Civil War Washington ranks among the best resources available online for U.S. Civil War scholars, writers, and teachers. Despite its narrow geographic focus, the site’s collaborative nature results in a digital collection that touches on literature, journalism, medicine, labor, military affairs, politics, geography, digital humanities, genealogy, science, and of course history.
Civil War Washington is published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UN-L) thanks in large part to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the UN-L. It focuses on the period of 1860 through 1865 and restricts itself to the U.S. capital, but within that tight lens is a wealth of information. The site creators remind us that Washington tripled in size during the Civil War, and its population included not just soldiers and politicians, but also fugitive slaves, thousands of laborers, doctors and nurses, immigrants, journalists, novelists, prostitutes, and more. The site designers recognized that a digital format might best capture the vast array of forces that revolutionized this city, and the result is a website that is easy to access, visually appealing, and useful for broad audiences.
Readers interested in the history of slavery and the process of emancipation, for example, will want to peruse the “Petitions” section under “Texts” that reviews the process by which more than 3,000 enslaved men, women and children earned their freedom. The “Newspapers” section, also under “Texts,” holds a digitized collection of some of the rarer papers published at hospitals in the Washington area, reminding us that, as the Armory Square Hospital Gazette declared in its first issue in 1864, “The hospital is an episode in a soldier’s life—sometimes a painful termination of it, which has many an event worthy of a chronicle.” Under “Visual Works,” site visitors can view and download drawings, photographs, lithographs, and other images that help us see what life looked like in Washington during the war. The “Maps” section will appeal especially to digital historians, while others will enjoy digitized excerpts from The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion that pertain to wartime cases in the capital.
I encourage readers to familiarize themselves with this rich site from which I have offered but a few examples. The original material is skillfully contextualized with essays that ensure that the sources are accessible for the highly trained as well as newcomers to our field. Readers and teachers might also think about using this site in conjunction with two others that I have reviewed in this column, Civil War Richmond and the Richmond Daily Dispatch. While all three websites are quite different in the material they offer and in their design and their complexity, the resources they include provide an opportunity to make useful comparisons between the two capitals at war.—Susannah J. Ural