William G. Thomas III

Professor of History and John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities; CAS Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education Profile Image
Professor of History and John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities; CAS Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education History wthomas4@unl.edu 402-472-2414 642 Oldfather Hall


William G. Thomas III is the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He served as Chair of the Department of History from 2010 to 2016. He was selected as a 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow.

Thomas is the author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War (forthcoming in November 2020 with Yale University Press), chronicling the history of black, white, and mixed families in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the burst of freedom suits and manumission in the Chesapeake after the Revolution. Using legal records to reveal family and kinship networks of early Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, he is also producing a series of experimental essays and animated historical films. These burrow into the historical record to explore how we know what we know about family histories and why we need moral imagination to confront what we find in the past.

He is also co-producing a series of animated historical films. The first of these features the story of Anna, Ann Williams, and her successful petition for freedom in the D.C. Circuit Court. Thomas and co-producers Kwakiutl Dreher and Michael Burton are currently producing a feature-length live action animation titled The Bell Affair set in 1835 in Washington, D.C., about family, politics, slavery, and the making and meaning of freedom.

Thomas’s research and writing endeavor to demonstrate the full capability of digital scholarship to give voice to people whose lives have been out of reach and to send their histories into the public and scholarly realms through digital media. He served as the co-founder and Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia, where he was an Assistant and Associate Professor of History in the Corcoran Department of History. He was a co-editor the award-winning digital project, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. With Edward L. Ayers, he co-authored “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” one of the first pieces of digital scholarship published in the American Historical Review.

A dedicated teacher and mentor, as Chair he guided the department to the University-wide Departmental Teaching Award in 2017. Thomas received the Hazel R. McClymont Distinguished Teaching Fellow Award in 2012 from the College of Arts and Sciences at Nebraska, the highest award for teaching in the College. He was named a Mead Honored Faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia in 2004-05 in recognition for his dedication to undergraduate teaching.

Thomas has published widely recognized essays in Civil War History, The Journal of Historical Geography, The New York Times, The Washington Post, EDUCAUSE Review, and Inside Higher Education. His previous books include The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011), a shortlist finalist in 2012 for the Lincoln Prize. Thomas is a graduate of Trinity College (Connecticut) and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia. He currently serves on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and Records Administration and on the Board of Fellows at Trinity College. He is a Faculty Fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.



  • HIST 111: History of U.S. Since 1877
  • HIST 111H: Honors U.S. History since 1877
  • HIST 244: Nineteenth-Century America
  • HIST 341: American Constitutional History
  • HIST 396: Special Projects (The History Harvest)
  • HIST 364: Slavery and Emancipation in U.S. History
  • HIST 365: History of the U. S. South
  • HIST 445: Civil War and Reconstruction
  • HIST 450: Slavery, Freedom, and American Law
  • HIST 845: Civil War and Reconstruction
  • HIST 941: American History Core Readings
  • HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings Seminar in Digital Humanities
  • HIST 970: Digital History Seminar
  • 2017 John T. Hubbell Prize for the best article in Civil War History
  • 2012 Lincoln Prize Finalist for "The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America"
  • Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer
  • 2012 Hazel McClymont Distinguished Teaching Award, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Nebraska
  • The James Harvey Robinson Prize, 2003, American Historical Association, with Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin, for Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 2016-2017
  • National Endowment for the Humanities, 2014-2016, Collaborative Research Award
  • National Endowment for the Humanities, 2009-2011, Digging into Data Challenge Award
  • American Council of Learned Societies, Digital Innovation Fellowship, 2008
  • British Association of American Studies, Visiting Professor in North American Studies, Eccles Centre for American Studies, British Library, in Residence, London, August 2008 to November 2008
  • Editor, A Lincoln Dialogue, by James A. Rawley, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
  • The Iron Way: Railroads, The Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, Yale University Press, November 2011.
  • Lawyering for the Railroad: Business, Law, and Power in the New South, Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
  • "Reconstructing African American Mobility After Emancipation, 1865-1867," co-author with Richard G. Healey and Ian Cottingham, Social Science History October 2017.
  • "Places of Exchange: An Analysis of Human and Materiél Flows in Civil War Alexandria, Virginia," co-author with Kaci Nash and Robert Shepard, Civil War History December 2016.
  • "Railroads and Regional Labor Markets in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century United States: A Case Study of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad," co-author with Richard Healey and Katie Lahman, Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 41 (July 2013).
  • "What We Think We Will Build and What We Build in Digital Humanities," Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1 No. 1, Winter 2011.
  • "The Promise of Digital History: Interchange," Journal of American History (September 2008).
  • "Black and on the Border," co-author with Edward L. Ayers and Anne Sarah Rubin, in Gabor Boritt, ed., The African American Soldier in the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • "The Curious Origins of Hearsay," American Historical Association, Denver, January 2017.
  • "Bringing the Dead to Life: Slavery, Imagination, Narrative, and the Scholarly Enterprise, Southern Historical Association, St. Petersburg, Fl., November 2016.
  • "Recovering Family Networks in Early Washington, D.C.," Historical Society of Washington, D.C., Conference, November 2016.
  • "(Dis)covering Race: Legal Records and the Fragmentary Histories of American Families," American Historical Association, New York City, January 2016.
  • "African American Mobility After Emancipation, 1865-1867," Society of Civil War Historians, Lexington, June 2012.
  • "Valley of the Shadow Project and its Progeny, 20 years later," Panelist, American Historical Association, Chicago, January 2012.
  • "Digital Analysis of Texts: The Mobility of African Americans after Emancipation," Organization of American Historians, Houston, March 2011.
  • "Time, Space and Place in the American Civil War," University of Georgia, Lecture Series in Digital Humanities, April 2015.
  • "Digital Teaching in the Humanities," American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Emory University, April 2015.
  • "Why the Digital? Why the Liberal Arts," Middlebury College, December 2014.
  • "Revisiting the Dead House at Fort Williams: A Story of Civil War History and Memory," Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Lecture Series on Religion and the Civil War, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia, May 2013.
  • "Future Trends in Digital Humanities," Keynote, CIC/Big 10 Symposium on Digital Humanities, April 2012.

Ph.D., University of Virginia, 1995
M.A., University of Virginia, 1991
B.A., Trinity College, 1986 (with honors in history)


Digital Humanities, Digital History, Nineteenth-century U.S. History, Civil War, Slavery, Legal History