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Valley of the Shadow

The Civil War on Internet

By Jane Aikin | HUMANITIES, March/April 1997 | Volume 18, Number 2

"A line running East and West, in latitude 39o.43'.42.4" . . .which was marked by Messrs. Mason and Dixon," wrote Thomas Jefferson, tracing the newly drawn boundary of his state in his Notes on Virginia (1787).

What Jefferson could not know was that three-quarters of a century later his beautiful and peaceful "Great Valley" would become the most contested territory of the Civil War and the Mason-Dixon Line the symbol of the division between North and South. The tragic stories of the Valley have been told from generation to generation, and now are told again in an unexpected way, in diaries and old newspapers in an Internet project at the University of Virginia.

As a natural north-south avenue, Virginia's Great Valley was central to the success of the eastern campaigns of both armies.

Settled mainly by immigrants from England, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, the Valley had a remarkably homogeneous population. The Mason-Dixon Line marked the major difference: a slave population in Virginia and a free black population in Pennsylvania. Southern Pennsylvania lay near the upper end of the valley, a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad and open to both invasion and refugees fleeing before the armies. To the south stretched rich Virginia fields and pastures, inviting marching soldiers to plunder along the way.

When the war began, Valley towns became centers for army recruiting and supply. The Pennsylvanians and Virginians who enlisted fought against each other at Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. As the battles ended, townspeople living nearby provided hospital services for the wounded. For many, the war came close on an almost daily basis.

"From the time that war was declared a rumor that the Confederates were crossing the Potomac would bring through our town hundreds of refugees from Maryland," recalled Lida Welsh Bender. "Sometimes at night we would be awakened by the rumble of wagons and the clatter of horses' feet on the stony streets. . . the Negroes bound for the Northern States and freedom and the farmers for some remote and almost inaccessible place on the mountain. In a few weeks the farmers would return to their neglected fields, half starved and tired out, to find that the enemy had not crossed the river after all. The newly invented verb "skedaddle" forced itself into our vocabulary at the time and was immediately put to hard usage, as no word in the dictionary expressed half so well this helter-skelter rout of an army of non-combatants."

War came to Lida Bender's home town of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, in 1862 when the armies met on the rocky ledges of South Mountain. On hearing the guns, Bender and other women hurriedly prepared hospital supplies, working at night in "the low- ceiled, unfurnished room, the only light a few tallow candles, a large clothes-basket in the center, and round about a circle of girls, each with a pine shingle, a knife, and a lapful of pieces of old linen tablecloths, towels, and napkins which we were scraping into lint. Back of us the older women were making neat rolls of strips of old soft muslin for bandages. Suddenly above the scrape, scrape of the knives, the swish of tearing muslin and the low murmur of voices, a woman's shrill scream rang out on the night. Terrified, we dropped our work, and ran out to the sidewalk. It was a mother's cry for her boy, who had been killed the day before, only eighteen miles from home. That night, I felt the horror of war."

Two hundred miles away, in Staunton, Virginians also feared for their sons and brothers. They had lived with the sounds of guns for months. "What are people in Yankeedom thinking of today?" wondered Nancy Emerson on Independence Day in 1862. "Perhaps however they have not got the breath yet & are still hugging the delusion that Richmond will soon be theirs. Mac.[Clellan] will get up a battle of falsehoods as usual, but the truth will out sometime, & how astounding when it comes. Pity, pity that the Northern people should have been made the dupes of such a set of knaves."

While the Civil War affected Americans throughout the country, those who lived in the way of marches and battles had especially vivid memories -- some of losing their crops and possessions to invaders, and others of feeding their own troops and nursing the wounded. To read the diaries and letters of these unknown citizens, view their newspapers and sample the sights and daily life of the towns, it is now necessary only to find a computer with a World Wide Web hookup. The Valley of the Shadow is not a book, a collection of printed documents or photos, but a Web and CD-ROM project created by Edward Ayers, professor of history at the University of Virginia. Now being developed, the two-year-old Web site allows users to discover how war came to Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia through maps, pictures, census and tax records, newspapers, and documentary sources.

"Our aim is to let users of the project examine the past for themselves," Ayers says. "They can find their own answers to the perennial questions of the Civil War -- how could the people of this country come to kill each other in such numbers? What was each side fighting for? How did the war change the nation?"

The first of the planned three chronological sections is now nearly complete -- the portion covering roughly from the 1850s through 1861. This segment provides an interrelated series of events, people, places, and ideas, a day-by-day kaleidoscope of the prewar years. Users can view reports of crucial events such as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in the fall of 1859, Lincoln's election in 1860, and the shelling of Fort Sumter. To discover how these events appeared to Virginians and Pennsylvanians, users can read local newspapers, and find the national stories interspersed with reports of floods and fires, Fourth of July celebrations, revivals, crimes, road construction, and the family-centered events of marriage, childbirth and death. Where the rhythm of daily life intersects the tragedies of war, local citizens speak of their fears, their shattered lands, their hopes, and their convictions.

The multimedia Web version also allows viewers to review maps of the campaigns, and to see what local buildings looked like. Photographs and artists' drawings of the Valley provide the visual dimension to accompany the printed word. For those with appropriate equipment, strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Bonnie Blue Flag can accompany their explorations of the Web archive.

The Valley research team is creating three CD-ROM disks that will contain even more graphics and sound recordings. The CD version will be published by W. W. Norton and made available at about the price of a paperback book so that those without access to the World Wide Web can use the archive. The CD version will be available for both Windows and Macintosh systems, and it will have some advantages of its own: for example, the music and other hypermedia features on the Web cannot yet match the capabilities of compact disk, and images often pop up faster on the CD than on the Web. For larger institutions, Ayers explains, the materials can be moved to local file servers to operate at maximum effectiveness.

When the basic story line was in place, Ayers and his Valley team tested the archive by having students explore its contents and create their own stories. He also provided teachers with the prototype version and asked them to use it in classes. Some students located names in the population census records and connected them to tax records, the manufacturing census, and business sites in the towns, revealing patterns of family activity. Others have probed the relationship between whites and African Americans in the two places, discovering in the records a daily life that it is hard to imagine. Military rosters served as the starting point for another student, who used them to trace the socioeconomic circumstances of army deserters. Still others used the archive to focus on activities far removed from the war: the local insane asylum, women's activities, crafts, churches, and youth organizations.

This project is not only for university students. The Web home page leads directly to a series of resources for teachers at the secondary and college levels. Ideas that teachers have used successfully in their classrooms appear; sample student papers are available, and even students' comments about their experiences with the web. Casual explorers of the web and Civil War buffs will be interested in the great variety of documents, personal narratives, military information, architectural detail and artifacts that a single Web site can incorporate.

The Valley team currently is working to complete all three parts of the archive, concentrating on the latter two sections that detail the war years and beyond. In the CD-ROM version, battles and soldiers will dominate disk number two, while the final disk focuses on the meaning of freedom for the former slaves, and the many changes resulting from the war. Users will be able to extract material and weave it into their own narratives as well as follow troop movements through three-dimensional maps. Users of the project also can look forward to reading the story of the two communities and the war when Ayers completes his book on the subject.

Visit the Valley of the Shadow online:

About the Author

Jane Aikin's field of scholarly concentration is late 19th-century America. She is a program officer in the Division of Research and Education Programs.