blog,”and therefore does not provide a mechanism for comments on his blog. Rotov, a Washington, D.C., proposal manager and former army staff officer,views his blog as “a 180-degree counterpoint to what readers of glossy Civil War magazines ingest.”He began blogging as an expression of his “anger” toward the failures of Civil War historians but says his anger has dissipated and “makes less sense in the context of the good things that have been happening in Civil War publishing over the last three years,” as represented by “new research, new use of old primary sources” and “new perspectives.”
He enjoys experimenting with blogging as a medium—in particular with the way it allows essays to be posted in pieces over time, discontinuously, and seeing how different pieces of different essays interweave over time.“You get some very interesting effects. Unlike other media, you get continuous access to those readers interested in your material. Argumentation becomes long form—an extended polemic on many levels. Rhetorical effect becomes cumulative.” Rotov feels that bloggers’ weaknesses are evident in their poor argumentation,in their forgetting to persuade. He sees bloggers’ loss of focus often resulting in discussion of modern-day politics,repetition and too infrequent posting.“By and large,” he says, bloggers “do not exploit blogging as a unique medium.The good blogs try different things and push creative limits.”
Brian Downey develops software for financial systems, which he says has been helpful in his avocation, digital history. He maintains the popular Web site Antietam on the Web (http://aotw.org/), and his blog called Behind Antietam on the Web (http://behind.aotw.org/) is an offshoot of that project.While he still enjoys building on his 10-year-old Web site, he has found that it is “necessarily limited to the historical content.”He started to blog in 2006 to “write about the joys of doing the research, the interesting people of both 1862 and today, and the lessons I’m learning about how to do Digital History—history on the Web.” The ease with which he could set up and customize a blog and the encouraging commentary of other bloggers finally persuaded him to begin his own.
Downey doesn’t write for a particular audience, but has been pleased to find that there are other people “who find joy in the same things I do, or value in the things I may take for granted.If I start someone thinking about history in a new way or help them connect with their own past, I’ll be very happy.”He sees little disadvantages associated with blogs:“almost all offer gems of insight and perspective you’ll not get in any other medium.The beauty here is that readers need only pay attention to blogs they find useful or entertaining or thought provoking.”
A seasonal NPS ranger at Antietam National Battlefield and a professional museum educator, Mannie Gentile describes himself as “the happiest park ranger in the National Park Service.” He adds: “When I first started as a volunteer and then a ranger I sort of felt like celebrating this point of my life in a more public way.I wanted to share what I was doing with friends, family, supporters and,frankly, strangers. It’s all good news when you’re lucky enough to be even a seasonal ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.”The result is My Year of Living Rangerously(http://volunteersinparks.blogs pot.com/), a blog that combines Gentile’s thoughts on and experiences at Antietam with some very nice photography and the occasional video. Visitors to the site “get simply my view of the park, a ‘nonexpert’ view, no axe to grind, no book to sell. I’m just a guy who simply wants to share the seasons, sights, sounds and events of our most beautiful Civil War park.”While he concedes that “blogging is a poor substitute for an actual conversation,”Gentile hopes his readers “will get a sense of my joy and the feeling of privilege I have in being allowed to ranger at such a cool place.”
In replies to a separate questionnaire on Civil War resources on the Web,submitted to four academic historians,only two respondents specifically addressed blogs, and both voiced concerns.Chris E.Fonvielle Jr.,who teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and is the author of The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, says he tends to avoid blogs,associating them with personal Web pages that “are often full of gobbledygook. I have found some of my very best stuff online, and some personal Web sites are loaded with good and interesting information,but wading through all of them is an exercise in despair.”
University of East Carolina history professor Gerald J.Prokopowicz,author of All for the Regiment:The Army of the Ohio,1861-1862, and host of the weekly Internet radio interview program Civil War Talk Radio (http:// www.worldtalkradio.com/show.asp?sid=150), laments that he has “not found a disciplined way to handle [blogs].Many blogs are maintained by interesting,well-read people whose opinions have some value, but there are so many of them,on so many subjects,that I despair of being able to select just a few and stay current with them. Instead, I try to ignore them all,but occasionally fall into one through a link while searching for something else,and then read months’ worth of entries at one time until,” he quips,“I am near collapse.”
In the realm of Civil War Web resources, blogs have a fairly high profile if only for the sheer number of entries on them and their ability to engage the reader.But caveat emptor should be the watchwords for consumers.As Lincoln blogger Brian Dirck points out,“blogs can be a little too informal.Their immediate, spontaneous quality is both fun and a problem,because some blogs can be too thin,too light on substance, or just plain wrong.” Just like diaries, blogs are written for the writer. Readers can certainly benefit,but must keep in mind that anyone may blog on anything. There are no rules—no qualifications.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.