Struggles with my very first digital history project: using Omeka to map a Civil War soldier’s letters

In my proposal I wished to create a project, now titled “A Yankee Soldier’s Struggle with the Union Cause,” offering a digital representation of letters written by a Civil War soldier, William Standard, of Lewistown, Illinois, who served in the Illinois 103rd U.S. Infantry Regiment from 1862 to 1865. The project highlights the Standard’s commentaries, communicated in letters to his wife Jane, on his opposition to his military service. The original focus of the project was Standard’s writing about plans to desert the army. My thought was to create a platform organizing and presenting digitized images of the letters, which are maintained online by the Atlanta History Center, and those letters’ transcriptions, which I had previously completed as the basis for a book project, and writing metadata about them. I wished, additionally, to show on a map Standard’s location when he wrote each letter. I conceived of this project as useful to scholars of digital humanities as well as people, both scholars and in the general community, interested in Civil War, particularly the experiences of individual soldiers in the Union Army. Standard’s perspective as a “bad soldier” is fairly unique, and complicates what historians have portrayed about the perspective and motives of most Union soldiers.

In thinking about the project’s purposes and scope I considered using various digital platforms. Voyant could enable text mining to show contexts for William’s discussion of deserting. I envisioned a website that shows a map of the places – camps, towns, and states – from where William wrote letters, communicated through pop-ups can show images of the original hand-written letters, their transcriptions, and possibly information about the place where William wrote. A linked page from this page could invite users to upload the text of selected letters to a Voyant platform and direct them to generate a Cirrus word cloud, with some leading questions to direct thinking about what the clouds reveal about William’s desertion rhetoric.

Alternatively, or additionally, Kepler.gl could enable geographic location of where these references took place, and could provide pop-ups to show excerpts from letters based on where Standard wrote them. Kepler.gl also offers a tool to show a time lapse chart of when desertion-mentioning letters were written. Such platforms could enable someone to encounter the letters not only through reading their text but seeing where and when they originated.

In consultation with my course instructor and as suggested by feedback I received from a student peer, I received, these ideas proved too diverse and ambitious. I decided to use Omeka for the project, because it allows creation, organization, and display of digitized collections of historical objects. Omeka is often used for displaying visual images like photographs and paintings, so my usage of the platform for digitized texts is slightly unusual. Omeka also offers a map plug-in. The course instructor suggested I add Omeka’s Geolocation and CSV Import plug-ins.

Student peers also helped me think about utilizing various functions of Omeka for the project, particularly  to include images of William Standard, and including an introductory essay to the project that explains how it fits into historiographical context and clarifies its significance. A peer also endorsed inclusion of the map in the project, and made a helpful suggestion about organizing the project to direct the sequence or order of how a user encounters the letters that are included as items on the project website.

The project at present, I think, reflects some limited success.

I wrote a short introductory essay on the first page of the project that indicates the project’s significance to highlight the writings of a “Copperhead” soldier, which remains a generally unfamiliar topic to Civil War history audiences. 

I decided to display the project’s contents in two exhibits, reflecting my decision, after developing the project, to add a second topic, the soldier’s critical writings about President Lincoln’s antislavery conduct of the war. So now the project includes one exhibit on desertion, containing five letters, and one exhibit on Lincoln, containing one letter. With additional time, I think I could upload, annotate, and present additional letters that William wrote in which he was critical of the president. This would provide more balance between the two exhibits, and make the project more robust in its historical content. Each letter that appears as an item has metadata, a PDF image of the original letter, and a summary and a transcription of the letter’s contents.

I downloaded an Omeka plug-in, which I learned, allows re-arrangement of the letters from the order that I uploaded them, which is Omeka’s default organization scheme. I was able to do this to show the letters in the “Browse Exhibits” function in chronological order. 

I added a uniform collection of tags to each of the letters to enhance their public searchability. I chose tags that are likely search terms for users interested in Civil War history, Abraham Lincoln, William Standard, and/or military history.

As I developed the project, on the other hand, I ran into several problems. A time-consuming problem stemmed from trying to appropriately include a visual image on the site. I decided to use a different theme for the project (“Berlin” instead of the initial theme, “Thanks Roy”) because “Berlin” allows inclusion of an image in a project header. But I wasn’t able to upload an image suitable for usage because of problems of size limitations of Omeka for images, as well as poor resolution of various copies of the image I attempted to display. I mistakenly uploaded an image to accompany one of the project’s exhibits, and only after several e-mail exchanges with the instructor was I able to remove it from display, though the image file is probably still uploaded to the project.

Letters’ captions that the public sees, meanwhile, are not uniform as I wasn’t able to apprehend where letter captions and descriptions would appear on the public site, though I think I could correct these with more practice.

Additionally, for some reason the letters’ order in the “Browse Letters” function remained unaffected by the Order Items plug-in. Because of that problem I chose not to display the “Browse Letters” function for the user, who thus must and may use the letters only by opening one of the Exhibits.

I was also unable to incorporate the Omeka map to indicate visually the location of the letters’ origins.  I spent far more time on arranging the collection than I expected to, and I ran out of time to discern how to input data on it to relate it to the letters through indication of the location of their creation by the soldier.

I do expect that the project could be enlarged by the addition of relevant letters to the current exhibits as well as creation of exhibits to display, for example, letters written to the soldier William by his wife, Jane. This would require revision of the project’s introductory information and rationale, and possibly reorganization of the exhibits, if I wanted to show dialogues between husband and wife on a common topic. The project could also be enhanced by utilization of the map function, as I originally intended, assuming I can learn how to input usable geographic data.

This exercise, in the end, while a valuable learning exercise, was a frustrating experience to culminate what was a challenging and often eye-opening semester.

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