Creating the "Crisis at Fort Sumter" Program

Work on Crisis at Fort Sumter program began in 1991 under a grant from the State of Louisiana to develop interactive multimedia software in the humanities. It was undertaken in conjunction with Tulane Computing Services which provided the necessary hardware and programming expertise. The original format for the program was a Macintosh-based CD-ROM, using HyperCard as its authoring tool. The video segments for the program were excerpted from Ken Burns's documentary, The Civil War, and are used with his permission. However, restrictions were placed on public access to these video segments. In general, the CD-ROM version with the Ken Burns video can be used only within the Tulane University community.

Example of CD-ROM Screen

The CD-ROM version of the Fort Sumter program was first used in the classroom in the fall semester 1993. It was integrated as a month-long unit in a specially created seminar on the sectional crises of the 1850s. The program was modified to respond to problems, mostly of a technical nature, that appeared in this and a subsequent trial run. During this period, the CD-ROM received "Finalist" status in the 1994 NewMedia/Invision Multimedia Awards competition.

In the spring of 1997, the Sumter program and the course of which it was a component were sufficiently stable to become a permanent part of the curriculum. History 449, "The 1850s: Union in Peril" is now offered on a regular basis, generally as a seminar for about twelve students.

Internet Version

In 1995, an Internet version of the Crisis at Fort Sumter program.was begun, making the program accessible to a wide audience. However, the same restrictions apply to Ken Burns's video segments on the Internet as on the CD-ROM; they are restricted to the Tulane University community. While the screen arrangement of the Internet version differs from the CD-ROM, the organization of information and the operation of the program are similar. The Internet version retains virtually all of the features of the CD-ROM. Hyperlink buttons on the CD-ROM, such as the "Commentary" button or the "Stars and Bars" button which provides information about activity in the Confederacy, exist as hypertext links on the Internet version. At this time, the only significant component lacking in the Internet version is an "animated" image of the Fort Sumter flag, which in the CD-ROM descends day by day over a six week period to show the time constraints imposed on Lincoln by the depleted provisions at Fort Sumter.

The Internet Crisis at Fort Sumter program has a distinct advantage over the previous version; new material may be added to the site. Since its construction, a number of documents have been added, such as the complete text of the advice offered by Lincoln's cabinet members concerning the situation at Forts Sumter and Pickens. The addition of such material makes users less dependent on edited summaries; they may interpret the text for themselves. At present, work is proceeding to add newspaper headlines and editorials to better convey the context of decision-making during the secession crisis.

During the spring 1997 semester, students showed no particular preference for either the CD-ROM or the Internet presentation of the program. However, since use of the CD-ROM was restricted to the History Department's computer lab, students often prefer the convenience of accessing the Internet version in their dorm or apartment whenever they wish.

On October 3, 1996, the Crisis at Fort Sumter site was selected as "Site of the day" in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Academe Today. It was also discussed in the Chronicle's Information Technology section on November 1, 1996.

Example of Internet Screen

"Crisis at Fort Sumter" in the Classroom

The Crisis at Fort Sumter program is now an integral part of a mid-level history seminar, "The 1850s: Union in Peril." During the first part of the semester, students read and discuss a number of books relating to the sectional crisis of the 1850s and secession. After establishing their familiarity with this period, they learn how to navigate the Sumter program. A grant from the State of Louisiana has made possible the construction of a History Department electronic classroom with eleven Macintosh computers with DOS cards, a server, projector, and screen. Using this equipment, students are instructed in the use of the CD-ROM as well as in locating and using the Internet version. Students can work in the lab during assigned hours, or may access the Internet program at their convenience from dorms, apartments, or the university's computer facilities.

The Sumter program focuses on five decisions made by Lincoln in the period between his election in November 1860 and the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861. Each of these decisions is presented as a "Problem" in which students are asked to consider all the information available, to make a decision, and defend their course of action. They use the program's "Blue Book" function to write their response to a "Problem." Their answers can be edited by a word processor and then submitted to me in hard copy, on a floppy, or via e-mail. I generally request a hard copy. Their responses also constitute the topic of the seminar discussion for that week. The class also has a "listserv" by which students can send e-mail to each other (and me) regarding the material. Students are assigned between one and three segments of the program each week. The entire program is covered over a span of approximately four weeks. While the program offers five "Problems" for consideration, I generally require written essays for only two or three "Problems." Finally, I require a short paper in which students further pursue a topic raised by the Sumter program.

The multimedia and interactive character of the Crisis at Fort Sumter program makes it an effective means of teaching history. It also improves skills associated with learning history:

Student evaluations have been uniformly positive about learning history by means of the multimedia and interactive approach of the Crisis at Fort Sumter program.

The Future of "Crisis at Fort Sumter" in the Classroom

The Sumter program in either its CD-ROM or Internet format can be adapted for classroom use in a variety of ways. For example, it is possible to assign portions or even the entire program as part of a lecture course on the coming of the Civil War. Courses dealing with presidential power and decision-making would also find the program useful. Moreover, the program can be integrated into courses differently from its present use. For example, a course could use the program more prominently as a launching platform for papers and research projects. Learning would radiate outward from the program as students pursued topics in greater depth.

A signal advantage of computer technology is its capacity for change and revision. Errors can be corrected and new information added to a program with relative ease. This is especially true of an Internet site where, unlike a CD-ROM, changes can be made immediately without the expense or delay of pressing another disk. An Internet site can always be "under construction." Such is the case with the Crisis at Fort Sumter site. Since its initial construction, mistakes have been corrected and new material has been added. Future plans center on increasing the availability of documents, particularly newspaper articles but also including official navy and army records, autobiographical accounts, letters, and other primary sources. Additional material about aspects of the Sumter crisis, such as the planned relief expedition, is also under consideration.

Accessing the "Crisis at Fort Sumter" Site


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