Guide to Civil War Web sites keeps the focus on quality

Wether it's the gory details of Gettysburg and Antietam, the heroism of African-American soldiers, or the poignancy of letters and sepia-tinged photos, the Civil War has captured the American imagination as few events in history have.

Accounts such as Ken Burns's PBS series, James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," and Michael Shaara's historical novel "The Killer Angels" have fueled the flames of interest. Civil War reenactions are popping up everywhere, and visits to battlegrounds are on the rise. Not surprisingly, the Web has also become fertile ground for discussions, archives, and trivia. Enter "Civil War" in a search engine and you may get 600,000 sites, many with little of substance to offer.

A new book by William G. Thomas and Alice E. Carter, "The Civil War on the Web" (Scholarly Resources Inc.), weeds through the jumble and reviews the 95 sites it says are most valuable. Those that made the final cut - ranging from academic research projects to personal sites posted by Civil War buffs - are divided into eight subcategories: battles and campaigns, leaders, life of the soldier, the Navy, US "colored" troops, slavery and emancipation, women, and regimental histories.

"The interesting thing is to see a democratic medium [like the Web] working on a subject area like the Civil War, where passions are still heated," says Mr. Thomas, who is director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"The Web is full of stories and information that people have a hard time accessing and sorting through," says Thomas. "Our goal was to make a particular subject area ... much more accessible, and actually to apply some scholarly standards in evaluating them."

He says he and Ms. Carter came across about 400 sites that would have been worthy of inclusion. For each site that did get into the book, they wrote several paragraphs describing its high points and faults, and rated it (on a five-star scale) for content, aesthetics, and ease of navigation.

In general, sites fare better on content than the latter two areas. "The content in a sense is coming from another medium," says Thomas, "but aesthetics and navigation are not fully developed yet. We're in the early, early stages of Web capability."

Nevertheless, the range of material that these sites cover is impressive and often highly specified.

There are in-depth sites like the Library of Congress's "African American Odyssey" ( ammem/aaohtml/aohome.html) and the University of Virginia's "Valley of the Shadow," (valley.vcdh.virginia. edu).

Narrower sites might cover biographical material of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, detailed letters home from a soldier, or the effect of Civil War hospitals on Walt Whitman's poetry.

Thomas says he hopes the book, which comes with a free CD-ROM, will be of particular use to educators. It is hard to imagine that it won't be a valuable guide to anyone who is interested in the war and hopes to avoid hours of circular and fruitless Web navigation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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