22 June 2006 by Published in: General musings 10 comments

I’ve been involved in on-line discussion groups about the Civil War since 1996. We got our first Internet access that year, and Susan discovered the Gettysburg Discussion Group for me. The GDG is the oldest, and probably largest, of the on-line discussion groups. It’s the granddaddy of them all. I signed up, and have been a member for most of the intervening decade. As the years passed, I started my own group along with old friend Teej Smith.

We started as an e-mail discussion group. I am the co-moderator of that group, although I tend to leave much of the day-to-day moderation to Teej. The e-mail group is very small, by our choice. It has only about 100 members, of whom probably 30 are active participants. We’ve kept it mostly to those whom we want to be involved, and nobody can join without my approval. It’s still an active, ongoing group.

The e-mail group eventually morphed into a second discussion site. In 2004, we launched forum boards also. I pretty much run the forum boards myself, although Susan is a huge help to me. The forum boards have well over 300 members, and there’s actually not much overlap in the memberships of the e-mail group and the forum boards. That means that we rarely have repeated discussions, which is great.

I’ve also participated in another couple of similar forums over the years. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve also seen a lot of tendencies.

Every group seems to have a real “know-it-all”. One group has the worst offender of all. To protect the guilty, I will call him Fred for these purposes. Now, I know Fred personally. One-on-one, or in very small groups, he’s actually a good guy. He’s a great guy to sit down with and have a meal, quite charming and a good conversationalist. However, Fred’s got a real problem. He has a REAL need to be the center of attention. He combines that with an enthusiastic embrace of every new off-the-wall theory to come down the pike. If it’s a new theory, it must be right.

That’s in part because Fred feels the need to develop new theories of his own in order to remain in the limelight. So, he spouts off with these bizarre and unsupportable theories that real experts laugh at because they’re so off the wall. And when someone has the temerity to challenge him–to call him on his BS, in other words–he responds one of two ways. He will either deliver a sermon about his decades-long journey of self-discovery of the truth of what happened, and will then congratulate himself on how great his scholarship is and point out that everyone else is obviously on a lower plane since they can’t see the Truth.

His other standard response is to adopt an extremely insulting and condescending tone that stops just short of being a flagrant personal attack, dress it up in a veil of trumped-up courtesy, and then wait for the recipient to be offended. It’s obviously a calculated thing, because it happens all the time. Then, when the poor unenlightened fool responds angrily, he takes on the role of the martyr with a hurt tone. To make things worse, Fred’s got a group of sycofants who will defend him, even if he is being rude and insulting. Why? Because the angry recipient of one of Fred’s broadsides had the gall to respond in a less then courteous fashion.

It’s pretty much akin to the kid who starts a fight on the playground and then steps back to watch the chaos that he or she has created without so much as throwing a punch himself or herself. It must be terribly rewarding to know that you’ve created such chaos, and then to step back and enjoy it. Fred’s a master of it, and it simply evades my understanding why (a) people tolerate him and his tactics and (b) they rush to defend and believe his nonsense when it’s just that: nonsense. I don’t get it.

I’ve always tried to remain as hands-off as possible while moderating. I typically won’t interject myself unless I absolutely have to, and then it’s with great reluctance. I’m very fortunate to have a group that knows the rules, and generally keeps to them. I’ve only ever had to excommunicate a couple of people in all the years I’ve done this, and I’m quite proud of that. Being a moderator is one of the most thankless jobs I can think of, so I’m especially proud of the communities that we have forged. For the most part, we all like each other, and there are almost never problems like the ones created by Fred.

On-line discussion groups can be a great place to share information and ideas if the rules are followed and if you’re fortunate enough not to have a Fred to foist his nonsense on everyone and then insult everyone who doesn’t buy into it. Then, it can be a thoroughly unpleasant thing indeed.

Scridb filter


  1. Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Eric, — I briefly touched on my general dislike of on-line groups in an earlier post. The other day I was killing time and decided to browse Yahoo’s Civil War forum and came across some very insulting comments that were levelled at me. It turns out that one of my readers will on occasion copy and past bits of my blog posts or refer readers to the site. Well, you know that some of the things I touch on rub people the wrong way. That said, I was surprised just how hateful some of the comments are. Anyway, I got a real kick out of it and thought what an honor it is that they think I am sufficiently worthy to discuss. Perhaps I am doing something right.

  2. Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 6:32 pm


    I view it the same way. For reasons that remain a complete mystery to me–I can’t get an explanation for it–I’ve been permanently banned from one of those sites, and they constantly discuss my stuff. Occasionally, I will hear from one of them asking me to answer questions, and I tell them, no, that if I’m permanently banned, they don’t get the benefit of my knowledge, that there’s a price to be paid for my inexplicable banning, and that price is that I will, under no circumstances, answer questions that I know will be passed on and posted there. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to do that. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Stephen Graham
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 12:59 am

    As relatively old as the Gettysburg Discussion Group is, there are older Internet-based groups. For instance, H-CivWar dates from 1993. I’m sure if I poked around a bit, I could find older e-mail lists.

    And there’s also Usenet, which gets missed – Harry Smeltzer in his discussion on Civil War Bookshelf missed it as well.

  4. Harry
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 7:07 am

    I wouldn’t say I “missed it”. I didn’t mention any groups by name. My experience is that usenets operate in a manner similar to what I referred to as online forums, or bulletin boards (H-CivWar and the old Compuserv forum fall into this category). I didn’t want to specifically identify groups and appear to endorse or condemn any in particular. And there is one notorious unmoderated CW usenet group into whose cesspool I would not want anyone to unwittingly fall ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Dave Smith
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 8:16 am

    That unmoderated Usenet newsgroup, as much of a cesspool as it has, was for a period of time (95 to say, 2000) a pretty good source of discussion. If you go back to the archives of that group, you’ll find a broad group of posters who continually challenged each other.

    A number of folks you will find on Yahoo groups, and other forums, are former veterans of alt.war.civil.usa. As bad as it is now, it was at the time a marvelous source of discussion.

  6. Art Bergeron
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 8:48 am

    Eric, I have had “discussions” with people like Fred on various boards and groups over the years. There was one fellow in particular on the old Prodigy board who seemed to take particular delight in twisting many of my posts and in engaging in personal attacks against me. As best I could tell, he did so largely to try to show how much (little?) he knew about certain topics, and he did his best to paint me as some kind of Neanderthal because my publications have not attacked the Confederacy and its supporters as successors to Nazi Germany.

  7. Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 9:19 am


    Yikes…..that person would have been excommunicated if he were on my board. That’s grossly inappropriate.


  8. Jim Epperson
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 7:02 pm

    The Usenet groups are not entirely dead. The unmoderated group (alt.war.civil.usa)
    is clearly on life-support. I agree with Dave Smith that in its heyday it was a valuable
    source of discussion and erudition, some of which Dave supplied. The moderated
    group (soc.history.war.us-civil-war) is still having meaningful discussions, and I
    encourage all to go there.


  9. Jim Epperson
    Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 7:05 pm

    With all due respect to the brothers Lawrence, the GDG is not the oldest online
    ACW discussion group. In addition to H-CivWar and the two Usenet groups, I
    would venture that there are several bulletin board type groups that still survive.


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