Using Multimedia to Teach the Coming of the Civil War

Richard B. Latner
Department of History
Tulane University

The "Crisis at Fort Sumter" Program

Crisis at Fort Sumter is an interactive, multimedia, decision-making program that recreates the events and decisions that led to the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. The program features video, still images, maps, music, text, and hypertext to convey information and bring immediacy to the events surrounding Fort Sumter.

The program's special focus is the series of decisions made by Lincoln from the time he was elected President in November 1860 through the secession crisis in the winter and spring of 1861. During this period, Lincoln made five critical decisions involving secession and federal forts located in the Confederacy. Proceeding in a strict chronological fashion, the program attempts to recreate the context of Lincoln's decisions, including the advice presented to him by political allies, friends, and his cabinet.

Crisis at Fort Sumter possesses a number of interactive features to strengthen critical and analytical skills. Users are asked at each of the five main junctures, called "Problems," what they would do if they were in Lincoln's position and why they would choose such a course of action. Although users may inspect Lincoln's action before making their own decision, the program's object is that users explain and justify their choices rather than to agree with Lincoln. Many students, in fact, recommend a different policy than Lincoln's. The program provides a "Blue Book" in which students can write their answers, or they may utilize a word processing program on the computer. It also has a "Notebook" for note taking. Both the "Notebook" and "Blue Book" features place information on a floppy disk.

Crisis at Fort Sumter also highlights the place of historical interpretation in understanding the past. A "Commentary" feature explains various interpretations of an event or issue, enabling students to see that evidence can be assessed in different ways. For more advanced history students, the commentary provides insight into the historiographical debate about the Sumter question by historians such as Kenneth Stampp, Richard Current, and David Potter.

Crisis at Fort Sumter uses computer technology to convey the contingent quality of history and the idea that written history is an open-ended, analytical, and interpretive process. The program is framed by an "inquiry" or "problem solving" pedagogy which provides users with an array of information, including original documents, to facilitate intelligent discussion.