Public History

History Majors Make the Civil War “Legible and Searchable” for the Future

“What is a gabion?”

“Where are the Bolivar Heights?”

“What does ‘N. f. r. A. G. O.’ stand for?

“Is that word ‘gout’?”

These kinds of questions were asked every Friday afternoon around 2:30 in Professor Hugh Dubrulle’s office this semester. Why? Four student research assistants—history majors Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19 (from left to right in the photo above)—prepared materials for the research project that will be assigned in History 352: The American Civil War and Reconstruction which Dubrulle will teach next semester (Spring 2018). This project will require students in the course to do research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and write papers explaining the degree to which the regiment’s experiences match up with what current Civil War historiography claims about a variety of topics. These topics will include studies of the regiment’s participation in various battles and biographies of its leading officers. Other papers will look at topics such as desertion, politics, discipline, leadership, recruitment, medicine, and so on.

Why choose the 5th New Hampshire? Dubrulle says there are several reasons: “First, it lost more combat fatalities over the course of the Civil War than any other unit in Federal service. We ought to remember and honor this distinction, but it also raises the following question: what made it possible for this regiment, which was a typical product of its time and place, to compile such an outstanding service record? Second, much primary source material is easily available in local archives or online. Third, there are some excellent secondary sources about the unit in print, particularly Mike Pride and Mark Travis’ My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (2001).”

Williamson, Batchelder, Valcourt, and Bearce assisted Dubrulle with a number of important tasks, including transcribing letters and entering information from regimental service records into a searchable database. As Valcourt put it, their job consisted of making “the past legible and searchable for the future.” Williamson and Batchelder first transcribed the letters (34 of them) of Pvt. Miles Peabody (born and raised in Antrim, NH) who enlisted in Co. K of the 5th New Hampshire in 1861 at the age of 21. Williamson and Batchelder then moved on to transcribe selected portions of Lieut.-Col. James E. Larkin’s correspondence. A coach painter from Concord, NH, Larkin was mustered in as a 1st Lieut. when the regiment was organized in October 1861. He eventually became the commander of the unit in June 1864.

Both Batchelder and Williamson enjoyed getting to know Peabody and Larkin through their letters. Williamson commented that “I became really attached to the soldiers while reading their correspondence! I felt for them and found myself really invested in their stories that were told over a century ago.” Batchelder also felt an affinity for the men whose letters she read. On occasion, however, she was startled by what they wrote: “A lot of people assume that the Northerners were ‘the good guys,’ but there were times when I transcribed the letters and I would see these people fighting for the Union making a racist comment or saying something completely unexpected.” Such moments made her realize that while she shared a common humanity with these soldiers, they lived in a very different world.

Although Batchelder noted that “some people have the messiest handwriting,” Williamson pointed out that reading handwriting was actually affecting: “There is a lot of emotion in these letters, and much of it is expressed in the handwriting.” Not only that, Williamson felt that reading the letters helped illuminate Civil War history in a striking way that other sources could not. As she put it, the correspondence allowed her to study the conflict more broadly than one might have thought. The letters show “what they [the soldiers] were eating, what they were doing with their time, how they slept, what the weather was like, their experience on the battlefield—along with other important moments, all seen from different perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Bearce and Valcourt scoured Augustus D. Ayling’s Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (1895) for the abbreviated service records of all the men who served in the 5th New Hampshire during the war. They then transferred this information to an Excel spreadsheet that is both searchable and sortable. Arrayed in this fashion, the data can yield all sorts of interesting patterns. For instance, Bearce quickly noticed that substitutes and foreign-born soldiers seemed much more likely to desert than volunteers and the native-born. Valcourt was stunned by the large number of casualties the regiment lost in the last days of the war at the Battle of Farmville (otherwise known as the Battle of High Bridge)—a fight he’d never heard of. Both research assistants recognized that intriguing trends in the data could prove very useful to students writing papers on any number of topics. At the same time, Bearce also saw that the “the quantitative information [from the database] complements the qualitative data from the transcription of letters.” Among other things, “one can use the service records to contextualize the letters and vice versa.” Valcourt was struck by the strange stories “and colorful cast of characters” that seemed to emerge from the spare notes of the abbreviated service records. His favorite person was Oliver Grapes, an original volunteer in the regiment who deserted in July 1863 and, using the alias Oliver Vine, volunteered the next month as a Wagoner in the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. As Valcourt explained it, “you learn about the ‘small’ people in order to understand ‘big’ people and events.” At the end of the day, though, through the exercise of data entry, Bearce learned how “quantitative history can be, and how the quantitative aspects of history comes to be.” And, of course, both Bearce and Valcourt brushed up on their Excel skills.

Throughout the semester, all of the research assistants were intrigued with finding out “the rest of the story.” Batchelder and Williamson were crushed to learn that Peabody died of illness in November 1864 near Alexandria, VA. They were relieved to learn, however, that Larkin survived the war. Unfortunately, as a result of his military service, he suffered from ill-health, particularly rheumatism, for the rest of his life. Larkin floated between a number of jobs before dying in 1911. From his very different perspective of having dealt with the service records, Bearce was interested in finding out what happened after the war to the soldiers he studied. Noting that Ayling’s Revised Register had addresses for many veterans who had survived to 1895, Bearce stated, “I would really like someone to take on the challenge of doing research using the post office addresses listed in the registry for some purpose. These just seem absolutely tantalizing to me, and I think a paper trying to find out how people adjusted after the war would be very interesting.” One can only hope that future students working with these sources will take on that challenge as well as some of the others presented by the material.

And by the way, what are the answers to the questions above? A gabion is a wicker basket filled with earth and used to shore up fortifications. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town of Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. “N. f. r. A. G. O.” stands for “No further record Adjutant General’s Office, Washington DC.” And yes, the word in the letter was “gout.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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Labbe and Miller Transcribe the Kimball Diaries

Psychology major and History minor Lisette Labbé ’18 (left) and History major Dena Miller ’20 (right) spent part of their semester in the Saint Anselm College Archives transcribing the 1891-1892 diary of Edwin C.H. Kimball.  One Thing After Another caught up with them to learn more about this campus history project.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about the project and how you got involved?

Dena and Lisette:  We are working on producing a literal transcription of the Edwin C.H. Kimball Diaries. Kimball recorded his day-to-day activities from January 1891 to December 1894. For our class project, we are focusing on the 1891-1892 diary. The ultimate goal of the project is to transcribe and digitally scan both diaries to have original pages of the dairies aligned with their transcriptions for viewing on the web.  We were both interested in being involved with the history of Saint Anselm College. So we chose this project as the final project in our History 363: Public History course.

Q: So, what did you know about Edwin C.H. Kimball when you started, or what have you learned about him?

Lisette: I did not even know he was a young farmer of 23 until about 20 pages into the diary. I assumed that he was much older and a parent based on how serious he was and his involvement in local and national politics. After reading further into the diary, it appears that he had a mother, a father, and a sister named Ethel. He was also unmarried. He was very interested in politics and would report voting rankings of political candidates from local and national elections. He would also report events that happened nationally which made me wonder if this was information he learned from his visitors who would stay at his family’s inn. He did not seem to deal much with the inn, focusing most of his efforts on the farm. It was interesting to see him interact with the Monks of the college as he was not Catholic but perhaps Baptist.

Dena:  I get the impression that Kimball was a very intelligent man. So much so that I did not even realize how young he was when I started reading his diary. I would have sworn that the diary was written by someone in his 40’s until he mentioned celebrating his 23rd birthday. Despite this initial confusion, I feel that as the project progressed I got a clear picture of who Kimball was. Kimball seemed to be a very family-oriented young man, judging by the amount of work he did for his family on their farm and in their house. Along that same line, he also seemed to care deeply about his community and his neighbors, since he spent hours a day working on their behalf, especially for Rev. Fr. Hugo Paff, O.S.B. Kimball also seemed to be very interested in politics, both local and national. Overall, my impression of Kimball is positive and I think that, judging by his political interests and community sensibilities, he would fit right in on the Saint Anselm College campus today.

Q: So, no juicy details in these diaries?

Lisette:  The psychology major in me wants to know more about the man behind the diary. But I have learned from this project that his diary was more of a journal or a records book than what we view as a diary in the 21st century.

Dena:  The Kimball family owned the property on Shirley Hill Road that was once used as an entrance to the College. Kimball recorded in his diaries the comings and goings of friends, family, and guests at his family’s inn and boarding house, the Maplewood Farm. Kimball also recorded his economic exchanges with the Monks of the college, usually days spent plowing or haying the monastic fields.  These diaries are essential to the school’s history because they are the only primary documents that recorded the fire that burned down the only college building where Alumni Hall is located in 1892.  But we only got through 1891, so we did not get to read that part!

Q: What does an average day of transcription look like?

Dena and Lisette:  So one of us will go into the Archives and typically Keith has printed out the other person’s transcriptions for us to edit. We will edit them by looking at the original document to check for errors, like a missed or an accidently capitalized letter. Afterwards, there may be edits on our own transcriptions for us to review and fix in the transcription document. So we would have to look at our partner’s edits and the diary to cross-compare before fixing the errors on the transcription document. There is also a working log where we post comments, questions and concerns for our partner, such as “what do you think this word is on page 54 line 4?” After all these steps are done we start transcribing again. If we have any questions, we typically ask Keith, or just text each other.

Q:  That is a lot of detail work! What skills do you think you have acquired through this work?

Dena and Lisette:  We learned how to transcribe exactly from a handwritten source to a digital file, which requires careful detail orientation, an understanding of cursive, and specialized knowledge of Microsoft Word. We also learned many other work-flow and project management skills. The diaries needed to stay in the College Archives, and digital pictures and copies could not be made. Hence, we had to go into the archives to do the transcriptions with the College Archivist, Keith Chevalier. Unfortunately, we could not go in at the same time because we were both working on the same diary and the same transcription document. As a result, we had to learn to schedule shifts around our three different schedules. Because of this problem, we learned how to collaborate as a team, even when the team was never in the same place at the same time. We also learned how to create a transcription and editing log to track our work as well as a style and process guide to help those who come after us maintain a consistent transcribing process.

Q:  You make it sound pretty easy. What obstacles did you encounter?

Dena and Lisette:  One of the major obstacle we have is his handwriting. Kimball forms his letters in very confusing way, where letters could look very different on different pages or pieces of the letters could look like punctuation. For example, when he writes an “a”, it often looks like “,a” because he connects the beginning of the letter to the line on the paper. This has caused confusion and in some cases has made punctuation a judgement call. Other obstacles that we’ve found is that he misspells words and we often find ourselves writing the correct word instead of the literal transcription of his misspelled word.

Q:  What do you think is important about your project? 

Dena and Lisette:  This project is important to the college’s history because we are preserving essential parts of the early life of the college. We are also working towards having the diaries online for the public to view. This initial process is to have the metadata of each page image. Metadata is data that describes and gives information about other data. We have created a catalogue record of each page. Ultimately, when each page of the diary is uploaded, typing keywords will cause all relevant pages and items to appear. These transcriptions are just the first step towards this major archival project.

Q:  So what are possible next steps for continuing this project?

Dena and Lisette: There are many ways in which future students could expand upon the work we have done. First they could continue the transcription—there are three more years to go!  After that, they could create annotations within the text of the diary. Annotations could be used to give context for the people and the situations that he describes in the diary. For example, annotations could shine a light on the political importance of James G. Blaine [a congressman and senator from Maine who was the Republican nominee for president in 1884; he served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1892], who was mentioned many times. Another way that the project could be expanded upon would be the creation of a searchable index. If a future researcher wants to find all the times that a name or a term is mentioned in the diary (for example, Ethel), the index would refer the researcher to every mention of her name. This index could be expanded even further to include the misspelled versions of common words that would typically be left out of a common search because it was misspelled.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.

ellis-registry

Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.

immigration-cartoon

On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Van Uden Walks Us through Manchester’s Past

Kristen van Uden and Benedict

Those of you who read the Union Leader might have seen the following article:

http://www.unionleader.com/article/20140529/LOCALVOICES08/140528984

Kristen Van Uden ’16 is a History major and Russian Area Studies minor from Manchester, NH. Recently, while working with the Manchester Historic Association (MHA), Van Uden produced a booklet entitled “Manchester Remembers” that maps out a walking tour of 20 sites in the city that are associated with public commemoration. The MHA will be selling the booklet at the Millyard Museum. One Thing after Another had some questions for Kristen who is spending the summer working at the Office of Admission.

Q: One Thing after Another understands that this booklet originated in your public history course at Saint Anselm College, but where did you get the idea for this particular project?

A: Having grown up in Manchester, I had always walked by these historic sites without much background information concerning their significance.  I had always wanted to learn more but was unsure of where to start.  I imagine that many Manchester natives are faced with the same problem.  My project is designed to provide a quick and interesting introduction to these sites, with the ultimate hope of prompting further research.  With so many demands on our time, I knew that not many people would put forth a great deal of effort toward educating themselves about seemingly obscure sites throughout the city.  Therefore, I developed something that can be read in less than an hour that will hopefully give people finding themselves in Manchester a better understanding of their surroundings.

Q: How did you go about finding these historic sites?

A: I started with sites I knew of already, such as the John Stark House and Pulaski Monument.  The Manchester Historic Association then suggested that I focus on monuments.  This is when I really developed my criteria for including sites in the booklet.  I chose to focus on remembrance and commemoration.  The booklet is not designed to give a comprehensive history of Manchester, but rather to highlight those sites or events that citizens have made efforts to preserve and honor. I then researched sites that would fit the theme of commemoration.  The Manchester Historic Association allowed me to use a comprehensive survey of Manchester’s monuments as a starting point.  Much of the important logistical information can be found on the monuments themselves.

Q: Did you have to leave anything off? What was it? Why did you leave it out?

A: I left out many historic buildings that are privately owned or still functioning, such as the Palace Theatre or historic homes.  These structures are certainly interesting and possess historic and cultural importance, but they did not fit the overall theme of public commemoration.  I also did not include historic churches for the same reasons.  However, this would be a great subject for another tour/booklet.

Q: Surely you must have encountered some interesting stories as you did research on all of these sites. Which site had the most interesting story?

A: The Merci Train Boxcar was the most unique item I featured.  I had never known about the story of this distinctive gift from France to the U.S. until I explored it for the project.  I also really liked learning about the monument dedication ceremonies of the first half of the twentieth century. The dedication of Victory Park’s WWI Memorial on Memorial Day in 1929 was quite a celebration, including an entire day of parades and festivities. There was even a flyover by a small plane dropping bouquets of roses.  That fascinating post-WWI culture is not preserved so much in the monument itself, but the patriotic spirit it resembles is present in the monument’s timeless message.

Q: One Thing after Another hates to sound like your parents, but what are your plans after graduation? Do you plan to go into public history at all?

A: I’ve always loved public history as I have experienced it, mostly through living history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg.  It was great to be able to study the many aspects of public history, especially material culture and its connection to archaeology.  I’m not quite sure what my plans are after graduation.  I know I would enjoy a job in public history.  I am definitely planning on attending grad school in Russian Studies if I can afford it!

Professor Salerno and Putting the Public Back in History

Several days ago, Professor Salerno published a short essay entitled “Recasting History: The Public Option” on the web site of The New England Journal of Higher Education:

http://www.nebhe.org/thejournal/recasting-history-the-public-option/

This piece provides a nice summary of what public history is about, describes what kinds of graduate programs are available in public history, refers to public history on the undergraduate level, and mentions Professor Salerno’s own course in public history. Check it out!