Fourth of July celebrations during the Civil War

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Jim Glanville

Manchester, England, native Paul Quigley is Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and the James I. Robertson, Jr., Associate Professor of Civil War History in the History Department at Virginia Tech.


One of Quigley’s research projects is “Mapping the Fourth of July in the Era of the Civil War.” It is an online humanities collaboration that aims to document how the Fourth of July was celebrated in the North and South during the war years through digitized newspaper accounts, letters, and other records. See the project’s web page at july4.civilwar.vt.edu. Also see tinyurl.com/profquigley where he offers a 2.5-minute introduction to the project.

Collaborating in this effort are Virginia Tech history colleagues, computer scientists, librarians and graduate students. Recently, the project team held a “Transcribeathon” at the Blacksburg Public Library with the public invited to attend and assist by transcribing newspaper and other records into typescripts and characterizing them with “tags.” Tagging a record amounts to indexing it and allows similarly tagged records to be studied as a group.

Quigley and his team assert that “Mapping the Fourth” will bring the experiences of Civil War Americans alive to students in college, high school, and even middle school level, by displaying engaging documents that illuminate big themes such as North-South differences, the causes and consequences of the Civil War and African American experiences of emancipation.

Attending the “Transcribeathon” along with project director Quigley was co-director Professor Kurt Luther who directs the Crowd Intelligence Lab at Virginia Tech and teaches courses about human-computer interactions. I attended to learn more about the project.

Luther is an expert in crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a procedure that takes advantage of volunteer Internet users to provide a needed service for a large project.

In this case, the large project is to transcribe every available document about July the Fourth events during the Civil War. Through the collective work of crowdsourcing, Quigley believes that it will be possible to get a “much fuller” and “much deeper” understanding of American attitudes during the “great crisis of the Civil War.”

Readers of this newspaper and anyone anywhere in the world can become part of the sourcing crowd. Just go to the project’s web page and click on the “try it now” button. Doing that will bring up a web page that invites you to search for documents that need transcribing from a place you choose between the years 1830 and 1880.

If it is your first visit, a short tutorial will guide you through the transcription process.

Over the past 12 months, the site has grown to about 4,000 documents and has received about 3,000 visitors.

Currently, the site is largely missing documentation from a western Virginia perspective. So in addition to transcribing help, the project needs documents from our region. Particularly valuable would be the private papers of soldiers from around here who wrote letters home about what happened to them on a Fourth of July. If you have such records, you need to contact the project.

This columnist, who wrote his first computer program in the FORTRAN programming language over 50 years ago, wonders why we still need humans to do the job of transcribing newspaper articles from the 18th and 19th centuries.

For us, the task of “optical character recognition” or reading an ancient newspaper article in ratty condition is almost trivial. In contrast, old newspaper articles read by character recognizing computer systems continue to produce transcriptions of poor quality. It was interesting to sit and watch the expert on human-computer interactions rapidly type transcriptions much more easily than the task can yet be automated.

The world chess champion Gary Kasparov lost to the computer Deep Blue in 1996. The world champion of the much more complicated game of Go succumbed to a computer in May of this year. Recent news reports tell that a computer-driven car made it all the way from Blacksburg to Detroit. So technology marches on.

Nonetheless, at least for a little while longer, this writer can still read old newspaper articles better than any machine.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.