The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun”
A century and a half after the end of the American Civil War, a parallel project also has come to its conclusion.
On April 26, 2015 – exactly 150 years after the surrender of Confederate troops at Bennett Place in Durham – the University Library posted the black and white lithograph illustration “Conference Between General Sherman and General Johnston” commemorating the event.
The blog post was the last in the library’s award-winning four-year project, “The Civil War Day By Day.” Using the modern magic of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, the blog allowed hundreds of readers each day to experience the Civil War as it unfolded, through the words of the people who were living through it.
Each of the 1,450 posts included a digital scan of a document created on that day – letters, diary entries, telegrams, newspapers – as well as a description of the document and a transcription of its spidery script or faded print.
“I kept the blog as a home page for my Internet browser so that I would look at it nearly every day,” said Todd Kesselring of Raleigh, a frequent commenter on the blog. “I followed it from the first post about Fort Sumter on the 12th of April 1861. P.G.T. Beauregard had amazing handwriting!”
The idea for the blog came up at a library meeting in 2011 about ways to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The librarians wanted to share the contents of their vast collections with a larger public while also providing a unique, personal view of how the war affected the people at that time.
With the help of colleagues Nicholas Graham, director of Digital NC, and reference librarian Matthew Turi, archivist Biff Hollingsworth set up three requirements for each day’s entry. The document had to be from the right day as well as personal and able to offer insight on social issues, like slavery.
To keep the entries interesting over four years, Hollingsworth planned the project like a fireworks display. “You kind of need a big start – a kickoff – and then have flashes and flourishes throughout,” said Hollingsworth, collecting and public programming archivist for the Southern Historical Collection. “And at the end, you have sort of a grand finale.”
Matching the dates wasn’t a problem as far as pure volume. The Southern Historical Collection alone has 17 to 20 million items, with 5 to 10 percent from the Civil War era. But Hollingsworth’s team also pulled from the other four special collections housed in Wilson Library: the North Carolina Collection, the Rare Book Collection, the Southern Folklife Collection and the University Archives.
The challenge to the archivists was to sift through the many choices and find the real gems. Hollingsworth, other librarians and graduate student interns spent hours in the stacks of Wilson Library, pulling metal boxes from the shelves and reading the yellowing papers inside. The archivist estimated that each blog entry took from two to 10 hours of work to create: searching, scanning, transcribing, tagging, sharing on social media. (In a bow to Twitter followers, the headline for each entry is a pithy, often Tweetable, quote from the document that follows.)
The result was a rich catalog of missives from top generals, diary entries from women on the home front, eloquent love letters, scribbled notes from the barely literate, painful reports from the front written by soldiers on both sides and messages from slaves to their masters.
These varied, deeply personal views bring historic events to life. The Battle of Gettysburg, for example, becomes not just a casualty count or a study in strategy but the real life experience of Sally A. Bauldwin in Franklin County, Virginia, whose husband is missing and presumed dead. “I have lost my all my Dear Husband is gone oh what shall I do I have lost the Dearest freind I had on earth I am left Aloane and my children Without A Father.”
In his diary entry for April 15, 1865, Henry Clay Warmouth expresses true sorrow over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. “The Elements seem to mourn the calamity for today it rains- & the Heavens are thick with clouds.”
And while many textbooks chronicle Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s destructive march through the South, none recreates the heat of the flames like an eyewitness account from Columbia, South Carolina, describing “a copper colored sky across which swept columns of black rolling smoke glittering with sparks and flying embers, while all around us were falling thickly showers of burning flakes.”
That immediacy is what appealed to Kesselring. “What made the blog so terrific was that as a reader I was following history in real time, at the same pace it was lived then,” he said. “I was also following it the way people perceived it as it was actually happening.”
Beyond the words written on them, the documents themselves have stories. “These aren’t just items in a box,” Hollingsworth said. “They were written by someone. They were touched and held and used by real people.”
That point hit home for Hollingsworth one day when he discovered an unusual letter in a collection that had his surname on it. Folded twice, the document had a clear hole down the middle. A bullet had pierced the paper just before striking and killing the Union soldier who had it tucked in his pocket. The Confederate soldier who found it wrote a message on the back and sent it home to his own family.
“Here I am holding a letter, sent possibly by someone I’m related to, that he had picked up almost as a relic of war off of a dead person and was sending back as a keepsake,” he said. “That was poignant for me.”
Hollingsworth has changed inside and out over the course of the Civil War blog (as you can see in this video, filmed near the beginning of the project). “Looking back, I think of how different I am as an archivist,” he said.
When he began this project, he was fresh out of graduate school and clean-shaven. Now he’s a seasoned veteran with a full dark beard. A Georgia native, he has learned much about the Civil War, particularly slavery and “the brutality of it.”
The hard work of Hollingsworth’s team has paid off in many ways. Three years into the project, the national Center for Research Libraries honored “The Civil War Day By Day” with a primary source award in the access category. The blog has raised awareness of the collection. He’s heard from a woman in Indiana who discovered a letter written by her great-grandmother on the site, as well as a man with a bin full of old letters he may donate to the collection one day.
He’s also heard from at least one follower who wants the story to continue – “Reconstruction Day By Day,” perhaps? No more long-term projects, Hollingsworth said, even though he enjoyed this one.
“It’s been a thrill for me to work on this project,” he said.
“The Civil War Day By Day” has ended, but the past is never dead. Though no new entries will be posted, the blog will continue to live online. And all the items in it are available in Wilson Library’s special collections, Hollingsworth said.
“As a colleague of mine says, ‘All you need is curiosity and a photo ID.’”