The New Naval History in the Digital Frontier


In September 2013, I presented a paper at the 2013 McMullen Naval History Symposium. My paper analyzed the Confederate Navy in public memory and commemoration. The panel my colleagues and I submitted to the conference discussed the various roles Confederate naval forces played during the American Civil War. Unlike my fellow panelists, the majority of my sources were mined from digital content, i.e. the Internet. I poured over viewer comments on Youtube videos, news articles, movie reviews, Amazon reviews, blog posts, etc. I scanned newspapers, magazines, and journal articles both old and new with the help of e-readers and open-source libraries. Such research was necessary to gather the differing thoughts and perceptions of both the scholarly community and the general public in the 150 years following the end of the war.

I was admittedly nervous when I turned in my paper to the panel’s commentator in early August. In fact, this is the picture I put on my Facebook wall two minutes after I hit send:


Did I make a mistake? The bulk of my research material stretched far outside the comforts of any monograph from an academic library. Suffice it to say, my paper was anything but orthodox in the church of naval history. Hoping I hadn’t metaphorically nailed my own “95 Theses” on the doors of my profession, I pressed on.

I felt a little uneasy about it at the conference one month later at the U.S. Naval Academy. My clammy hands tightly clutched my paper outline and discussion points as I entered the tightly packed classroom. My paper presentation was the opening salvo of our discussion on the Confederate Navy. My fellow panelists, Charles Wexler and Laura June Davis, gave fantastic presentations about the life and legacy of the Charleston Squadron and Confederate boat burners along the southern inland waters. As I suspected, my paper was the odd man out.

The question and commentary section followed our presentations. Light beads of sweat formed on my brow. The first question from our panel’s commentator was directed to me. Of course. Lions seek out the weakest gazelle in the wild plains of the African Savanna, right? I figured he was going to ask me about my topic focus, or my sources and methodology. But I came prepared. Like a Q ship waiting to surprise an unsuspecting U-Boat, I was ready.

“This is very interesting and informative research,” he said, “but what about the ‘pulse’ of historians and other academics today?”

Did I forget them in the paper? No. Granted, their role in my commentary was downplayed to make room for some worthwhile discussion on current digital trends on the Internet. After all, there is only so much you can say in ten pages. He wasn’t finished.

“Have you done any research into what they are writing about?”

Was I about to stick to my guns and contradict our commentator, one of the most respected Civil War historians in the country? I took a deep breath and stated my case as if my research was standing trial in a courtroom. For a second there, perhaps it was.

“Historians and academics deservedly receive the bulk of credit for historical research and writing on the Civil War navies,” I said. “But I think it would be wrong to omit what everyday individuals are saying about the war as well. After all, my presentation focuses on public memory.”

I made a few other points about source material in the digital sphere. Several people in the audience echoed my sentiments. The commentator soon moved his questions to the other panelists and the session ended. He came up to me later in the crowded corridor of Mahan Hall during a session break. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t upset me or rattled my cage during his commentary. I told him quite the opposite. He inspired me.

On the Web

Like any good court case, there needs to be some legal precedent. What have others said about the future of history in the ever-growing digital world? One of the first articles to mention digital history within the wider scope of academia came from Professor Carl Smith’s February 1988 article published in AHA Perspectives. In his article, “Can You Do Serious History on the Web,” Dr. Smith talked about the perception and realities of publishing historical content on the Internet, using the example of his (then) recently published web exhibit on the Great Chicago Fire (Chicago Historical Society). He argued how the web-based experience had the capacity to enthrall and engage a wide range of visitors, from serious scholars to middle school-age students. Dr. Smith reiterated the sentiments of many digital historians today towards the end of his article:

“An article or book is simply better for some, perhaps even most, kinds of history, but the Internet opens up some very powerful prospects for presenting information and ideas in a unique and valuable way, complementing rather than replacing other forms.” (“Can You Do Series History on the Web,” AHA Perspectives, 1998)

The only problem with the article was the intended audience – academic historians within the historical community. It was an article ABOUT history written for those who exclusively studied history. Where does everyone else fit in? Thanks to social media technology, we have that answer today.

A Digital Voice

Naval history can be done from the bottom up. The global community of “students,” either literally or figuratively, is much wider than one may first perceive. It can be done on the Internet just as well as on paper. The best part? Anyone can do it. You can do it. The possibilities exist today for the choice, regardless of who you are or where you studied. If you are still reading this, you are already part of it right now: the new naval history.

The Internet can be used for a good cause, like the petition to save the Monitor Center last year.

The Internet can be used for a good cause for the sake of preserving naval history, like the petition to save the Monitor Center last year.

Should naval history exist in a tightly wound vacuum, where only the most notable historians alone weave tales of the heroic actions of sailors over the past 239 years? No. Naval history is not Mount Olympus. Too often, individuals hold this information like a talisman around their necks, only to be shared or regurgitated within their own inner circle. Although the field has existed as a niche market within the larger genre of American military history, it is by no means sheltered. Naval history does not have to draw such rigidly straight lines of latitude and longitude. There is so much that happens in between.

Naval history is not just about facts. It does not rest solely on interpretation, either. In the digital age today, naval history is about meaning. The meaning of a significant event changes depending on the audience. That audience today reaches the global level. The meaning of an historic naval event like the Battle of Mobile Bay may mean something completely different to northerners, southerners, Europeans, Hispanics, etc. A story with meaning can never be plagiarized. The digital frontier allows any of us to promote that interpretation in a nearly infinite amount of platforms.

Facebook and Twitter are not merely social networking tools to waste our time. They are vehicles to move our thoughts and ideas around the world in a way books and journals cannot. No longer confined to bound pages, these innovative platforms allow anyone to “like,” share, and disseminate information, thoughts, and ideas.

Media scholar Henry Jenkins called this concept “convergence culture.” Jenkins defined convergence culture as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.” Jenkins described this brave new world in detail, where “every story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted” (Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 2-3).

What does the musings of a media scholar have to do with naval history? A lot. In fact, the concepts apply to nearly any discipline. Jenkins would say that all of this, whether it is celebrity gossip or the latest scholarship on naval topics, depends on the active participation of the general public. How then do we participate? If anyone can do naval history, how do you do it?

Same Ocean, Different Ships

The Naval Historical Foundation published a series of articles in the Winter/Spring/Summer 2000 editions of Pull Together that offered up tips and tricks on how aspiring authors can publish their original historical content. The first article, written by RADM Joseph F. Callo, USN (Ret.), took a micro approach to the macro concept of publishing naval history. In his article, “Getting Your Naval History Article Published,” he mentioned several approaches to the market. Among his helpful hints and tips to landing a would-be author’s first publication, Callo cited several pieces of information that have undoubtedly changed in recent years. “As you begin to write,” Callo stated, “try to think of that audience as a group of individuals rather than a homogenous mass.” Today, much of the focus has now shifted from the individual to the collective.

Consider how most stories are disseminated today. This chart uses the example of one of the Foundation’s more popular stories in recent years about the naval lore surrounding the Navy Chief Petty Officer’s tradition of an unwashed coffee mug:

A flow chart showing the flow of information from idea to post. Notice how the bottom has the capability (through social media) to spread in an endless loop.

A flow chart showing the flow of information from idea to post. Notice how the bottom has the capability (through social media) to spread in an endless loop.

An incredible thing happened once we posted the story on the coffee mugs. Former and current U.S. Navy sailors started sharing their own stories about their stained coffee mugs. The Chief Petty Officer that the story was written about actually posted in the comment section. Little bits of history about the subject, previously unknown, began to populate the blog and Facebook/Twitter feeds. Many started sharing their stories with images of their coffee mugs, some of which dated back to the 1960s!

Screenshot example of coffee mugs from the NHF Facebook page

Screenshot example of coffee mugs from the NHF Facebook page

As you can see in the flowchart above, the cycle on the bottom continues in a loop as more and more share their stories on the Internet. It becomes an endless cycle. Social media research Axel Bruns talked about this digital revolution in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond. He amplified what Jenkins already noted in Convergence Culture, going further to suggest that consumers of content now have the ability to become producers themselves. Therefore, former sailors who share their pictures and stories are contributing their own historical narrative. Are their stories and personal reminisces essentially primary source material? Thankfully, the Internet provides the necessary platform to archive these anecdotes. It’s hard to imagine a monograph on the subject of Navy coffee mugs is coming out any time soon. Yet the information is already out there for the whole world to see. Those micro-histories and personal stories are exactly the type of intimate details into the social history of the Navy that many individuals are crying out for.

It is amazing to think how much has changed in the last fifteen years. Some have remarkably stayed the same. Using the advice from the 2000 Pull Together articles, a simple chart from yesterday and today sheds light on these concepts:

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Let’s not jump too forward here. People still read the standard texts of naval history. Digital history is not a substitute. The writings of Mahan, Sims, and Morison will never go away, nor should they. Some of the best and brightest minds are still churning out scholarship we will all come to know and love. However, any individual can now discuss their ideas with other like minds from the comfort of their home. Naval history does indeed have a place in today’s digital spaces. Both concepts can coexist.


So who is doing naval history? Everyone.

Younger generations are eager to explore the history and heritage of the U.S. Navy. I happened to see it first hand at this year’s National History Day in College Park, Maryland. Several young men and women proudly presented their projects on the history and heritage of the Navy. Both junior and senior winners of the Kenneth L. Coskey Naval History prize had fantastic projects, both of which are now available to view online. When I talked to one of the junior division winners after the event, he told me of his aspirations to become a naval officer and major in history at the U.S. Naval Academy. These connections were not made as a recruiting tool. They began as an interest in naval history and a desire to learn. It was truly a beautiful thing to be a part of.

WASHINGTON (Feb. 6, 2014) David Colamaria, Naval History and Heritage Command's photographic section archivist, looks at a glass plate photograph of Spanish Adm. Pasqual Cervera taken in 1898 or 1899. The photo archives staff found a wooden box containing approximately 150 glass plate photographs depicting scenes from the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars. The glass plate photographs were likely prepared by photographer Douglas White, a war correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Philippine War. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/Released)

WASHINGTON (Feb. 6, 2014) David Colamaria, Naval History and Heritage Command’s photographic section archivist, looks at a glass plate photograph of Spanish Adm. Pasqual Cervera taken in 1898 or 1899. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/Released)

Up-and-coming scholars are cropping up around the United States, and they have a voice. They are writing online and creating websites about naval history. Many of these men and women presented at the recent 10th Maritime Heritage Conference. Archivists at the Naval History and Heritage Command are hard at work digitizing a staggering backlog of historical images from our Navy’s history for their upcoming website launch. A workshop on digitizing military history just wrapped up at Northeastern University this weekend. Several topics there discussed new ways to approach naval history. Ideas are spreading. Kasey Greer, a student from George Mason University, is using digital technology to map out the migratory movements of female WAVES during the Second World War.

An artist and Youtube uploader put his interest in Japanese animation, or anime, to illustrate the famed Battle of Hampton Roads. The response to the “Anime Boys’ Tribute” video has been generally well received. The video has amassed over 61,000 views on Youtube. Video viewers argue over the historical accuracy of the artist’s interpretation in the comment section, thereby creating new meaning to a story told countless times in Civil War histories, journals, and newspaper articles. It is a good time to be doing naval history. The discipline is just reaching its salad days at the very least.

Screencaps from "Anime Boys' Tribute_The Cumberland Crew" by LordDrakoArakis

Screencaps from “Anime Boys’ Tribute_The Cumberland Crew” Youtube Video by LordDrakoArakis

Full Speed Ahead

We all have the capability to further the field. Anyone with a passion for naval history can have his or her voice heard almost instantly. Their numbers are increasing. The Naval History and Heritage Command Facebook page has as many followers as most celebrities. Naval history happens on the home front and the battlefront. Ideas are circulating inside lecture halls across are nation’s academic centers. Midshipmen are writing position papers on strategy and policy, using the principles of the past to articulate what the Navy should do in help-me-help-youthe future. It’s in the thoughts and feelings of anyone who has ever sat down and thought about how the United States Navy impacts them. Every cruise book, challenge coin, or stained coffee mug has a story – that story needs to be heard.

Why does this matter? I am merely a messenger and supporter of this new and exciting avenue towards historical methodology. I do not research and write on things I find interesting all the time. I want to write about what YOU personally find interesting about naval history.

Naval history will continue to grow, but it does need your help. It needs your input. WE need your input. As we celebrate the birthday of the United States Navy today, think about how you want to help preserve the history and heritage of the world’s proudest military service for another 239 years. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep posting. Keep participating. Full speed ahead.

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