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When you think you know everything, check online

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

So, I’m strolling down Capitol Street in Charleston, taking in the joyous FestivALL celebration when I notice a pair of young boys smirking at my T-shirt.Nonplussed for a moment, I then realize that, yeah, okay, I suppose there is a certain irony to be enjoyed in the sight of a 65-year-old man tottering along in a shirt that proclaims: I (HEART) HISTORY!

Well, duh, geezer! A lot of it happened on your watch, didn’t it?

Oh, I suppose so. Actually, though, I became a history nerd when I was even younger than these wincing whippersnappers. And I can still remember what set me up for my life-long obsession with the stories of the past.

It was a hot September and Coles Junior High School in Ashland, Kentucky didn’t have air conditioning. Miss Johnson had opened the windows, but there was little breeze, and I, like most of the reluctant scholars in her afternoon American history class, was starting to doze.

And then she said it.

“Who remembers the story of young George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River?”

Some of us roused and exchanged glances. Even a few hands went up.

“What’s wrong with that story?”

Silence.

“Was George Washington an American when he was a little boy?”

Huh?

“Well, of course, he wasn’t,” she went on. “He was an English lad. Just about everyone in this part of the world was English when George Washington was a kid, right? And were there silver dollars around in the colonies when little George was growing up?”

More heads started bobbing up.

“The first silver dollar was minted in 1794, when Washington was a grownup. He was president by then. So, what would you call this old story? Baloney! That’s what. How in the world could he have even found a silver dollar to throw across the river when he was a kid?”

Wow. Miss Johnson was radical. Here she was in front of a class undermining something we all knew about good old George. Or thought we knew. What next? Was she going to attack the cherry tree? Like teenagers everywhere, we loved an iconoclast, and Miss Johnson just shot up to the top of our list.

“The fact is,” Miss Johnson said with a sly grin, “history is a lot more interesting when you get your facts straight. In this room, we’re not going to fall for the cartoon history of America. We’re going to look closely and figure out the real story.”

That afternoon, history class became my favorite hour of the day. And by the time Miss Johnson was done with me, I was checking out history books for summer reading, bedtime reading, walking-home-from-school reading and avoiding-math-homework reading.

Of course, Miss Johnson didn’t live to see the birth of the personal computer, but I think she would love how history thrives on the Internet. And I have thought about her nearly every morning over the past three years as I have started my day by hopping into the Internet’s digital time machine.

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial (that is, the 150th anniversary) started in 2011, a number of websites and smartphone/tablet apps sprang to life to retell that old story, but with nifty new twists. Many of the sites and apps have “this day in the Civil War” features, but unlike the tired, trivial, today-in-history newspaper columns we grew up with, the Internet took this day-in-the-life idea to a brand new realm.

You see, Civil War soldiers and civilians at home wrote reams of letters and kept massive diaries and journals, but only a few were ever published; most of those that were published are long out of print. The majority of these journals have rested for a century-and-a-half in attics and basements or in dusty library backrooms, unseen by anyone but the odd grad student working on a dissertation. However, the sesquicentennial afforded enterprising librarians and scholars a chance to bring these works back to light and to give history nuts like me a new perspective on a subject we thought we knew everything about.

Apps like The Civil War Times (in the Apple Store) and websites like Daily Observations from The Civil War (dotcw.com) let us read about the events of people as they lived them. They are rich in details on everything from a corporal-eye-view of a battle to fighting the boredom in camp, from loneliness of feeling forgotten to the joy of getting a letter or two from home.

Learning the seemingly mundane facts — the importance of music to weary troops, the joy of getting coffee again after going wanting for weeks — puts new color into all those faded photos. It is as if we have correspondents embedded in key venues during America’s most trying times.

And now, as the Sesquicentennial nears its end next year, we in the history hoards are ramping up for a similar in-depth view of World War I as its centennial begins this year. Already magnificent sites — like ww1daily.com, the BBC (bbc.co.uk/history/0/ww1) and The London Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk/news/ww1-archive) — are settling in to tell this global epic, not only from the history books’ traditional hindsight perspective but also from the day-to-day reports by the people who were there.

And because filmmaking was just getting started when WWI began, now YouTube.com also is in the mix, offering everything from rare films of the time to entire college courses and documentary series. I am especially excited about the availability the BBC’s complete 26-part 1964 epic documentary, “The Great War.” It’s free for the taking on YouTube.

Now, of course, the Internet is infamous for some of the history hijinks it has hosted over the decades. The net is, alas, a happy haven for every stripe of wild-eyed revisionist, conspiracy nut and neo-this or neo-that. Each is eager to tweak real history with imagined details to make it fit his or her own agenda, so we have to be wary of some of what passes for “history” that we see online.

But if we apply Miss Johnson’s old “Baloney Detector” and we use facts and common sense to dismiss the absurd, the Internet invites us to take an exciting, fresh look at old stories. 

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