The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998
 

The American Civil War, 1861-1865. UK: Cromwell Productions, 1997. CD-ROM. Macintosh and PC.

Dead Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg.
Dead Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. From
The Library of Congress.
No historian will learn anything new from this colorful, fairly fast, and easy to install and use CD-ROM. In fact, few Civil War buffs brought up on Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, Ken Burns, and scores of other serious, if popular, historians, will find new information or see unusual images of the war. Appropriate audiences—based on the sophistication of the material and the reading level of the text—would be junior and senior high school students or foreigners unfamiliar with the basics of the sectional conflict in the United States (indeed, it was produced in the United Kingdom). Yet even youngsters might find the low level of "interactiveness" rather limiting; older users might notice a number of conceptual problems, ranging from odd conjunctions of images and music with text to serious interpretive lapses.

From the main menu page, viewers can choose from five sections: "Overview," "Chronology," "The North," "The South," and "Miscellany." The overview, organized by years, takes about twenty-five minutes to browse, and presents only the most general material; the major events of 1863, for instance, end with the Battle of Gettysburg! The chronology offers much more detail, with entries on the passage of the Confiscation Acts by Congress, small but important skirmishes, and the wartime income tax. Unlike the overview, it does actually try to explain the origins of the war, but adopts a simplistic "irreconcilable differences" point of view and promotes the South as a violent, backward region where (completely ignoring the economic realities of a society in which a human being was worth up to a $1,000 at a slave market) "it mattered little" if a slave was beaten or killed. Like the overview, however, the chronology places a heavy emphasis on military events and virtually excludes the impact of the war on society. Links take the viewer to about a dozen rather clumsy campaign maps and information on generals, presidents, and other personages. The symmetrically organized segments on "The North" and "The South" both offer categories on "Witnesses to War" (mini-biographies of well-known men and women), "Battle Honours" (accounts of battles and, under "Soldier’s Tale," examinations of the experiences of several men, including Grant, Lee, George Custer, and others), and a number of well-known quotes from participants in the war. Finally, the "Miscellany" section includes a random selection of topics, such as "Pickett’s Charge"; Sweeney, General Jeb Stuart’s banjo player; Civil War era medicine, uniforms, and flags; the Confederate cavalry; war-related poetry from literary luminaries Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and a quite impressive collection of thirty Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison color prints based on the artists’ battlefield sketches.

In addition to Kurz and Allison’s excellent artwork, there are several positive aspects on this CD-ROM. The Union and Confederate navies get surprisingly good coverage in long, text-based examinations, although the lack of images render those entries rather dull. The section on "Medical Matters" includes a discussion of the diseases that killed more Civil War soldiers than bullets along with its frank look at the more dramatic battlefield casualties. The entry on photographer Matthew Brady mentions his one-time employees and rivals Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner and relates their often-overlooked practice of moving bodies found on the battlefield into more dramatic death scenes. In homage to Ken Burns’ distinctive style of photography, the computer screen pans across and zooms into a wide variety of photographs, paintings, and other illustrations.

Unfortunately, however, these strengths fail to balance the weaknesses of this simplistic version of the Civil War, which is disappointing in its content and its presentation. A number of problems have already been mentioned, but others contribute to the CD-ROM’s limited usefulness. African Americans are barely mentioned. The section dedicated to their story consists of a couple of pages of text; nothing is said of the lives of slaves; at one point, the narrative refers to them as "coloured" soldiers; and in the admiring entry on Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, nothing is said about the origins of his prewar fortune—he was a slave trader—or about his role in the early days of the Ku Klux Klan. Women, whom historians have long examined for their vital roles in both the Union and Confederate war efforts, also get short shrift (see, for example, the brief biographies of the decidedly atypical heroines Clara Barton and the Confederate spy Rose Greenhow). Viewers are confidently assured that Civil War officers trained at West Point placed "great reliance . . . on military theorists," especially the "French school," even though most cadets barely studied military strategy in a formal way. Some odd choices in music and graphics also appear from time to time. For no apparent reason, Dvorak’s "New World Symphony" provides the soundtrack to many sections, while clips from The Birth of a Nation offer generic images of battle. The tasteflessness of using such an admittedly exciting video is highlighted in the use of a notorious excerpt of African-American troops—played, almost everyone knows, by whites in blackface—attacking an isolated cabin full of valiant Southern men and terrified women. Other images are less disturbing, but remain problematic. A well-known lithograph of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts regiment attacking Battery Wagner in 1863 is presented as a representation of the fighting around Petersburg, while another famous picture of Pickett’s Charge is implied to show the fighting forty-eight hours earlier on the first day at Gettysburg.

First Bull Run battlefield. Photograph taken in 1862.
First Bull Run battlefield. Photograph taken in 1862.
The Library of Congress.
From the standpoint of the user—rather than the historian—there are also problems. The window displaying videos and other graphics is too small, taking up less than one-fourth of the screen. Links tend to be redundant. Connecting to "Manassas" when the Chronology refers to Confederate forces establishing a defensive position early in the summer of 1861 and to "Bull Run" when Union and Confederate clash there two months later leads to the same map and description. Most links for Abraham Lincoln go to an actor reciting the Gettysburg Address, while Robert E. Lee is most often revealed through an actor playing Lee’s son reading from a couple of letters related to the Battle of Chancellorsville and the mortal wounding of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. It also seems as though the creators tired of their project. After including a number of links for the first three years in the chronology section, they include only two in 1865, including one on General George A. Custer unrelated to the final months of the war.

Some CD-ROM users may enjoy The American Civil War, 1861-1865 for its accessibility and its use of a wide (but sometimes strangely placed) collection of images. Yet the material is not integrated particularly well. Links are repetitive and often unrelated to the events to which they are connected. It seems as though the developers tried to include the categories of information that viewers would expect to see and gave little thought to an overall interpretation. They chose a nearly linear presentation, offering little information that could not be found in easily obtainable textbooks. Unlike the most useful digital collections of historical information, there is no joy of discovery, no sense of being pulled from one link to another, no immersion into a complex and exciting story. As a result, in the hands of the makers of The American Civil War, 1861-1865, one of the most dramatic episodes in American history becomes rather flat and featureless.

James Marten
Marquette University

 

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CD-ROM Review of The American Civil War 1861-1865
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History

Comments to: jmmh@csc.albany.edu

Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998