April 12th of this year marked 150 years since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, starting the long conflict known as the American Civil War. This spring there have been special museum exhibits, battle reenactments, and plenty of news stories. Ken Burns’s Civil War series was rebroadcast. But these things were all pretty much expected.
A surprise to me, however, is a new iPad app called The Civil War Today, put out by The History Channel. Open it up and it is a daily interactive broadsheet newspaper covering details of the war from that day, 150 years ago. Each day, there is a wealth of information including news stories, photos, letters, journal entries, battle maps, a quiz question, and more. Fantastically full of primary sources, this app will bring you an interesting, educational, and moving experience for the next four years. I imagine that in four years’ time, all the past content will still be available, just as all the content from the beginning of the war until now is available.
Despite being a couple weeks into the war coverage, it is definitely not too late to participate and enjoy the app. You can catch up on the days you missed, or skim them to get the main stories. Then start enjoying new content day by day. This app will give you four years of news, both with the clarity of hindsight and from the perspective of people who lived through the war.
Here is some more detail on each of the bits of content contained in the daily broadsheet. For each of these sections, you can tap on them for additional functionality, including zooming in, saving as a Favorite, or posting information about the app to Twitter, Facebook, or over email.
- At the top of the broadsheet is “This Day in Civil War History.” This details the day’s progress in the war, from the secession of states, to Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the United States Army. I imagine that detailed descriptions of battles will be included here in the future as well.
- The “Photo of the Day” shows one military related photo of the time.
- The section entitled “A Day in the Life” shows 15 photos of people who wrote letters or kept journals during the war.
- Though only the first five have any real content during the early days of the war, the others will join in as time goes on. I feel that these letters and journal entries are one of the most interesting parts of the app. Since you’re reading content from the same authors over the course of the entire war, you really get to know them and get an in-depth look at the war from their viewpoint. We often read about the war from the viewpoint of the men from the North, but this section gives us the opportunity to also hear from Southern men and women about their experiences and perspective. Included in this section are letters written to and by President Lincoln, journal entries by Mary Chesnut (of Ken Burns‘ Civil War fame), and journal entries written by John Beauchamp Jones, clerk of the War Department of the Confederate States of America. He was previously unknown to me, but his long journal entries and large vocabulary have quickly gained my interest.
- Often the content in the “Featured Story” will tell more about the era and other things peripherally related to the Civil War. For the early days of the war, some topics covered here include women during the war, Morse code, the repeating rifle, and ether and chloroform. Because this content isn’t tied to what happened on that exact day in history, sometimes two days in a row will carry the same featured story.
- At the very bottom of each broadsheet is a section for “Battle Maps.” Tap here and several historical maps can be seen. Various Fort Sumter maps are shown at the beginning of the war, but until more battles are fought, general maps for areas involved in the war are all that we see. Anyone familiar with the areas covered, though, will find these maps quite interesting.
- The second column of the broadsheet starts with a “Quote of the Day” usually by a famous person, or containing a poignant thought.
- “Casualties to Date” lists how many people have died on both sides of the war, with North and South fatalities being tallied separately.
- “In the Headlines” has scans of actual newspapers from that date in history, complete with important news stories, Civil War coverage, advertisements, notices, and everything else that newspapers contain. Newspapers from several cities are shown each day.
- The “Photo Gallery” contains a few photos, drawings, and pieces of artwork from the war; some of it is war-related, some cultural.
- “Civil War by the Numbers” quotes a numerical fact, such as how many soldiers were in a typical Union infantry regiment at the beginning of the war, or how many slaves there were in the United States at the time.
- The next section shows your “Game Achievements” and your score for the Quiz, which is shown just below it. Each day the quiz asks one trivia question about the war. I’ve discovered that the answer to the quiz isn’t usually found in that day’s reading, so there is a lot of guesswork or prior knowledge required to do well. Still, it’s another way of learning something new.
- Each front page also has a link to “The Ultimate History Quiz” iPhone app. This is just information about purchasing a separate app.
- At the top of each broadsheet, you are given the opportunity to send a message on Twitter through Morse Code. Since most people don’t have a Morse Code translator on their Twitter client, you only need to use the code to generate your message. Tap out your message, and the app converts it to regular text. It’s harder than you’d think, but worth trying a few times.
- You also have the option to change the background shown behind the broadsheet. If you drag the page all the way down, you can see the whole background image, which pans to either side as you tilt the iPad. Swipe to change the scene. Each one also has a few informational points to tap on, and has music to go with the scene. The music automatically shuts off when you drag the page back up.When you start up The Civil War Today each day, the app automatically puts you on the newspaper for today’s date 150 years ago. If you are behind, however, you can easily jump to any day you like. Also, while the app works in both orientations, it seems to be designed for portrait.
Other options available from the main screen include viewing a couple dozen biographies of notable Civil War figures; viewing the articles, images, and letters that you marked as favorites, which are organized by month and year; seeing which items in that day’s newspaper you have read or missed; referring to a glossary of Civil War era terms; and finding out more information about the app.
There is enough material to easily spend an hour or more per day keeping up on the progress of the war, or you can just read the highlights or a sampling and be done in ten minutes. I can’t say enough good things about this app. It is a fantastic way to experience a retelling of the Civil War, and it makes the most of the iPad functionality and size.
While the main articles are written in modern times with the perspective of 150 years, much of the content is piecemeal, coming day to day, just as it would have come to people at the time. They didn’t know what came next.
So, watch the story of the Civil War unfold through letters and diary entries from people who were witness to actual events. Read other things that were going on in the newspaper articles from the time. Follow the body count for both sides of the war. Read all this information every day and you realize how much happened each day of the war, and how that went on for four years.
At $7.99, The Civil War Today is not an impulse buy, but considering the amount of incredible daily content you get, for four years, it’s a bargain. Get this app now and catch up to the current day. History lovers and those involved in education will not be disappointed.
The Civil War Today is available in the iTunes store. Get it today and follow along as the war took place, 150 years ago. You will come away with a much better sense of a very important time in the history of the United States.
Note: I received a copy of the app for review purposes, though I would have happily paid three times the retail price for it.