Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tenth Anniversary

My website, Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, or is Ten Years Old today!  I have a little notebook in which I marked it being uploaded at 12:10 A.M., June 3rd 2008.  Preparation for the planned site started much earlier. 

 I remember checking out a couple of "how to build a website" books from the Burbank Library when the idea germinated.  The books were already a bit out of date,-- for blogs were the new thing at that time.  But I planned the site to be viewed on a desktop with a full screen monitor.  It would feature pictures and text.  Graphics were a big part of the scheme. (It seems it was old fashioned even from the start and I haven't tried to keep pace with changes in tech.)

In mid May, 2008,  I was ready to build it.  My wife Susan helped me create the banners in photoshop, in which she was far more skilled than I.  I was impatient to get something done, but she persistently came up with additional effects to make the graphics more interesting.  Simultaneously, I was writing the text and testing my knowledge with KOMPOZER, the WYSIWYG web building program I learned about over at  SITEWIZARD.

After two weeks the core pages of the site were built.  I paid for the web account at FUTUREQUEST, my host server on May 29 and the site went live midnight June 3rd.  But the site had existed before my incarnation and it is important to acknowledge the drive and enthusiasm of Greg Dowden in this project.

Greg’s ancestor is Sergeant James Augustus Smith of Company I.  Greg was way ahead of me in research skills when we met around 1999.  Our first contact was via email, and it was amusing to discover we lived in neighboring towns and both worked in the entertainment industry.  We arranged a meeting and immediately formed a strong friendship.  

I was amazed at Greg’s skill in tracking down historical documents.  He owned an original volume of one of the Circulars, #27 I think, and told me there were 34 more issues waiting to be found.  He found the document for sale on-line and purchased it.  In the pre-digital camera age,  he traveled to the Army Research Center in Carlisle, PA and plugged quarters into the photocopy machine to get images of Charles Rowndy’s Manuscript.  He discovered Colonel Leonard’s papers at the Gilder Lehman Institute in New York.  He traveled to Mattapoisett to see where his ancestor lived, and with his brother partially re-traced Sgt. Smith’s trip to Maryland from NY city.  He visited Harper’s Ferry and collected information from the park library about the John Brown bell. He found a digital copy of one of Lauriman Russell’s early maps.  I was curious how he generated so many leads.  He told me it was part intuition and hunches.  

We decided to share everything we found, and started by tracking down the most obvious resource available, the 13th Mass. Regt. Assoc. Circulars.  

I've posted about the Circulars before, here and here.

Following his lead I went to Westboro, Mass in May 2001 to see what I could turn up.  I traveled up to Marlboro, Mass to see the John Brown Bell, and I found the library had several of the original circulars in a rare bound volume.  The librarian there assisted me in searching the internet for a list of other libraries in the country that had original circulars in their collections.  From that point, the two of us made a determined effort to collect all of them.  I remember having to argue with a local university librarian, not a 1/2 hour from where I lived in CA, into making me copies of the several issues  in their collection.  Access to the rare book was limited to university students belonging to their consortium and it was off limits to me unless I shelled out a huge fee.  I belabored the clerk with the fact that probably no-one in 100 years was interested in seeing them, and here I was a few miles away, a descendant of a soldier in the regiment, and I couldn’t get access.  After about 40 minutes I convinced him to make copies for me.  And in this way, after 2 years we had copies of all of them, the last 3 came from the Library of Congress.  It was Greg’s idea to start a website to share what we had found. He registered the name because he wanted it to be an educational site, possibly a non-profit organization in the future.  His site was begun with one of those ‘proprietary’ internet website building kits, remember those?  Sign up for internet and get a free webspace !  But you used the host sites tools to do it and if you moved your account you lost your site…

Life intervened for Greg and although his passion for the regiment never died, the time to devote to it evaporated.  By then my research skills had caught up to his, and he handed the reins over to me.  And today’s site is the result.

I have lost touch with Greg.  I miss him.

The website has never strayed from its original format, which was to present an outline history of the regiment’s service with corresponding links to more detailed pages. 

My original purpose for the website was to generate interest in a book -  an anthology of stories I edited together in 2003, with the best materials from the circulars enhanced with soldiers’ letters and memoirs. The question was how much content to share?

I decided not to hold too much back and see what happens.  I believed these stories do not belong to me.   They belong to the veterans who lived them, and they would want as many people as possible to know what they did.

A quote from one of the last circulars:

Who will tell the world the story,When the “Boys in Blue” are gone?

And, what were the results of this policy?  My anthology was never published.  It garnered interest, but as one publisher put it, “We think that you have already found a wonderful way to make your work available to a wide audience at low cost.”  But there was a bigger reward unforeseen at the time.  

At the outset I created a list of photographs of soldiers and artifacts I hoped to find to accompany my proposed book.  I now have all of them and more.  I’ve met many helpful and devoted collectors who have gone out of their way to share materials with me.  Scott Hann was the first, he shared 80 images of company B men from his collection, and later gave me a notebook full of 8 x 10 b&w images of the same.  Joseph Maghe shared materials and information and even tipped me off when one of my own ancestor’s letters came up for sale on ebay.  If that wasn’t enough, I connected with descendants of the soldiers.  Many, like the family of John S. Fay, shared unpublished manuscripts and told me how John’s shattered rifle and other artifacts were still treasured and preserved among his many descendants.  A descendant of color bearer David Sloss, told me he still had a piece of the State Flag that Davy carried through many battles. There were many others, including the family of the author of the regimental history, Charles E. Davis, Jr.

 Then came the greatest rewards, and that was connecting with families of the soldiers and restoring their true historical legacy which had been lost or confused with the passage of time.  In one instance  a strong family bond between long lost cousins was re-established, both my contacts were descended from the same proud veteran James H. Lowell.  In return, these families shared what materials they had with me, and this makes the web history better.

Building the detail pages was fun at first, especially for the early war years when the regiment was posted in Western Maryland.   Their regimental history is virtually silent on that period  and I had so much material, that I had to edit what was posted to keep the pages from getting too long.  It was simply a matter of arranging and posting.   When the real campaigns began, more study was necessary, and the new pages required more work.  I spent a year and a half on 2nd Bull Run; three years on Gettysburg.  I learned to divide the pages into sections to include more material.  Its been a constant chore to keep moving forward with the chronology.  Ten years into it and I am only 2/3 done, and a little bit tired.

My original outline called for about 24 planned detail pages, to cover the entire 3 year history.  They were going to contain material from the circulars, but that is not the case now.  There are over 50 detail pages.  And my source material has grown so much that I could spend a long time updating older pages.  I have done this occasionally, but for the most part, I’ve decided the pages are still pretty good the way they stand.  There are two exceptions, I hope to add the story of George Bigelow’s tragic death to the Fredericksburg page and Bourne Spooner’s memoirs to both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville pages - one day.

I’ll end this post now, and mention that 3 new pages were just added.  Naturally I think they are very good.  Its a Special Section, that doesn’t neatly fit into the chronology of the regiment’s history.  The theme of the section is “Around Washington” and it features the stories of 5 specific soldiers, Albert Liscom &  James Ramsey at Harewood Hospital,  George S. Cheney at Camp Convalescent, John B. Noyes travels through Washington in January and May, 1863 and William Rideout’s developing romance with a hometown girl while clerking for the Quartermaster Department in the city.  Incidentally, Mr. Rideout’s descendant has been a huge supporter of this project since its inception.

Here is the link.  I’m going to order a cake.  I’ll post a picture here later.