Kaci Nash, M.A.

the past in progress

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(DayOfDH) Processing Texts: Making Documents Machine Readable

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

As planned, I have spent the greater part of the day organizing the approximately 2,000 freedom petition photographs I took at the National Archives into a coherent filing system, organized by term, category of filing, and case number and documenting the image numbers in the spreadsheet I maintained as I was photographing. I think I am a little over half done with this process. Though I still have about an hour and a half left to dedicate to the D.C. courts project today, I am turning my attention to my other project–Locating Lord Greystoke. Right now we are in the process of building two corpuses of texts–one that is large, inclusive, and will be used in our text analysis efforts, and and a second smaller one of key documents that will be featured on the project’s website. The document that I am working with now has been reviewed by the project leader, historian Jeannette Jones, who has pulled out selected passages from the text and made note of the people, places, and concepts she wants to be called out on the website. An undergraduate student also working on the project has already run the document through an OCR program, the output of which I will mark up in TEI. The notes on the document prepared by Dr. Jones indicate what will make it into the <profileDesc> tag in the TEI header, which items she wants to appear in the site’s Encyclopedia and thus need to be encoded in the text, and which places are going to appear as mapping points for this particular document. At the moment, the website’s documents are indexed in Solr and transformed by Cocoon, but we are looking into migrating over to a different framework in the very near future. You can  view a draft of this process in action at the project’s website, where we have set up a proof of concept using minimal documents and our first pass at the project’s mapping interface.

A look at my screen: Dr. Jones’ notes; Oxygen, which I use to encode the XML document; and the Google Spreadsheet that is serving as a working bibliography of our project documents.

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(DayOfDH) Managing Collaboration

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

One of the projects that I am working on is a collaborative effort with scholars at another university–Jennifer Guiliano and Trevor Muñoz at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. Because there are over a dozen people (located in various places) involved in the project, we have turned to the project management tool Basecamp to help organize our discussions and work plans.

Basecamp's Interface
Basecamp’s Interface

Thus far it has proven to be a valuable tool to keep project participants on the same page, though I am definitely interested in methods or tools used by fellow project managers in the Digital Humanities.

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A Day of DH Begins. Or, How Every Day is DH Day.

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

Today I step off of the sidelines and into the game. After observing last year’s #DayOfDH from afar and blogging about it on my own blog,  I decided to join in in an official capacity this year.

I am a historian by training , and while I do work in an academic setting, my career path is very much alt-ac. Upon graduating with my Master’s Degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012, I was lucky enough to be brought onto a digital history project by William G. Thomas III looking into the history of and implications of petitions for freedom filed by an enslaved woman, Mima Queen, and various other members of her family. The project has since been funded by a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has evolved into a larger project looking into the family networks and legal questions found in the records of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. About a year later, I was also brought in by Jeannette Jones as project manager for her work, Locating Lord Greystoke: U.S. Empire, Race, and the African Question, 1847-1919. The project explores the ways in which the United States understood and participated in the partition of Africa by European powers using  mapping and textual analysis.

My day-to-day work for each project differs, but usually involves a bit of document transcription, TEI encoding, e-mail exchanges or brief meetings with project members, and if I’m lucky, a bit of web design. I do not have an office of my own, so I rotate between the computer lab in the History Department (where the faculty members I work for are) and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the library (where the projects’ tech staff is and where my paychecks come from).

My workspace in the History Department.

Today I will be working in the History Department, where most of my time will be devoted to finishing up the organization of photographs of freedom petitions I took on research trip to the National Archives last week. I also need to finish preparing for the Mapping Lab I will be leading tomorrow at the DH Bootcamp @ UNL. Later this week, I also have  the Nebraska Forum on Digital Humanities 2014 to attend. Quite a week ahead for DH.

Today's workspace.
Today’s workspace. All the photos are on my MacBook, which looks hilariously tiny next to the iMac I usually use.


“Vicksburg is ours”: A Union Soldier Experiences Victory

This week, we observe two critical moments in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War: the Union victory at Gettysburg and the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg. While 165,000 soldiers clashed in Pennsylvania, my third great-grandfather, Alcander Morse, and his 37th Illinois regiment were part of the 77,000 Union troops encircling the city of Vicksburg.

Alcander Othello Morse, circa 1865.

Morse enlisted alongside his friends and stepbrother in Boone County, Illinois in August 1861. By the summer of 1863, he had survived the Union victories at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in Arkansas, and was moving along the Mississippi River on foot and by transport ship until the regiment arrived at Vicksburg on June 14. From this position, Morse and the 37th faced Confederate batteries and encountered Rebel prisoners and deserters. On one quiet morning, Morse and his buddy traveled to the front “to see the Boys fire at the Reb’s. our Rifle Pits are just close Enough to their front so I can fire in with my old five shooter with the 100 y.d. sight raised.” Occasionally, he left his post to visit friends and family in nearby regiments and to gather the “ripe & penty” blackberries and plums that grew in the area.

While he often spoke with the confidence and bravado frequently found in the writings of western soldiers, he was also rather affected by what he witnessed in his role as besieger. “still the seige continues with unabated fury,” he wrote. “O, they must have the Horrors in there, the shell & shot flying about their ears continualy & on short Rations at that I am sure if I had to pass through what they do I should want a full stomach to steady my nerves.”

What follows is the account of the days leading up to the surrender of the city:

30th   this last day of June is a beautiful day all seems unusualy quiet, still the seige continues & will most likely until the Stars & Stripes float in all their magnificence over Vicksburg the stronghold of the Reb’s we have U.S. Grant at our head a man that never tires & with him at our head we know that Vicksburg is ours

From the pages of the Civil War diary of Alcander Morse.

1st   last night it rained a thing we very much needed to preserve the Health of the troops all is quiet up to this time 6.A.M. later at 8.A.M. a fierce cannonading commences & is kept up for about two hours then all is quiet as before

2d   beautiful weather all is quiet go the 95 Ill. visiting have a pleasant visit come back in the Evening

3d   splendid morning all are preparing for a grand charge on the Rebel works on the morrow (Ever Glorious 4th of July) new Bateries are being planted nearer their works & all is being done that is possible to insure our success ten A.M. all is quiet not a gun is to be heard an armistice has been agreed upon at 3.P.M. the two Com’d’g. Gens (Grant & Pemberton) are to meet we all go half way & meet the Rebs & have a chat they look rough Enough still they will own nothing but without doubt they must give up soon on account of food

4th   the Ever Glorious fourth has dawned but what do we hear the heavy boom of cannon the fierce rattle of musketry the shouts of charging Legions; O, no it is the shout of victory it is the booming of cannon in honor of the Great Victory acheived by U.S. Grant the Pet of the Army of the Tennessee a man that prepares to do a thing before he does it or commences & then goes unfalteringly forward never once halting until his end is is accomplished this is indeed a glorious day to the Arms of the U.S.

5th   we are now camped inside the Rebel works the prisoners are still inside of us Gen. Grant with his untiring zeal left with all the available forces for the Big Black to try & take in Joe Johnston if possible if not to drive him off. he just waited long enough to fulfil his promise (of eating supper in Vicksburg the 4th of July) then he started off post haste

More of Alcander Morse’s experiences at Vicksburg, as well as the entirety of his war diary can be found here.

(As for Gettysburg, when word reached Morse on July 10, he wrote, simply, “We have good news from the Army of the Potomac.”)


The High Ground: Contemplating My Childhood Understanding of the Civil War

When I was a kid, my absolute favorite film was Gettysburg. My interest in the Civil War developed at a very young age, and as a film lover, there were very few choices for me to get my “fix” in between viewings of The Labyrinth and The Princess Bride. I still remember seeing it for the first time in the movie theater with my extended family, and we routinely had viewings every summer as I grew up. The film played a large and memorable role in my formative years. Through the movie and the novel that gave birth to it, I was introduced to the side of the war that I would eventually study in graduate school: the human element. As an adolescent, I fixated on the emotional realities of soldiers on the battlefield, a focus that made the war terrible, but not divisive.

From my first trip to Gettysburg, 1995.

We see things simply as children, when we are not yet burdened with the knowledge that will weigh us down in our adulthood. When we can still love a movie steeped in Lost Cause mythology, oblivious to the significance of those careful omissions of history. And all causes are just, all soldiers mighty. Where it is okay to cry at the beauty and tragedy of 15,000 men marching across unharvested fields to epic, swelling music and recite every word of each beautifully-enacted monologue–“Winn was like a brother to me, remember?”– or memorable one-liner–“We should have gone to the right.”

It is a strange moment when you find yourself struggling to reconcile an important part of your past. Gettysburg is still one of my favorite films. As a movie viewer, I can appreciate its scale and the dedication of the actors. I can rub my arms to disperse the goosebumps I get during certain parts of the score, and I can retort along with Chamberlain, “Darn it, Tom, don’t call me Lawrence.” But as a historian, I cannot pretend not to notice the romanticization of  slavery (of all things), nor can I brush off my discomfort at the blatant canonization of the soldiers–officers and men alike. I cannot ignore the depiction of combat as the sanitized heroism that misled many of the soldiers into the ranks. And no matter how loudly I cough through Longstreet’s line, “We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter,” it still stands there on film to mislead viewers for all of time.

In this context, I look back on that early version of myself, and I miss her. I long for her naive view of the war. For a little while. But then I take off my rose-colored glasses and remember that I should be proud of the steps that I have taken (and continue to take) to educate myself. And I realize that knowing a hard and complicated truth is infinitely better than believing in a comfortable and incomplete untruth.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day watching and listening to the live stream of the Sacred Trust Talks at Gettysburg, and while they were excellent, I noticed the absence of some voices. I suppose it is no surprise that at a national military park, military matters were prominent. But one of the interesting facets of the Gettysburg story is how well it can be used to address the many views historians use to study the war– military, social, race and gender, environmental. Perhaps this reflects where I am presently in my own readings on the war, but the loudest absence to me during yesterday’s brilliant talks were the voices of black Americans. Joseph Glatthaar briefly brought them up in relation to their servile role in the Army of Northern Virginia, but public audiences may have been completely unaware, for example, of the systematic abduction of freemen and self-liberated slaves by this same army as it moved through the North. But this is not the kind of history people want to hear.

It reflects one of the larger problems facing Civil War history in popular memory. We do not like to ponder the culpability of Americans, North and South, in the institution of slavery and the racism endemic to our society, then or now. It is an ugly side of our history, and it makes us uncomfortable. But the solution is not to hide from it, to erase it from our telling of history, but rather to accept it, to learn from it. Such has been my journey from childhood Civil War enthusiast to adult historian. It may not be an easy path, but it is a rewarding one.