Digital Re-Enactment

The Best Civil War Apps, From Alexander Gardner to the Civil War Trust

Games, comics, battlefield guides. The best digital spots on the War Between the States. By Malcolm Jones.

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War now at about its midpoint—Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation are just past, the siege of Vicksburg drags on, while troops in the East have gone into winter quarters—and with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and that other Lincoln movie having restoked public interest in the subject, it’s time to review the apps that have appeared so far to commemorate the War Between the States.

As you might expect, there are more than 100, some of them overviews, some devoted to particular battles, some that seem like stunts (turning photographs from the war into 3-D images), some that make you wonder who the intended audience is (The Civil War in an Hour—for the historian on the go, no doubt), and some that use the war as an excuse for one more digital comic book or game.

On the plus side, there are several very helpful apps that are free, notably the nonprofit Civil War Trust’s battleground apps for particular engagements. Download these to your phone or tablet, and you have a handheld guide (with a GPS component) to walk you through Antietam, Gettysburg, or eight other sites. The battle maps are excellent, and the embedded videos are informative (and my, how lively!). There is also just enough text to help you locate yourself (“From the Sharpshooter’s stop location walk farther down the curving park road …”). There is also just enough text (you don’t want to stand around a battlefield reading all day) to teach you a little something about what you’re staring at (“Exactly when and why this area was first referred to as ‘Devil’s Den,’ and exactly what the term was meant to indicate, is a matter of speculation”).

For an overview, you can’t beat the History Channel’s reasonably priced The Civil War Today, which gives you the action, speeches, letters, and legislation from any given day of the war (you can’t go forward past whatever day it is now, but you can go back). You can also check in with numerous diarists, such as Mary Chesnut, to see what they were saying about the unfolding conflict as it happened. There are also quizzes, maps, quotes, and assorted facts and figures—for example, the number of companies in a regiment (both sides): 10.

The best app, though—an app that makes you think this is what apps were made for—is Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, a beautiful facsimile of the collection of war photographs published by Alexander Gardner in 1866.

In late 1862, just months after the battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history, Mathew Brady exhibited photographs of the Maryland battleground taken by his staff, which then included Gardner. Because most Americans had never seen anything but drawings and paintings of war, viewers attending Brady’s exhibition were horrified by the sight of numberless corpses strewn across the landscape, lying where they fell.

OK, almost where they fell, since the controversial side of Gardner’s work is how much he arranged his subjects before he made his photographs. The most celebrated instance took place at Gettysburg, where Gardner photographed a dead soldier in one spot, then hauled the corpse for dozens of yards and then posed him as a sharpshooter at the Devil’s Den, complete with a rifle that was plainly not the soldier’s but a prop Gardner used from time to time.

By the lights of his day, Gardner was doing nothing wrong. And luckily for us, there are enough photographs where posing anything is no issue—the awfulness of what we’re staring at, whether a field of corpses or a city skyline reduced to a smoking ruin, is beyond fabrication.

Of the exhibition mounted by Brady in 1862, one reporter wrote, “We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door… It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold… Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it."

As you go through these photographs, those words echo in your head because they still ring true. A century and a half after they were taken, these images have lost none of their eerie power to haunt our imaginations.