Monday, February 11, 2013

Digital Humanities: Visualizing Emancipation

There are some intriguing online projects that allow participants to collect and disseminate data; among these is the Visualizing Emancipation project at the University of Richmond. Initially, the project creators used data from Frederick Dyer’s A Compendium of the War Of The Rebellion to plot locations of Union military units throughout the war. Next, the Official Records as well as some other primary sources were mined to track geographic locations of emancipation “events.” From these sources, an animated map was created to track these military units and emancipation events over time. The goal is to find out the relationship between the military and emancipation. What has been revealed so far is a complex view of when and where emancipation occurred with few clear-cut patterns. In the February 8, 2013 issue of The Chronicle Review, Dr. Edward Ayers states “Emancipation did not, like elections, come in full historical light. It did not, like battles, arrive in a few days or on a fixed geographic stage. Instead, it came around the edges of the story. It started before the Civil War began and ended long after the war came to a close. It happened on dark roads and in obliquely worded government documents. It started and then stopped. Military events helped and hindered it. White Northerners supported and resisted it. It was entangled with war making from the very beginning, unfolding unevenly across a vast expanse of land. The digital medium allows us to see what we could not see before.” The animated map will become more sophisticated with time as the general public contributes data to the project. The trans-Mississippi is included in the project; my initial reaction while viewing the map is that emancipation in that region was concentrated in the years 1864 and 1865, but what other patterns will develop? Were Union soldiers in the trans-Mississippi really the most fervent emancipators as some historians have argued? 

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