Civil War Washington

The City and the Site

During the course of the Civil War, Washington DC required new infrastructure, layered on top of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's initial plans for the city streets, public spaces, and buildings. The city went from being barely defended to being the most fortified city in the world. It attracted a new and flourishing theatrical life and an equally flourishing trade in prostitution. Washington also became a city of hospitals—it went from having one to more than a hundred as all manner of places, including a blacksmith shop, were converted into institutions for the sick and wounded. In addition, the city's population more than tripled in four years, as forty thousand fugitive slaves and thousands of others—bureaucrats, actors, authors, nurses, and laborers, among them—were drawn to Washington. This huge influx of people requiring residences, transportation, and waste disposal necessitated the reimagining and reconfiguring of the nation's capital.

The Civil War Washington project has faced pressures that are at least metaphorically similar as we have strived to build a system adequate to house, move, sustain, and clean up after data rather than people. We would like to think that our methods are not as primitive as Washington's, which relied chiefly on pigs for garbage removal and a putrid canal for a sewer system. But we also recognize that we are in an experimental time for digital scholarship, and we cannot foresee how a later era will assess our own. On some level, constructing roads, buildings, and legal codes is akin to designing data structures, enabling data integration, and writing documentation. And on a more fundamental level, the infrastructural changes in Washington DC 155 years ago constitute part of the very data that we are now, in the twenty-first century, building frameworks to accommodate. Washington DC was a work in progress during the Civil War just as our Civil War Washington digital project is a work in progress, open-ended and lacking guarantees of success or even long-term survival because the preservation questions surrounding digital scholarship are not yet answered.

These essays provide some of the many possible answers to the questions "What do digital scholars do? What does digital scholarship actually look like?" The short answer, for this project at least, is that digital scholars collaborate, construct, and work with digital tools, enhance scholarship with digital resources, and share not only the results of our research but also the details of how data are compiled, structured, accessed, and displayed. We transcribe documents, plan searchable databases, create complexly layered maps based on archival resources, and make as much of this freely available on our site as we can so that other scholars will benefit from our labors and develop their own interpretations, including interpretations possibly in conflict with our own.1

Digital scholars are actively engaged with interpretation and analysis throughout the process of building a project such as Civil War Washington. We make interpretive decisions about what materials to include, well aware that such decisions reflect the values and biases that scholars bring to their work. Our interpretations, moreover, are encoded throughout the electronic files that comprise the web site's content, from the analysis of the material and intellectual organization of the emancipation petitions embedded in the mark-up language of the Text Encoding Initiative, to the data models developed for the relational database. Data models are a growing genre of interpretive work in the humanities and require new forms of literacy in order to read and to appreciate their analytic structures. To that end, each section and subsection of the Civil War Washington site includes short essays that introduce both the materials presented and how they have been digitized, modeled, and encoded. The essays in the Interpretations section demonstrate yet another approach to communicating the interpretations we have made while working on this project: via long-form prose, a standard genre for humanities scholarship.

Essays in the Interpretations section appeared first in Civil War Washington: History, Place, and Digital Scholarship, edited by Susan C. Lawrence and published by the University of Nebraska press (UNP) in 2015. The project team negotiated with UNP to retain electronic rights to the essays, so that we could also make them available via Civil War Washington. We chose to publish our essays in print and in open access versions on Civil War Washington for several reasons. Even as the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL, together with a global library community, is actively working on best practices for data curation and the long-term accessibility of digital content, we turned to print because it has a centuries-long record as a reliable, stable preservation medium. Simultaneous print publication and online access, furthermore, allows us to take advantage of what each form of publication handles best. For many, print remains the preferred format for reading long-form scholarship. Holding a book, feeling the paper when turning a page, perhaps engaging the author with a handwritten note in a margin, offer tactile experiences unmatched by interacting with digital media. Some, too, value the book's apparent physical stability: we trust that it will be the same object next week, or next year, as it is today. There are limits to print that do not exist with electronic texts, however. The online versions of the essays presented here link directly to primary materials on Civil War Washington. The reader can examine some of the source documents, perform searches in the database, or manipulate the map side by side with each author's work. Adept digital users welcome site updates, moreover, including revisions to long-form essays, confident that today's digital scholars keep meticulous records of changes and that they archive versions of a website to preserve its intellectual integrity. Indeed, in preparing the essays for publication on Civil War Washington, we already have updated the essays in several ways. These edits have included linking to content internally within the project website as well as to external resources and revising the language to eliminate references to the "present collection" or to the "volume."

Another difference between publishing in print and publishing online speaks directly to the current state of the academy. Scholarship ought to be judged on the quality of the contribution rather than the mode of communication. Yet, despite the development of statements by professional associations recognizing the importance of fair evaluation of digital scholarship, digital humanities work may at times outpace the evolving institutional structures set up to vet it. The acceptance of new forms of scholarship remains uneven among academics, with some disciplines more open than others. While the imprimatur of a university press or scholarly journal are generally trusted means of establishing academic credibility, they are by no means infallible, and the most important proof of excellence or rigor has always rested on the accuracy and reliability of the research, the persuasiveness of the analysis, and the overall quality and significance of the work. The publication of these essays in both print and electronic formats is an effort to move the discussion away from the mode of communication to the significance of the work itself.

While we have first cast these essays as an engagement with issues in the digital humanities, they are also—and inextricably—an exploration of aspects of Washington DC during the Civil War. They are, in other words, a hybrid that illustrates what can be accomplished with an interdisciplinary team of scholars collaborating on a project organized around a web site that, from the start, aimed to open high-quality academic work to any online user. Gathering data, creating a complex mapping application, transcribing thousands of pages of documents, and putting them all onto an accessible, robust site with advanced search capabilities shaped our research interests not only as a group but also as individual scholars. We engaged with the site both as developers and as users, debating its content and structure together even as we followed our own areas of expertise to write these essays. We hope that the entirety of site inspires others to find new and interesting ways to think about and to understand the nation's capital during the bloodiest episode in American history. The rest of this introduction briefly outlines the development of Civil War Washington around our interpretive essays.

Civil War Washington: The Site and the Essays

Our digital project developed organically out of the central research interests of scholars at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) and the active support of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH). In 2005 Kenneth Price, a co-editor of The Walt Whitman Archive, concluded that the emerging interest in place-based digital research could suggest productive angles for work on Whitman. Literary scholars had focused little attention on Whitman's years in Washington, preferring instead to devote more place-based analysis to the poet's early residence in New York. Whitman left behind a voluminous amount of material rooted in the capital, from published work to notebooks to personal correspondence to the thousands of recently identified documents he produced as a clerk in the Attorney General's Office. Whitman's time in Washington overlapped with that of Abraham Lincoln, and their paths sometimes crossed as they navigated the city streets. At UNL, Price's path crossed with that of Kenneth Winkle, an accomplished Abraham Lincoln scholar with an interest in community-based studies and the use of statistical data in historical analysis. In conversations with CDRH experts, Price and Winkle decided that concentrating on the physical spaces Lincoln and Whitman inhabited and traversed had the makings of a collaborative digital project, one that stood a good chance of generating useful scholarship.

In October 2006 the project was "Lincoln and Whitman in Washington DC." By February 2007 we had decided to limit our scope to the years of the war, so the project was renamed "Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Washington DC during the Civil War." Susan Lawrence, an expert in the history of medicine, became one of the co-directors of the project in August 2007, and that increased our attention to the care of the sick and wounded and the extraordinary proliferation of hospitals in Washington. In August 2007, therefore, we devised a new title that emphasized the radical changes taking place in Washington on the medical front as well as in other dimensions of life: "Civil War Washington: Studies in Transformation." Our current title is the most ambitious of them all: simply Civil War Washington. We ultimately abandoned the phrase "studies in transformation" because we wanted to attend to important continuities in the city even as we tracked dramatic changes. Among the various implications of these several revisions of the project's title, the simultaneous temporal narrowing and thematic expansion of its scope seem especially important. From all of the years that Lincoln and Whitman spent in the city we decided to treat just the four years of the war. And rather than spotlight just two individuals, we have widened our view to encompass the entire District of Columbia.

Changing the focus of the project from Whitman and Lincoln in Washington to the whole District during the Civil War years meant that the amount of information that we might consider relevant exploded. Among other things, this has meant that we have spent as much time, if not more, working with data about ordinary citizens and soldiers, drawn from such sources as census records, newspapers, and lists of bawdy houses, as we have with data related to famous politicians, doctors, or writers. At the same time, the process of applying for grants to support our work meant that we had to articulate a set of research questions within a project that we would be able to complete in a multi-year grant period. We proposed to further our understanding of slavery and race in Washington DC and received a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research grant for this purpose in 2010. This grant enabled us to focus on the District's Compensated Emancipation Act of April 1862 and to make available and fully searchable the 1,127 petitions filed by DC slaveholders for remuneration for the slaves who were thereby freed. We chose to concentrate on the petitions (the originals are located in the U.S. National Archives) because they include the names, ages, and descriptions of every slave freed, along with additional, sometimes lengthy, documentation of both their personal and family histories. Even just browsing through the files online offers a remarkably vivid portrait of an entire community of people at the moment of transition from slavery to freedom.2

Two essays, the multi-authored "Developing Civil War Washington," and Rob Shepard's "Historical Geography, GIS, and Civil War Washington," present the challenges of creating and maintaining the Civil War Washington web site and its visual centerpiece, a digitized version of Albert Boschke's Topographical Map of the District of Columbia (1861). Their arguments are central to the practice of digital scholarship as it currently stands. Decisions made about platforms, database design, and map transformations quite literally shape how information can be collected, categorized, and displayed. None of those steps are mere neutral transformations of passive data. We had to define "place," for example. When a church was appropriated for use as a hospital, did it become a different place? The structure could be both places in the database but not exactly on the map (churches and hospitals have different icons; we did not create a church-hospital icon). How could we date an event, such as the opening of a hospital, when we had month and a year, but no day, when "date" meant a specific day in a specific month in a specific year? (See "Developing Civil War Washington" for the answer.) Because we want the site to be used for an array of research purposes, we cannot foresee all the ways researchers might wish to use the data. By making as many of our decisions as transparent as possible, and by providing much of the underlying data in downloadable formats, we hope to give researchers the ability to apply their own theoretical and methodological perspectives to the materials.

Rob Shepard's essay does more than describe the steps taken to construct a georeferenced version of an iconic historical map. In the last part of his essay, he illustrates the potential of digital tools to illuminate patterns that are otherwise very hard to observe without a great deal of repetitive, painstaking mapping by hand. We have linked the 1860 census data for Ward One (the area close to the president's executive mansion) to the map and, as Shepard shows, can begin to understand the geospatial configuration of Washington by race and by class. Shepard's work also illustrates the difference between what can be done with desktop software applications and what may be done using a web interface. Some digital tools are as yet too complex for full web deployment but are available to experts offline. For such researchers, we have made the map files downloadable. This is an important reminder that "digital scholarship" is not synonymous with "web-based scholarship." The web-based map application nevertheless offers a vital heuristic tool, a way to visualize spatial relationships and connections that may inspire other scholars to seek out more advanced technologies to address their research questions.

Shepard's essay is one example of the way that digital tools can enhance scholarship. The rest of the essays demonstrate more subtle intersections between the construction of Civil War Washington as a digital project and the specific research interests of the project's participants. As noted above, the project developed organically from Price's and Winkle's own areas of expertise, Whitman and Lincoln, respectively. Lawrence added the history of medicine. Lorang added her proficiency with literary studies of newspapers and war poetry. It is thus hardly surprising that we paid attention to emancipation (one of Lincoln's great goals), to hospitals and medical cases, to poetry in hospital newspapers, and to Whitman's experience of Washington DC during the war as the foci of our work, rather than bawdy houses, theater performances, or the politics of the District's religious congregations. Each essay depended upon, grew out of, is integrated with the digital project. The end results—the essays—nevertheless appear in a familiar prose genre. Digital scholarship does not mean that the final research medium must only be digital, with interactive maps or online real-time data visualization.3 For us, at least, it means that digital tools and access to digitized materials were vital for our research processes, in ways that are more or less explicit in the final written results.

Winkle's essays on compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia and on the petitions that resulted from the need to document claims for compensation illustrate the complex relationships between the site and our scholarship. When we decided to make the emancipation petitions a major component of Civil War Washington, we recognized that, no matter how important it was to make the original texts publically available, they could not speak for themselves. Visitors to the site needed information about the historical context of compensated emancipation, so we urged Winkle to write an introduction ("Emancipation Petitions: Historical Contexts") to accomplish that. That introduction dovetailed with his continuing research on emancipation in the District and helped to motivate progress on his transcription of the 1860 census for Ward One to learn more about the slave owners who lived near the White House. That data, in turn, went to Rob Shepard, who conceptualized how to map it. Winkle could then use the site's map, in conjunction with off-site textual sources, to think about the literal, on-the-street presence of slavery as a factor in the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862. In Washington, Lincoln and other politicians could see locally an experiment in freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on a broader scale.

Similarly, all of the project directors did the final review of the text transcribed from the petitions, which immersed us in close readings of these vital sources. We were all informed and disturbed by the details about the slaves described in the documents. We wanted to know more about what they meant, as stories of individuals as well as a collection of data. We were pleased when Winkle decided to write a second essay on the petitions themselves. His work provides vital information for those who want to use the petitions for their own purposes, be that teaching, research, or family history. It also offers us—among many other things—an interpretive framework for the significance of the skin color of the slaves described by their owners based on his mining of these historical documents. While his essay has value when read on its own, it becomes a different work of scholarship when read with the searchable texts of the petitions at hand, somehow richer, more connected to the impossible-to-really-access experiences of past lives.

The essays by Lawrence form a similar duo, both born from work on the site itself, not from preexisting research materials. The first essay was inspired by work on a much earlier version of the map, particularly on its underlying database, where the discovery of a few errors impelled Lawrence to check all the information on the hospitals on the site against a copy of the original manuscripts that generated it. The sheer density of hospitals in some areas of the District, the changing size of the hospital populations (additional research), and newspaper stories (shared by Winkle) led her to imagine urban spaces shaped by the presence of sick and wounded soldiers. Her essay on the hospitals is an attempt to place the military hospitals into historical context and to argue that they played a vital role in the civic life of a capital at war.

Having suggested, in 2007, that the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (MSHWR, 6 volumes, 1870–1888) could provide us with case narratives about individual soldiers in the District's military hospitals, if they could be extracted from the digitized copies extant on the internet, Lawrence had to deal with the success of that effort. With the help of undergraduate research assistants, the nearly 2,000 cases were corrected and marked up. To provide guidance for users, Lawrence wrote an introduction to the cases ("Medical and Surgical Cases: Sources and Methods"), explaining how these postwar narratives were constructed as data for the MSHWR. At the same time, the project's focus on slavery and emancipation in Washington DC turned her attention to finding surviving records from L'Ouverture Hospital in Alexandria, the only military hospital opened for African American soldiers in the District. Thinking about how to compare the raw material from an 1864 manuscript register for the hospital with the cases constructed for the MSHWR resulted in her essay on reading medical cases and the challenges of understanding the medical experiences of the war.

It should surprise no one familiar with his life that Walt Whitman contributed some items to one of the hospital newspapers, the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, during the war. Among the first locations placed on our map were the places where Whitman lived in the city. Any visitor to the site can see how close he stayed to the hospitals where he visited sick and wounded soldiers and can imaginatively trace possible paths that he walked on his rounds from home, to work, to hospitals, and to visit friends. Price discusses the indelible impact that these years had on Whitman's poetry. While his essay has the fewest explicit connections to the Civil War Washington website, it has the deepest foundational relationship with the project. The essay, moreover, still speaks to the possibilities of expanding the site's representations of the literary and cultural experiences of the war in Washington DC. It reminds us, too, that the stories of individuals' experiences with the streets and the people, the mud and the children playing, are vital counterpoints to databases and georeferenced map points in our quest for historical understanding.4


This essay was first published in Civil War Washington: History, Place, and Digital Scholarship, ed. Susan C. Lawrence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015). It is reproduced with permission and has been revised and updated for publication here. The copyright to this essay is held by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, and Civil War Washington's Creative Commons license does not apply to it.

  1. David M. Berry, ed., Understanding Digital Humanities (Houndsmills UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital Humanities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012); Matthew K. Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), published simultaneously online at (accessed 11/22/2013). [back]
  2. For additional discussion of the site's uncertainties as it developed over time, see Brett Barney, Elizabeth Lorang, and Kenneth M. Price, "Civil War Washington: An Experiment in Freedom, Integration, and Constraint." Text from that conference presentation was freely used in this essay with the permission of all of the authors. [back]
  3. For an example of a project that centers on data visualization in digital history, see Mapping the Republic of Letters (, which includes visualizations of correspondence networks among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European scholars. [back]
  4. The book collection published by the University of Nebraska Press included an additional essay, "Poetry, Washington DC's Hospital Newspapers, and the Civil War," by Elizabeth Lorang, which was reprinted with permission from Literature and Journalism: Inspirations, Intersections, and Inventions from Ben Franklin to Stephen Colbert, ed. Mark Canada (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Palgrave Macmillan did not allow for republication on an open-access website, so it does not appear on Civil War Washington. [back]