Multi-Media Review: The Civil War CD-ROM : ACW

8/19/2000 • Abraham Lincoln, Book Reviews

The Civil War CD-ROM, Guild Press of Indiana, Inc., Carmel, Ind., $69.95.

The Civil War CD-ROM provides an irrefutable argument for the space-saving technology of CD-ROMs. Not only is every dispatch, every sketch and every report from the Official Records crammed into a single compact disc, but room has been found for four other research volumes.

Ever since the first volume of War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies first appeared in 1881, scholars and hobbyists alike have come to depend on the meticulously collected documents for their own research. In a way, the Official Records has allowed the study of the Civil War to become scrutinized and analyzed more than any other era in U.S. history. However, to expert and neophyte alike, the sheer bulk of the 128 bound volumes of the Official Records–almost a library in itself–can seem daunting.

The CD-ROM is set up much like a library search program, which should be familiar to most researchers. Users will find no memory-wasting graphics here; the programmers opted for a single screen that is clean and easy to understand, complete with a search engine for terms and names, and a large scrolling area where users can read the reports and letters without interruption. Original page numbers are preserved in the text, while citation information is included at the top of the screen. Another window in the upper left-hand corner allows the user to browse the database book by book. Depending on the computer system (the CD only needs 4MB RAM and a 4x speed CD-ROM drive, and is compatible with either Macintosh or Windows), setup is quick and easy.

One of the improvements over the original Official Records is organization. Guild Press has broken down each book into sections, separating battle reports and dispatches and reindexing them for manageable searching. Major battles are also indexed separately. The search engine is extremely fast and complete–almost too complete. Type in “Mine Run,” for example, and the user is confronted with every single instance the term appears in every volume. Users are warned to be highly specific.

Guild Press also included the aforementioned four additional research works–Frederick H. Dyer’s three-volume A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1861-1865), Alan and Barbara Aimone’s A User’s Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War and Military Operations of the Civil War: A Guide Index to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. The last book, the result of a reindexing effort by the National Archives in the 1960s and 1970s, also allows the user to jump directly to the referenced record.

Perhaps The Civil War CD-ROM’s greatest attraction is that it allows easy access to the records themselves. By scrolling through each dispatch, jumping from report to report, users can see a battle unfold and follow the backbiting and contradictory reports issued by officers in the engagement’s wake. One can read Lew Wallace’s attempts to explain his actions at Shiloh, observe George Crook lecture his superior on the proper manner to send messages, peruse every misstep John Pope takes with his new Army of Virginia, and witness Abraham Lincoln’s growing frustration with his commanders’ continual plea for reinforcements.

Timothy R. Sniffin