In many ways, we are living in a “golden age” of American Civil War scholarship. Information and resources are more readily available to a larger number of researchers and just plain folks than ever before, and it’s all thanks to the internet. In addition to the digitization of many works that are now available free (such as the OR’s and Lincoln’s Collected Works), many manuscript collections have been catalogued online as well.
Some of the most valuable tools are internet discussion groups. Their true value is in their membership. Need ordnance reports for the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863? Post a message to the group, and if the membership is large and experienced enough, you might find out that they have them all on microfilm and will provide copies of whatever you need. Looking for a passage from a published or unpublished work that you can’t get hold of right away? Ask, and scanned pages may be in your mailbox shortly. Working on a project? Bounce ideas off members of the group to tweak your arguments, openly or surreptitiously.
There are three types of internet discussion groups: chat rooms, online groups and email groups. All require membership to participate, and membership is generally open to the general public but in some cases may require prior approval.
Chat rooms are accessed via websites and discussions are carried on between members in real time. You must subscribe to the site and login. Typically these are free form and can cover anything from in depth ACW discussion to “how’s the weather”. These discussions can only be viewed by members who log in. I subscribe to a chat room maintained by Dick Weeks of the popular site "Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War". I particularly enjoy this type of forum for book chats. Some drawbacks of chat rooms include difficulties in following the conversation when large numbers of participants are involved, and the generally reduced detail allowed for in the real time format. The “logs” of prior chats are periodically deleted, but may be saved in archives.
Online groups are websites with discussion boards. Subscription and login are required. The discussion boards are typically divided into different categories, and members can create or respond to various subtopics, called “threads”. These threads can be read by anyone – you don’t need to be a member to observe the discussions, or “lurk”. Think of the comments sections on blogs – online groups are very similar. I belong to a couple of these groups, and lurk at a couple more. I am not a very active participant in any of them.
Email groups are (to me) the easiest – if you choose the email option, posts arrive in your email box and you can read them at your leisure. Discussions can be participated in by simply replying to the email, and the email subject line serves as the thread title. Membership is required to receive the posts, but do not require log in unless a non-email option for getting the posts is chosen. In that case, you have to go to a website (most of the email groups I belong to are run by Yahoo) and log in. Only members can view the posts in either case. There is typically an option to receive emails individually or in digest form – one email with a number of posts included. All members have access to all emails, and all can respond to any emails they choose. This can get a little confusing if there are delays in delivery, if messages are received out of order, or if members respond to old posts before reading all of the newer ones. I belong to five or six of these. Some are very active, some not so. I receive the emails individually, so if I am away from my computer for a weekend it’s no uncommon for me to find 300 unopened emails from these groups upon my return. Email groups are my preferred forums, and the following tips are probably more applicable to this type of group.
There is a learning curve with any forum participation, but here are a few things you should know going in:
Cliques: These groups are no different than high schools or round tables in this regard.
Rules: See above. Some groups have relatively few rules, others have many. In my experience, the more rules a group has, the better it runs. One group to which I subscribe restricts (reasonably) discussion to the Western Theater of the war. Eastern theater, causes of the war, and black Confederates are specifically prohibited. Almost all groups ban talk of modern politics, which is always a good idea.
Moderators: These are the folks who follow the discussions, reading all the posts and emails to make sure group rules are being followed. Most are very good at their jobs; some few can be the source of problems with the group rather than the solution.
Musters: Most discussion groups sponsor a battlefield tour each year for its membership, and these tours are called musters. Some tours are guided by nationally recognized historians, while some are conducted by group members who may or may not be “big names”. These are a great and affordable perk of membership, and provide opportunities to put faces to names.
Thread etiquette: Thread topics are usually defined by the subject line of the email, or the category of the discussion board. But like any conversation, these discussions can take on a life of their own. When they start to stray from the thread title, a new thread title should be used. Thread titles often tell me whether or not I want to read a message or just hit “delete”.
Snipping I: As email discussions proceed, preceding emails in the threads are usually included in the body of the new email. This can make for some really long emails, so deleting (snipping) the bodies of the emails to which you are not responding before you hit send is a good idea. While I don’t really understand why, group owners and moderators say that this creates problems with how the group runs – bandwidth or something, or maybe just politeness. I don’t ask too many questions, I just try to remember to snip. Note to those who chose the digest option: this option often does not include the email message to which you are responding in your response, so replies like “I agree” are cryptic to say the least. Agree with what?
Snipping II: Sometimes it’s helpful to highlight a part or parts of an email which your response is meant to address. In these cases, particularly when the points you wish to address were included in a very long message, it helps to snip away the stuff that does not apply. Be careful however of snipping away too much. A favorite tactic of obfuscation is to snip away so much of another’s post as to completely change the context of the message.
Emoticons: These are tools used to add emotion to the message, like a smiley face ;-). The problem with these is their use may not always be sincere or perceived as sincere. You’re better off being more expressive with the words you choose. Both of these options can really put a damper on the use of sarcasm, however. I ignore this tip frequently.
Save the messages: It’s always a good idea to save the emails from threads in which you participate. Some groups maintain an archive, but their difficult to search through. You’ll want to have these handy when you want to go back and verify what you or someone else may have written earlier. CYA is important, as is the possibility of hoisting someone on their own petard.
“With all due respect”: It has been my experience that the use of this phrase at the beginning of a response very often means “I have no respect at all for you or your opinion. You are an idiot. And your mother is ugly.”
“I’m going to take the high road”: See above. It means you aren’t. Why telegraph it?
Familiarity breeds contempt: This is my biggest gripe about discussion groups, email or otherwise. As group members become more familiar with one another, they form opinions or develop expectations of “where the other guy is coming from.” This can be a major stumbling block when members jump the gun and respond to a post based on what they feel the poster is really getting at, what his motivations are for raising a point or for asking a question or even for making an observation. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we convince ourselves that we know these people, many of whom we have never met, well enough to understand better than they do what is going on inside their heads. Not only is this presumptuous, it’s not conducive to dispassionate, productive discussion.
I encourage everyone with an interest in learning more about our American Civil War to consider participation in an internet discussion group. There are plenty of them out there, and one will be just right for you.