Tag Archives: Preble’s Boys

DigiWriMo Wrap-Up

Today’s the last day of November. Advent starts in two days; classes end in four days (for me, anyhow); and today DigiWriMo is ending.

So, what was DigiWriMo like for me?

Maybe I should start with how I did on my goals.

Goal #1: Completed. All officer bios on Preble’s Boys are completed.

Goal #2: Mostly completed. In the last few days, I did slack off. Bad Abby. But I got a fair number up.

Goal #3: Technically completed. I didn’t do the intensive reflection I was intending. But that’s ok. I wrote some other pretty good blog posts.


I purposely didn’t tax myself all that far for this DigiWriMo. This is my first semester in grad school in a long time, and I wasn’t sure how much time my projects would take down the stretch. In retrospect, that was probably a wise decision.

Nevertheless, I did reap some rewards from doing DigiWriMo.

Because of the rapidity with which I wrote the officer bios, I saw some connections and similarities that I feel certain I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In addition, the group has started to really cohere as a unit for me; before this month I viewed them as individuals who were just arbitrarily grouped together (although I do still think their grouping is somewhat arbitrary).

I also gained an appreciation for other people’s amazing work that they wrote about for DigiWriMo. I feel somewhat more connected to the DH community than I did before DigiWriMo, even if it’s a somewhat one-way connection for now.

Because I spent so much time in the blogosphere and on my Omeka site this month, when a speaker at Northeastern mentioned the possibility of doing a department-based group blog, I jumped at the idea. Thanks in part to DigiWriMo, we successfully launched Global History in the Digital Age in the middle of the month. This blog’s authors are members of Northeastern University’s history department, and we’re writing about things that we’re doing in history right now, digital or not. (Please read and follow!)

Global History in the Digital Age is giving some members of my cohort the chance to get their ideas out on the Web without having to deal with the admin stuff of running a blog. So DigiWriMo did something for not just me but also at least four (right now) people in my department. (Since I started the blog, I think I should get DigiWriMo credit for all of the posts on it right now–just kidding. :) )


I’m sure the makers of DigiWriMo will be making structural changes to the event for next year (though mad props to them for a really fantastic month of writing!). For myself, there are a few things I’d like to do or see done for next year.

1. I’d like to see more historians participating. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right place, but I seemed a bit like a horse among a herd of zebras.

I’ll probably be proselytizing DigiWriMo next year several months in advance of November. I’d love to see some of my cohort at Northeastern participate.  Now that we have our blog up and running, they have the platform to do the writing.

2. I’d like to do more substantive collaboration with other historians. This follows from No. 1, of course. I enjoyed participating in the opening-day collaborative poem and the collaborative novel, but I’m not that much of a creative writer like that. (I still need pen and paper to do most of my creative writing.) But I would love to see some serious historical research collaborations.

More historians would also be nice for the Twitter discussions, since the types of digital writing that might be discussed would be different from the literature-types’ writing.

3. Next year, I’m doing 50,000. You can hold me to that.


Total word count for the month (not counting FB and Twitter words): 13,800 words

Lessons from a Google Fusion Table Graph

Armed with new and improved service record data, last night I set out to create a new network graph in Gephi, to see whether just new data would help to mitigate some of last time’s problems.

To be frank, Gephi beat me. My graph is so small, and my screen is so small, and the zoom function in the graph window is so bad (at least, I couldn’t figure it out) that I couldn’t really see my graph in order to draw any conclusions. All my data imported correctly, though, so I knew there was hope.

I turned instead to Google Fusion Tables, an experimental data visualization app from Google. Unfortunately, it appears that the data tables work completely differently from Gephi’s, so I did have to do some reformatting. (This isn’t a huge problem for a graph with only 34 edges, but it would be a pain for something bigger.)

Google Fusion Tables

For this small network graph, Google Fusion Tables seemed to have worked out very well. The graph itself is clear and easily readable, and it’s a relatively simple proposition to remove nodes and see what happens. Fewer options for manipulating the data mean that the graph renders quickly. It’s also nice to be able to hover over a node and see the attached edges highlighted.

Google Fusion Tables does do a few annoying things, which may be able to be disabled. It would be nice if the nodes were able to be moved to a specific location for ease of reading (as is, you can pull a node to a general area, but it won’t stay exactly where you put it). Also, it would be nice if the graph would hold still! It seems like some element of the graph is always moving all the time.

More options for edges would be helpful too. I’d like to be able to see the edge labels that are in my chart, and I’d also like to be able to click on an edge for more data, just like you can see the highlighted edges when you hover over a node.

Observations about the Graph

I’ve been doing some reading up about social network graphs in this book. But this network I’ve created is not actually a social network: there are not any connections that can accurately be predicted by network theory. Why? Because this set of data is about concurrent service, not something that the men themselves control (for the most part).

So how then is this helpful?

First, even though new connections cannot be posited, the graph does show the high degree of connectedness between some of the officers. Thomas Macdonough, for instance, has multiple connections to many people. The same is true for David Porter. Macdonough and Porter have some shared connections, but they also have some unique connections. Hopefully, seeing the connected officers through the eyes of Porter and Macdonough may yield information about them.

Second, once I do get the social networks mapped out, it will be interesting to compare the two graphs, seeing whether the connections established shipboard continue into correspondence. It seems unlikely that officers would write directly to each other without previous personal connections, and concurrent service seems the most likely place for that connection to have occurred.

The comparison will be a little tricky, because it will involve networks that evolve over time. In order to create these networks, I’ll probably have to move back over to Gephi. Maybe by then I’ll have figured it out a little more.

Mapping the service of just the Preble’s Boys connections to each other shows only an incomplete picture of their records. So the next step will be to add in connections to other officers, especially highly prominent officers such as Thomas Truxtun and John Rodgers. After that, mapping out squadron service will be the next step in establishing these formal connections.


The question I’ve been asked before about this sort of network is: how is this more helpful than a spreadsheet? The value here is how easy it is to remove nodes and see the resulting changes in the network. You can’t really do that with a spreadsheet. As the networks get more complex, and they have to change over time, visualization is going to be much more helpful than a spreadsheet.


As always, I’d welcome any insights on my network thoughts!


The Lessons of a Bad Network Graph

Spurred by our DH reading group at Northeastern, as well as my general tendency to jump into things before really knowing what I’m doing, I decided a few weeks ago to download Gephi and see what sort of rudimentary networks I could create.

I’d been cataloging the service record of each of my Preble’s Boys officers, setting up the chart so that I could see concurrent service. I started out just looking to see whether any of the Boys had actually served on the same ship as Edward Preble, but as I created the chart (the link here is to a more fleshed-out chart with more comprehensive data), some other patterns began to emerge.

So I thought, let’s plug this into Gephi and see what happens! I set up my network, fumbling through the Gephi readme to set up a very basic network in which the nodes were the officers and the ships were the edges.

I knew what was coming before I rendered the graph as a network visualization, but I was still a little surprised when I saw it. What I saw was a network that I knew from all my research heretofore to be completely false.

Download (PDF, 20KB)

(I apologize for the crazy way the graph sort of goes off the page. I tried every setting I could find to get it not to do that. Some mysteries of Gephi remain hidden to me.)

My initial reaction was to scrap the whole thing and start my thinking about networks all over. But on further examination, I realized that this graph still had something to teach me.

First, I learned the importance of good data. This graph shows Stephen Decatur as having only two links to anyone, a fact that is false. Additionally, it looks like Edward Preble is almost a tangential figure, a fact that is false. The person with the most links is David Porter, who is an important figure but not that important. So why the graph that looks like this?

Simply put, this is a bad data set. It starts to get at my question (How do these people link together?) by a very small subset of their interactions with each other. I don’t even have complete service records for some of these men, so it’s possible that there are connections missing from my chart. In addition, these men had several levels of interaction beyond just concurrent service (squadron concurrent service, shoreside interaction, correspondence, indirect influences…the list goes on). So the data set is quite incomplete.

What this bad data set teaches me is that the meaningful network of these men is going to be quite complex. It’s likely to need to be organized on several different interaction levels, as well as interactions over time and even perhaps spatially (do men feel others’ influence more when they’re at sea than when they are landbound? I don’t know).

Second, I saw new connections, forged through unintended groupings. Since this is a bad graph, it’s tempting to say that all the links it made between people are bogus. However, I realized that there is at least one interesting phenomenon going on that I hadn’t thought of before, but that perhaps is borne out by the documentary evidence.

This phenomenon, which may actually be a real breakthrough in my analysis, is the appearance of two groups. If you draw a connection between Stephen Decatur and Edward Preble (in your mind), then you see the loose formation of a group around them. The graph already shows a clique: the group with David Porter and William Bainbridge. What’s the connection between these two groups?

Interestingly, the two groups roughly fall into (1) those who were aboard the USS Philadelphia when it grounded in Tripoli Harbor, and (2) those who volunteered for the mission led by Stephen Decatur to destroy the Philadelphia. There are some outliers, officers who were not involved in that series of events in any way (Lewis Warrington, for instance), and one interesting anomaly, Charles Stewart, who was not aboard the Philadelphia, though he is well-ensconced into that group of officers. It will be interesting to see what happens to those men once there’s more data.

Without having done any other research yet into this grouping, I have an inkling that this way of looking at Preble’s Boys may show more about their careers after 1803 than their link to Edward Preble.


So what’s the major lesson for me? When I next take on Gephi, I’ll be armed with a lot more data, but even if the results are surprising, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for possibilities that I didn’t see coming down the pike.

I’d welcome any other insights on my first foray into network analysis.

Omeka Development Plan

In their book Digital HistoryA Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the WebDan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig advocate that digital historians should have a well-defined plan for their websites before they start. So I thought I’d share my ideas about Preble’s Boys here, and perhaps get some feedback from others about the plan.


First off, the inspiration. I was inspired to do this project by thinking about how naval officers of the nineteenth century acted, specifically to what extent they acted in concert with their official orders or whether they tended to be influenced by each other. One pressing question was this: How much did they really interact with each other?  I don’t have the primary sources to do this sort of investigation at this point (tracking down all the officers’ papers is going to be quite an undertaking). When I looked for secondary sources that might address the question, I remembered Fletcher Pratt’s 1950 book Preble’s Boys.

Preble’s Boys is an entertaining read, written very much in an old-school narrative style that has a certain charm. But the stories Pratt tells are often speculative or at least unverified (he explicitly states that he doesn’t think bibliographies belong in books), so his conclusions about the cohesion of this group of naval officers are open to dispute. In addition, the maps and diagrams in the book, though charmingly drawn, are not that helpful in explaining ship movement (since they are static).

Second, the purpose. My purpose with this project, then, is to essentially reinvigorate Pratt’s book using interactive web technology. I don’t plan to use Pratt’s actual words, but I’m going to use his framework to create a digital exhibit about these men.

Third, the goals.

I have several goals, which take the form of phases of the project.

1. Create a digital exhibition that provides an introduction to the group Preble’s Boys, their ships, and the battles they were in. (That’s the phase I’m working on right now.) This introduction isn’t intended as a scholarly treatment of any of these men or their activities, though it is intended to be a little more scholarly than Pratt’s original (cited sources and all that). It’s merely for basic education. However, even this basic treatment benefits from the web medium. I’d like to use Neatline to recast battle maps and ship diagrams as interactive rather than static. Even this small change will enhance existing scholarship about the  19th-c. navy. This phase’s audience is primarily the general public. (I’d love to do animations of the battle diagrams, too, but I’m not an animator. If anyone would like to collaborate, give me a shout-out.)

2. Document the connections between Preble’s Boys using network analysis. This phase will help to interrogate Pratt’s claims of connections between the men linked to Edward Preble. This phase will take some time, as I will have to build the network from the ground up. In other words, I’ll have to track down the primary sources. I’m also not quite sure how to measure connections here. (I’m sure I’ll write more about this later.) Once I get the network going, I’ll publish it to the website. This phase will help historians like me see just how influential Edward Preble was in shaping the early navy. (Or maybe it will show that someone else was influential. I don’t know.)

3. Provide digital copies of the papers of these men, as well as other relevant primary sources. The work of getting digital copies of the sources will hopefully occur in concert with phase 2. Getting permission to post them online and creating a decent archive framework may be the bigger issue (Omeka’s going to help with the framework). But in the end, I would like Preble’s Boys to be a sort of compendium of information about these officers.


So that’s the plan. Comments, questions, suggestions, prohibitions, exhortations welcome!