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Website Takes W.Va.’s Civil War To Wider World

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Credit: AP

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — One part of West Virginia is so rich in Civil War history that it now has its own website.

The Eastern Panhandle’s Jefferson County is the main focus of CivilWarScholars.com, going public Thursday, but its tales of the human toll of war extend into neighboring Berkeley County and beyond the state borders to nearby Antietam, Md., and Winchester, Va.

The creators say it’s the first website devoted to a region’s Civil War experience, and they hope it will deliver to a global audience the untold or little-known stories that have historically languished in books and museums.

As historian Dennis Frye is fond of noting, the famous town of Gettysburg, Pa., saw just four days of fighting, while the Eastern Panhandle of what was then Virginia saw 1,400 days of conflict.

“The people here could not escape it. They could not get away from it,” said Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “You had a choice of staying and being engulfed by the war, or fleeing. That was it.”

Frye, who narrates some videos and does on-camera interviews, is thrilled that the site will display some of his 30 years’ worth of research in an interactive, high-tech way it’s never been presented before.

“It’s using modern technology to convey, literally to anyone on the planet, these stories that have previously been unknown or difficult to access. And these are stories worth telling,” Frye said. “This area is a microcosm of one of America’s most traumatic periods.”

Project director Jim Surkamp says the site focuses on 1861 for now but will get new pieces over the next several years, some coinciding with events that happened 150 years ago.

Already, it has some 7,000 photographs either on the site or linked through Flickr, plus five hours of video and four hours of podcasts. There are 300 scholarly references, many of which are available online for free.

Surkamp, a former Jefferson County commissioner, has dedicated some 2,000 hours to the project since last August. There’s no charge to use the site, but it’s intended for educational, not commercial, purposes.

It’s funded in part by $2,000 in grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County, with technical support from American Public University in Charles Town. APU’s server hosts the site, which will be used by students in its Civil War program.

“It’s a tremendous story because of the constant human toll from 1859 with John Brown through 1866,” Surkamp said.

Brown’s story is arguably the most famous: The fiery abolitionist staged a raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, planning to seize thousands of weapons, arm a gathering guerrilla force and start the revolution that would end slavery.

But the first casualty of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was a free black man, a baggage handler who bled to death on the street while Brown’s raiders grabbed hostages and holed up at a fire engine house. Within 48 hours, the rebellion was dead, along with at least four civilians, 10 raiders and a U.S. Marine who helped retake the building.

The tales of resistance that followed, Surkamp says, challenge the notion that no local blacks sided with Brown. After his raid, there were dozens of fires, and the 1860 Census showed that some 589 slaves escaped.

Other essays suggest a small group was planning a coup that helped pull Virginia into war before the 1861 vote to secede. The blog also explores medicine, weaponry, the role of religion and spiritual beliefs, and agricultural life.

Frye, who’s written five books and worked as an associate producer for the Civil War movie “Gods and Generals,” said the dynamics of the war changed over time, and so too will the site.

“This is actually a tour through Civil War history, but in a very different way. You get to know the people of that time,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’re there.

“People will want to come back to this page again and again. That’s our hope,” he said. “It’s not static. It will be dramatic.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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