The Rise, Decline, and Persistence of Civil War Discussion Groups

Back in 1994 I became dimly aware that people liked to discuss the American Civil War in internet discussion groups.  These groups were somewhat different from the group sponsored by H-Net, H-CivWar, which has evolved over the years into a bulletin board featuring book reviews.  There were various forums (I’m sure some commenters have their favorites and their memories) associated with those early days of the internet, as well as usenet’s “alt.war.civil.usa” and a moderated usenet group in the soc. hierarchy: the former group features in the neighborhood of a hundred posts of month (it once had several thousand a month) and can be reached through Google Groups, while the latter no longer functions due to a host of problems that proved impossible to resolve.

Yahoo’s groups feature also gave rise to the creation of a number of discussion groups, several of which still thrive.  Among them is the group “StudyoftheCivilWar,” where yours truly remains as a (now) largely passive moderator (there are other moderators and an owner); many of the posters who were once essential to the usenet group have migrated there.  Then there is “civilwarhistory2,” where, as we’ve seen, many posters with Confederate sympathies (so to speak) hang out in a community with its own charm; a series of smaller groups (group owners and members are free to publicize those groups in the comments), as well as a number of once-active but now slumbering groups such as “civilwarwest” and “LeeandJacksoncivilwarclub.”  It appears that the recently-created “civilwardebate” has not really gotten off the ground.

Other websites host their own discussion groups, including civilwartalk.com, which seems rather lively at times.  Over the years I’ve visited other groups, but not stayed long, and now is the chance for people from those groups to get a little publicity for themselves.  One group, the Gettysburg Discussion Group, is really rather impressive in a number of ways, and is well worth your while.

The persistence of some groups is frankly remarkable, because in other groups a number of patterns of discussion emerge that over time become rather predictable; without membership turnover the same discussions are reenacted over and over again, and interest dwindles (this also happens when moderators become too heavy-handed, as in the case of civilwarwest).  In some cases groups morph into little virtual communities with easily-understood relationships and interactions that sometimes resemble a reality show (I dare say that’s why some people remain interested in those groups, just to see what will happen next).  Those professional historians who dabble in the internet tend to be drawn more to blogs and much less to online discussions: an effort to make H-CivWar a more active discussion group failed in the 1990s, and the experiment’s never been tried again as a conscious ongoing endeavor.

Again, if you know of groups that I’ve overlooked and that you want to bring to everyone’s attention, the comments section is open.

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5 thoughts on “The Rise, Decline, and Persistence of Civil War Discussion Groups

  1. cronyism moderation ruin groups, always have, always will.
    they let friend A take a shot asnd then shut down not a friend B when they want to reply.
    a group you’re still a member of is case in point.

    • That’s sometimes the complaint of people who’ve been removed because they preferred to take potshots at individuals than advance an argument. Usually “not a friend B” has been warned. StudyoftheCivilWar had that problem with several posters who did not understand that what could not be prevented in alt.war.civil.usa would not be tolerated in Study. Meanwhile, the usenet group has collapsed.

      Some of the most contentious people in the usenet group have had no trouble in Study.

      I’ve seen your criticism raised about other groups as well, sometimes with more justice. Moreover, there’s usually a track record between the two posters, and, as in hockey, sometimes it’s the retaliation that’s caught. Sometimes it appears to be an insider/outsider thing.

      Both moderated and unmoderated groups present their challenges. Same with blogs. I’ve been told to shut down some people, including you. So long as a contributor provides more light than heat, I tend to ignore those suggestions.

  2. The CompuServe Civil War Forum has been going continuously for over 20 years now, dating back to when CIS was a proprietary subscription service, then making the transition to a free, web-based community in time. I think it’s one of the oldest Civil War discussion groups online, and many of the core regulars date back to those early days. In time, we had one of the earliest forms of chat rooms and hosted upwards of 30 live Q&A sessions with historians and authors, for which transcripts are still available in the forum library. Mostly, though, it’s just a message board with ongoing discussions. Throughout the years we’ve seen all of same volatility in subject matter that you experience in other online discussion groups, but an even-keeled moderation has kept it more cordial than not. By tradition, members use their real names for the most part (though it’s not required), and I think that tends to reduce instances of “flame wars” as well.

    For the past 15 years, we’ve held an annual “Battlefield Conference,” in which about 40-50 of us gather somewhere for three days of tours and talks. About half of the attendees are long-time forum regulars, and we pick up new participants every year, just as others come and go. The CompuServe CW Forum members are familiar participants in other long-running venues as well, like the Gettysburg Discussion Group.

    You can access the forum at http://community.netscape.com/civilwar — feel free to lurk as a “guest,” or sign up in order to post messages (registration requires only a screen name and password). AOL screen names and passwords should already work, since CompuServe was long ago purchased by AOL, and currently resides on Netscape servers, another AOL acquisition.

  3. I remember getting e-mail invites to several Yahoo CW groups about 9 or 10 years ago. After joining the groups I failed to take them serious. After getting booted off a few of them I soon realized many in these Yahoo groups were serious. At first I though they were making up fake names and just joking around with people. And I have P-O’d a few of them over the years because I didn’t think they were who they said they were. I have used these groups over the years to open up my interest in a larger assortment of Civil War subjects and keep up my interest in CW history. As I have stated I do not even consider myself an amateur historian only someone interested in history. I have made some good friends on some of these list, people I talk on the phone with and have lunch with when they pass through Atlanta. I guess with me its more about people and friendships than just Civil War history.

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