A Virginia Tech team led by Paul Quigley, the James I. Robertson Jr. Professor in Civil War Studies, has won a National Archives grant for a project titled Mapping the Fourth of July in the Civil War Era.

“The Fourth of July is celebrated today with fireworks, hotdogs, a day off work,” said Quigley, who is also director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. “But how did Americans mark the holiday when the Civil War was tearing the nation apart? Did Confederates celebrate, even though they had left the Union? How did soldiers in the field spend Independence Day? Did emancipation change the way African-Americans viewed the Fourth?”

With colleagues David Hicks, associate professor in the School of Education, and Kurt Luther, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, Quigley will use the $74,224 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to build a crowdsourced digital archive.

The database will include newspaper articles, speeches, private letters, and diaries from the 1840s to the 1870s showing how different groups of Americans used Independence Day to express their views of American identity. The website is to be tested in spring 2016 and activated by fall 2016.

Collaborators are Andrea Ogier, Steven Tatum, and Edwin Brooks from Virginia Tech's University Libraries, which is supporting the project along with the School of Education, Department of Computer Science, Center for Human-Computer Interaction, and Department of History.

“Tens of thousands of Civil War-era documents reveal how Americans in different parts of the country, white and black, male and female, viewed the Fourth,” Quigley noted. Users of the archive will be co-creators by uploading their own documents and by tagging and discussing those already there.

“Mapping the Fourth will allow students, teachers, and anyone else interested in this period of American history to find out for themselves what Independence Day meant to the generation who lived through the Civil War,” he said.

Mark Barrow, chair of the Department of History, said, the exciting and innovative project highlights the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and the promise of the digital humanities. 

"We are delighted that a team from Virginia Tech is harnessing the power of crowdsourcing to create a vast digital archive on the meaning of citizenship, freedom, and patriotism during one of the darkest moments in our nation's history," Barrow said. "In making accessible thousands of widely scattered documents on how Civil War-era Americans celebrated the Fourth of July, this project sheds important new light on a fascinating, important, and largely unexamined issue."

An ironic twist is that this project about American Independence Day involves two Englishmen: Quigley and Hicks, who both attended Lancaster University as undergraduates.

The grant to the Virginia Tech team is one of 33 awards made in June through the National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission for historical records projects. Mapping the Fourth was chosen in the category of literacy and engagement with historical records.

The mission of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies is to consolidate and extend Virginia Tech’s leading role in the teaching, scholarship, and public dissemination of Civil War history. Besides its archiving initiatives, it offers public programs such as the Civil War Weekend and a Civil War film series.



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