Perhaps the title of this post should be Hardcore Digital History.

Englishman Bill Torrens is working on a project to create biographical sketches for each of the officers below the rank of Brigadier General who served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) during the American Civil War. He’s been at this for over 25 years. Last October he reported “… this project stretches to 2,146 pages covering 23,112 officers”.

Simply astounding.

He’s posted 30 or 40 samples of his work on the Dispatch Depot message board. I’ve found several of these very helpful in my research on the officers at Sharpsburg – breaking open sources and clues on some men I had not been able to find previously.

One of my favorites of the subjects, because of his poignant death scene, is:

E.V. Harris

HARRIS, Edwin Victor

1st Lieut., Co.E, 49th N.C. Inf.: 25th December 1862. Captain: 22nd March 1864. Killed at The Crater on 30th July 1864:- “Harris and myself had just been congratulating each other on our good fortune in getting through safely when the order to move separated us…At the head of his company, he was following Major Davis along the trenches chatting gaily, when they came to an exposed position on the line. A ball from the enemy passed close to the Major. He turned to warn his men to walk low. Just as he turned a ball struck poor Ed, passing through his neck cutting the great artery. The blood spouted from his neck in a stream as large as one’s finger, and gushed out at his mouth. And now ensued a most tender and affecting scene. The poor fellow seemed at once to realize his condition. He could not speak. But stepping up to Major Davis, he passed his left hand through his arm to support himself from falling, and extended his right hand to tell the Major farewell, while he gave him a look, which Major Davis says he shall not forget to his dying day. It seemed to say: “I am killed, I know you cannot help me, do not forget me, goodbye!” The Major saw he was going fast, the blood spouting from his neck, he urged him to sit down. This he did not seem inclined to do, but tottering to Lieutenant Crawford, of his company, shook hands with him, gave him the same look and fainted from loss of blood. He ceased to breathe as he was carried out.” Had also served in Co.A, 4th N.C. Inf.

[Pearce, Diary Of Captain Henry A. Chambers, p.210; North Carolina Troops 1861-65, A Roster (c) Historical Data Systems, Inc. ]

Bill is a local history librarian in Buckinghamshire. Of course the ACW would hardly be local history for him, but British interest in the ACW is not unknown.

I’d bet Bill’s was not a Digital project at the start, but he’s now to the point of planning to publish his work on CDROM. He has mentioned concerns about “copyright issues” – but I hope that won’t stop him.

If asked, I’d recommend he parse the text, pop it into some kind of database, and provide search and display tools online, but I think he wants to recoup some of his costs and see some monetary reward for all that hard work. To that end he plans to sell CDs.

I hope he can find a way to both make money and more widely disseminate the information. But then that’s one of the key challenges in Digital History, isn’t it?

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