“Essential” Reading for Civil War Buffs

ECWC homepage.jpgGetting an understanding of Civil War scholarship can be difficult for those unversed in its topics. And, since the war continues to shape the world we know, it’s important to find that comprehension.

There’s a solution to the confusion surrounding the Civil War’s detail-oriented nature, though: the Essential Civil War Curriculum (ECWC).

The ECWC—an initiative of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (“Virginia Tech”) Center for Civil War Studies—is an online body of Civil War-related, educational literature and images, intended to provide the public with a “core body of knowledge.”

In an effort to provide the public with this general basis of knowledge, ECWC’s founders compiled a list of 330 topics that build to a full understanding of the war, said Laurie Woodruff, the website’s executive director and editor.

Each topic includes a 10- to 15-page essay; a list of resources for further education; recommended book on the topic; illustrative drawing and author photo and bio. Additionally, Woodruff said he writes a précis for each topic, summarizing the essay.

So far, 225 of the selected topics have been completed. “All but ten of the remaining unpublished authors have come forward and said they’d write [the last 105 topics],” Woodruff said.

The early planning of ECWC began after Woodruff had retired from a longstanding business career, deciding to act on an even longer-held passion for the Civil War. “I was ten years old when the Civil War Centennial started,” Woodruff said. “My father was a big reader and he gave me a couple books on the [war]. And, so, I’ve been reading about the Civil War my whole life.”

In an effort to elevate his basic knowledge of the war, post-retirement, Woodruff said he reached out to a number of universities about starting a project he’d been thinking about. Jack Davis and James “Bud” Robertson, two professors at the Virginia Tech, told him “why don’t you come and work with us” and, so, Woodruff and the two established a trade off: they’d strengthen his knowledge of the Civil War and, in turn, he’d develop and run a website for them.

Woodruff began his education with Davis and Robertson in 2009, and by 2010, the process of building the website, recruiting authors, and gathering a list of topics began. Both Davis and Robertson have since retired, but Paul Quigley, associate professor of Civil War studies at Virginia Tech, now serves as the site’s sponsor.

Although there’s a wealth of Civil War scholarship, Woodruff said he’s convinced ECWC offers an unmatchable outlet for information on the major topics of the war.

“I think the biggest point of difference is that it’s all new content,” he said. “It’s all been created since 2010—the essays, resources, everything. It’s written by today’s historians. Each one is an expert in the particular topic they’re writing on.”

Authors consist of a veritable who’s-who of Civil War scholars, including Chris Calkins, John Coski, Will Greene, Harold Holzer, John Marszalek, George Rable, Gordon Rhea, Timothy Smith, Wiley Sword, Joan Waugh—more than a hundred and all, including, of course, Davis and Robertson. Several Emerging Civil War authors have also contributed: Bert Dunkerly, Chris Mackowski, and Dave Powell, with ten others working on entries, too.

The site’s content is some of the best a reader can find on the topics, too, Woodruff added. “All the articles, essays, resources are subject to academic peer review,” he said. “As a result, I think you get a very, very high quality [and] historic content.”

In terms of editing abilities, Woodruff said there are points of difference between ECWC and other publications, as well.

“It’s one of the good things about having a website, as opposed to a book: you can continuously update it,” he said. “One of our readers wrote to me and said, ‘You’ve made a mistake on page 18 of this essay . . . you’ve misnamed the farm.’ So, I called the author and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s right,’ and I fixed it. . . . [I]t’s way more accessible.”

Woodruff added that many changes take only a matter of minutes to complete.

All factors combined, Woodruff said there’s one lasting impact ECWC has.

“It’s a lifetime reading list for enthusiasts,” he said. “It’s been curated by modern, professional historians.”

Even though the greater portion of the selected topics have been completed, Woodruff’s work is far from over. In the near future, Woodruff said he plans to develop a document to provide readers with a recommended order for reading the site’s content.

“It’s quite a complicated process to put these 330 topics in order,” he said. “Some of the topics cover the entire duration of the war. Some of them are pre-war and some are post-war. Weapons and small arms are best saved for the beginning because they develop throughout the war.”

Woodruff has some more personal projects he’s looking forward to, as well. “I have a family tree website and, during the course of that work, I’ve identified over 150 Civil War relatives—they’re all Woodruffs,” he said. “I’m basically going to research their stories and I’m going to tell their individual stories and write a book about it.”

For more information visit http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/.

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