Debating History on the Wikipedia Talk Sections

In this blog we will be looking at historical debates that are raised in the talk section of Wikipedia articles. Looking at these “debates”, we can see how history is debated among a public audience (which may or may not include some scholars) as well as the work and discussion that go into producing and improving a Wikipedia article. In case any of you don’t know, you can find the talk section of a Wikipedia article by clicking the little tab that says “Talk” to the right of another tab that says “article”, these to tabs are at the top of the Wikipedia article, right above the name/title of the article. The three related Wikipedia articles that we will be looking at in this blog are articles relating to the Civil War, namely Wikipedia’s articles on Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Naming the American Civil War.

There are currently 4 issues raised in the talk page of the Lincoln Article. In the first issue, a user named pseudobob asks about the context of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the quote being “I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man”. Pseudobob doesn’t appear to be referring to a problem with article, he is just asking a question about the quote. Another user (alanscottwalker) answers that the quote probably came from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates where Lincoln was accused of being in favor of blacks and white mingling together. Another user (Lonepilgrim007) responds by pointing out that Lincoln’s beliefs evolved over time. The next two issues are not really big debates or controversies, just suggestions for changes to the article (the first issue being that “boxed biography” in the article left out Lincoln’s tenure as an Illinois state legislator, the second issue essentially being a complaint about the wording of part of the article). The final issue (entitled “Lincoln the War Criminal” is a complaint claiming that this article and similar articles are “slanted” in favor of the Union, and objecting to the article’s claim that the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, which he points out was in South Carolina (what he calls “Southern Territory”) and then accuses Lincoln of being a war criminal. Another user responds by saying that most historians do not view Lincoln as a war criminal and that such a viewpoint is a “fringe” view that should not “dominate an encyclopedia article”.

The talk page of the Robert E. Lee article also has a good number of issues raised. Some issues are relatively minor (like the suggestion that Lee’s father, Henry Lee III’s nickname should be written as “Light-Horse Harry” – as it appears in the article on Henry Lee III – instead of “Light Horse Harry” as it appears on Robert Lee’s article). Others are more important disputes over how the article portrays Lee, including a claim that the part of the article is “whitewashed” and a claim that the article is “scathing and quite prejudiced”  and that it should be written by someone who isn’t as “close minded and biased” as the author who apparently doesn’t know “how great, God fearing, intelligent and noble General Robert E Lee was”. There is also a complaint that part of the article gives inaccurate figures on the Union and Confederate troop numbers and casualties in the Battle of Cheat Mountain in a way that is an “insult” to Lee,  making it look like Lee suffered more casualties compared to the Union forces and tripling the size of Lee’s force while under-representing the Union force.

The third talk page I looked at was that of the article on “Naming the American Civil War”. This talk page has a few questions and controversies over names of the Civil War that are or aren’t used in the article. One user wonders whether or not the article should contain the term “War of Southern Treason” , a term which he has seen used in online forums in response to people using the term “War of Northern Aggression”, but another user suggests that term should not appear in the article unless it can be found in a reliable source. Other questions are whether or not it should be called the “U.S. Civil War” instead of the “Civil War” and how to insert a “needs a reference” marker after sentence a in the article regarding the usage of the phrase “War of Secession”. There is also a big argument/debate about the term “War of Northern Aggression” and whether the North or the South was the aggressor in the War.

It is clear from looking at the talk sections of these articles, that there are a lot of different historical interpretations that people have about the past. Some subjects (such as the Civil War) tend to attract a lot of debate, some of it scholarly and some of it rather heated and not so scholarly (indeed rather personal). Reading and listening to these debates about different views on historical events can be interesting and entertaining. I must say of the issues raised in the talk section that I mentioned in this blog, my favorite was the one on the Robert E. Lee article where the user called the author “biased and close minded”. That was quite humorous to read.


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