UNL digital scholars net major grant for Civil War-era explorations

Released on 08/11/2010, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., August 11th, 2010 —

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has earned a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand its digital research on Civil War-era Washington, D.C., especially its pivotal role in the antislavery and civil rights movements.

The three-year, $220,000 "We the People" grant will support the interdisciplinary Civil War Washington project that examines the war's impact on the nation's capital. The "We the People" designation recognizes projects that advance the study, teaching and understanding of American history and principles.

The grant will enable researchers to study how race, slavery and emancipation changed the capital a century and a half ago. Researchers will investigate how African Americans living in Washington during the Civil War gained their freedom, won the fight for the Union and against slavery and achieved legal equality, said Ken Winkle, professor of history and co-director of the Civil War Washington project.

"That story is a critical piece of our nation's history and it has not been thoroughly studied," he said.

History and English faculty are working with digital scholarship experts in UNL's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities for this project, which began in 2007. The goal is to create an interactive online resource that integrates maps, data, government records, newspaper and narrative accounts, images, photos and other information. Some of the collection is available in a prototype site at www.civilwardc.org, which will be enhanced as a result of the funding.

At the project's core is a map documenting the physical changes to the city in response to the demands of the war, the emancipation of slaves, the dramatic population growth and the increased size and importance of the federal government.

Winkle said the award further distinguishes the role the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities plays in digital scholarship. The center is a joint initiative of the University Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences. It focuses on interdisciplinary research that gathers unique, digital content and develops digital research tools.

"UNL is a national leader in digital humanities research," said Prem S. Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development. "This major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is the latest recognition of our faculty's innovative research in this exciting area."

The idea for the project grew from a conversation about shared interests between Winkle, an Abraham Lincoln scholar, and English professor Ken Price. A Walt Whitman scholar, Price is co-director of the Civil War Washington project and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities who is building a digital archive of Whitman's Civil War writings. Winkle and Price initially wanted to focus on the lives of Whitman and Lincoln in Washington during the Civil War, but the project soon evolved into an exploration of the city itself.

Washington underwent a major transition during the war when soldiers, including the wounded and sick, flooded the city from nearby battlefields. It drew tens of thousands of fugitive slaves and antislavery leaders and was the site of several contraband camps and freedom villages.

The city was a microcosm for the new nation, said Susan Lawrence, associate professor of history and an associate director of the project.

"America was a country before the Civil War, of course, but the Civil War fundamentally redefined the nation," she said.

Ideally, the project will serve as a resource that's beneficial to everyone from academics to Civil War buffs, Price said.

"This work is potentially for the junior high school student in Korea and for the retiree in Ogallala," he said. "It's for everybody."

WRITER: Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications, (402) 472-8320