An aide-memoire for all Americans

The American Civil War - The Valley of the Shadow
September 14, 2001

Fresh ways to tap the American civil war's enduring popularity as a means of nurturing history's disciplinary skills of documentary and historiographical analysis are always welcome. But which skill should take priority for the undergraduate? Some stress that it is essential for history students to consider primary documents and learn how to analyse quantitative data. Others are equally emphatic that students must be able to connect their own inquiry to the existing historiography. As the essays in Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid's collection demonstrate, in the case of the civil war, this is a huge task since scholarly debate over the war's origins, course and consequences continues on many fronts.

Like everyone in higher education, historians must relate their disciplinary aims to less subject-specific skills. Few degrees fail to promise that students will develop a range of computer skills, and the recent development of databases and search engines over the internet aids this. Thanks to the web, Edward Ayers and Anne Rubin's Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia, along with the American Memory initiatives of the Library of Congress, provide history tutors worldwide with new possibilities.

Like its website, The Valley of the Shadow CD-Rom allows teachers to consider the coming of the civil war as it appeared to two comparable communities in the Shenandoah Valley: Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The CD-Rom represents a sample of the extensive collection of primary materials gathered for the website: photographs, letters, diaries, censuses, military records, tax lists, newspapers and even music. In a general American history survey, the Valley project enables a class to look at selective topics from a local perspective, an important refinement as too much of American life is misunderstood through an exclusively national lens. In a more specialist civil war module, students using the Valley can test general assertions about the political, racial and ideological origins of the war against the records of these communities. The CD-Rom deals only with the eve of the war. To follow the Valley into the war itself requires a trip to the website.

The achievement of the Valley project team lies in the software that stores 30,000 pages of newspaper articles and allows students to search by person or topic across different databases. The arrival of historical works in electronic media, however, does not necessarily spell the end for more traditional formats such as Grant and Reid's anthology. They complement one another. A week of study could begin with a lecture on the civil war and the American nation-state, followed by a workshop with small groups of students reporting on whether the Valley experience was one of a light or intrusive federal government, and conclude with a seminar on Donald Radcliffe's revisionist argument that the antebellum federal government's activities have been underestimated.

No database or anthology can cover every facet, of course. Thus, on the political front, Virginia is not germane to the debate over whether secession was a planters' coup (the subject of Bruce Collins's essay), but the newspapers on the Valley website do capture the intricacies of public opinion in that fateful winter of 1860-61, and their later coverage can be used to test Richard Carwardine and Martin Crawford's contentions regarding the respective abilities of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to command the confidence of their embattled citizens.

On the military front, a database, like the Valley project's, speaks only indirectly to war studies issues, such as the distinctively modern character of the American civil war (Joseph Dawson's essay) and the nature of military command during it (Reid's essay). Despite its pre-war data on slaves, free blacks and fugitives, the CD-Rom is understandably less helpful on the wartime topics that Grant and Reid group under the heading "the racial front". The same is true of the meta-topics of capitalism, constitutionalism and nationalism in the anthology's final section.

Ironically, despite its high-tech sophistication and primary-source character, the Valley CD-Rom might work best as the basis for a case study in a survey module, whereas the Grant and Reid collection would fit more neatly the role of supporting text for so-called "special subject" courses. I suspect a seminar on John Ashworth's view of how the civil war advanced capitalism, for example, might be more effective in terms of learning in year three than year one. Equally, slowing the sometimes hectic chronological pace of a survey course and tightening its focus to two local communities, while simultaneously introducing a whole cohort of students to the best aspects of the new media, seems a worthwhile step. As the Quality Assurance Agency tells us, the curriculum should provide repeated opportunities for key skills development - exposure to primary documents, historiography and IT should occur early and often.

Peter Ling is senior lecturer in American history, University of Nottingham.

The American Civil War

Editor - Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid
ISBN - 0 582 31835 1 and 31838 6
Publisher - Longman
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
Pages - 366

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