Mapping Dissent in the Civil War North: Digital History’s Potential to Recast Political History

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 3:10 PM
Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton)
Thomas Summerhill, Michigan State University
This presentation will focus on the exciting possibilities that digital history holds for transforming traditional interpretations of political behavior in the distant past. “Mapping Dissent” grows out of a book project that focuses on political opposition to the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War. In that book, I revisit previous studies of Copperheads, disloyalty, and treason during the war. Because scholars have been forced to rely heavily on qualitative sources written within a highly charged atmosphere, it is difficult to determine the full nature and extent of opposition to the war. To cut through the subjectivity of those sources, myself and my research assistant undertook a quantitative analysis of available data (votes for Democratic candidates, resistance to enrollment for the draft, and desertion from military units) in an effort to identify patterns of dissent. We normalized the data to develop a z-score for each factor that could then be represented digitally on a map of Northern congressional districts. We demonstrated that opposition to the war was a national phenomenon, not one that was confined to the lower Midwest and eastern cities as traditionally believed. The project lends itself to a more interactive digital format. There is a substantial amount of data available for the period that could expand the database. Inspired by another digital project at MSU, the Atlantic Slave Database, we readily perceived that our data and analysis not only could be placed online in an interactive format, but also could be constructed in a way that allows participants to upload new data, run different statistical analyses, or even check and correct existing files. We foresaw the potential to use the web for presentation of current research; cloud sourcing to build the data available for analysis; and instantaneous quantitative analysis that could be represented geographically on a map.
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