Casper native Steven Dacus has done a lot of cool things — cruised through Casper streets with lights and siren as a firefighter, led horse-mounted cavalry at Gettysburg, and this summer helped launch a new website for Civil War historians that saves them a lot of time and money.
Dacus is one of the driving forces behind the new website ResearchArsenal.com. The website allows historians — amateur and professional — to dig into the nitty gritty of Civil War regiments, weapons and uniforms, or just to see how that great-great-great uncle lived on the battlefields from 1861-1865.
“The whole premise is to have a one-stop spot for researching mid-19th century history,” Dacus said. “We have been working on it for about five years. We just made it public on June 2, and the vast majority of what we have is from private collections. We have 30,000 pages of letters that people can keyword search.”
There are also 10,000 photographs that can be keyword searched: for weapons, uniform, place or even hairstyle.
Why Hadn’t It Bene Done Before?
Indeed, the research site is different from others such as Ancestry.com because it adds a lot of context for researchers by providing original documents that tell not just the who, but the how of a soldier’s life. Typically, those documents would only be available by traveling to a museum, personal archive or the Library of Congress.
In all the website boasts:
More than 100,000 documents and photos.
12 categories of filtered searches.
Access to all federal ordnance returns — a quarterly report that lists all the weapons that belonged to a particular unit at that point in time.
National Archives microfilm.
Following college, marriage and children, Dacus said he was working as a firefighter for the city in 2013 and wanted to volunteer at Fort Caspar. He asked folks there if there were plans for a 150-year celebration of the battle at Platte Bridge Station. There were not. So, he became the planner.
“Once I started doing that, I needed to know more than I knew, and started going to Fort Laramie and other places to make that as accurate as possible,” he said.
Broaden The Reach
That research stirred up more interest to access original records.
Dacus said that experience helped lead to digging into Civil War history and traveling with friends, including local historian and author Johanna Wickman, to research at state and national archives. But doing that comes with a cost.
“No one has the time or money to travel to all these places,” he said. “We want to bring access to this stuff to the hobby historian in a way that no one else has.”
Wickman serves as the website’s chief archivist and curator. Her role is to handle the original documents, often sent from private collections, and scan them, put them in sleeves if necessary to preserve them and then return them as appropriate. As an author, she sees the website as a goldmine of information because of all the keywords that have been entered into the database associated with each photo or document.
“For example, if you are doing something on coffee. You search ‘coffee’ on the database and you’ll bring up photographs that have coffee pots, letters home where guys are talking about, ‘Oh, the coffee we had today was just awful,’ or supply lists that tell you just how much coffee that outfit was allotted,” she said. “It brings all of these things together and it’s something I’m very excited to be working on.”
The website offers a limited free, monthly and annual memberships, and a special membership for students.
Dacus said the website has another full-time employee in addition to Wickman and several others who work part time transcribing documents and entering key words related to each document.
“With photos it is hard to find someone with the background to look at it and tag it with every item that is in the photo,” he said. For example, photos showing soldiers with weapons would need someone able to identify the weapon and manufacturer.
Subscriptions for the site initially took off and included not only Civil War buffs from America, but fair numbers from France and Germany and other countries around the world. Dacus said membership has leveled off, but he is optimistic.
“We are gaining, but nowhere near self-sustainability,” he said. “My goal is to make it self-sufficient enough so that we can hire transcriptionists.”
In addition to providing access to documents and photographs to keep the war alive for future generations, Dacus also lives some of the battles as a calvary officer re-enactor.
He was asked to command the federal cavalry at the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer.
“Just little boy out of Casper, Wyoming, making an impact,” he said. “Anything I get into, I go full bore.”
Dale Killingbeck can be reached at email@example.com.