Caitlin Williamson

Caitlin Completes Captioning at the Coffee Shop

Hi everyone! My name is Caitlin Williamson. I’m a senior History/Secondary Education double-major, and for the last three years I’ve been a student assistant in the History Department. As a department assistant, one of the projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on is captioning the photographs in the Coffee Shop (aka “C-shop”). C-shop is plastered with photographs depicting the history of the College, but until recently, there was no information to go with them, leaving visitors ignorant of what they were looking at. It has been a pleasure working on this task as well as for this department, and I am so thrilled to see this project finished before I graduate! 

Q: How did the coffee shop captions project get started?

A: This project was started years ago, before I was even a student here. Prof. Salerno teaches a course on Public History (then called Applied History) in which students take on a public history project of their own. Two students (Eric Boumil ‘14 and Tim Anderson ‘15) noticed that there were many photographs of the history of the college in the Coffee Shop, but there were no captions or any way to identify the people, places, and things that were in these photographs. The project was large and therefore could not be finished in one semester, and so Kristen Van Uden ‘16, a department assistant took it on. When I was hired in my freshman year in 2015, I worked on the project with Kristen, and upon her graduation, it became mine. This years-long project was finally completed this September 2018.

Q: What was the most difficult picture or type of picture to identify?

A: Without a doubt, the most difficult type of picture to identify was one that had absolutely no information left with it. This is my PSA: now, more than ever in the digital age, please pay attention to how you leave information with your photographs! Think of the poor student in the future who has to research your photograph with no information attached to it! In all seriousness though, the most difficult ones were those of landscapes or with no people in them. It was possible to figure out pictures with people in them, since someone could recognize them. While some of the landscape pieces had identifying markers that could give us a general idea of when the photograph was taken, sometimes we could only pin it to the decade. Additionally, there was no way to tell why the photograph had been taken. As beautiful as these pictures are, they were the most difficult to identify. 

Q: What kinds of sources did you find to help identify images/information?

A: I relied on a variety of resources during this project, the most important of which was Google. Google was my best friend throughout this entire project. There are images of quite a few notable alumni hanging on the walls, and sometimes a simple Google search of their name would connect me to information. However, that was not always the case, and more specific details were at times much harder to find. The old College catalogs, some of which are digitized (with the rest located in Geisel Library), were very helpful, as they listed every student who attended the College in a given year, as well as other information about the College. Additionally, the College magazine, Portraits, had a lot of information about the history of the school that was invaluable.

A number of people were also incredibly helpful. Keith Chevalier, the College Archivist, possesses an amazing wealth of knowledge about Saint Anselm College and was a huge help when a photograph was particularly difficult to identify. Additionally, members of the monastery were able to identify some of the photographs over the course of this project.

Q: What did the project teach you about the history of photographs, the history of the College, or the highs and lows of public history projects like this?

A: I really enjoyed how much I learned about the history of the College while doing this project. I feel like everyone on campus knows the basic story, but being able to dive deeper and really know how we were founded, what student life used to be like, and see all the changes that happened on campus over the past 129 years, made me feel so much more connected to Saint Anselm College than I would have been without doing this project. A few of my favorite things I found out during this process: early in the College’s history, we had an ornithological (bird-watching) society, and it was the most popular club on campus; women were at first only allowed in the nursing program, before being allowed in the liberal arts program years later; and Saint A’s didn’t have a football team through the last half of the 1900s due to low enrollment because of World War II (the team was reinstated in the 1990s). And we have alumni who have gone on to become professional athletes, notable school administrators, and even an Olympic bobsledder!

I also learned a lot about public history. I discovered that many people will not notice when there are no captions, or not notice when some seemingly magically appear on the walls. That was definitely a low. But I also experienced the high of figuring out a caption for a particularly difficult picture, learning something completely new about the College, or even having someone say “oh yeah, I noticed there are captions now!” when I mentioned to them the project I was doing. I’m sure my friends were bored with me pointing out the new captions each time they went up, but I’d just like to thank them for cheering me on (and taking the time to read a couple!).

Q: What other activities are you involved in on campus?

A: In addition to working in the History Department, I am an Ambassador for the Office of Admission. I give tours and conduct interviews with prospective students, and I love every second of it. I feel like my tours have gotten better because of my work on this project. I feel more connected with the College, and I also have quite a few SAC fun facts in my back pocket to tell families. I’m also involved with the Meelia Center for Community Engagement. I’m a coordinator for Access Academy, which is a program where refugee, immigrant, and underrepresented students earn high school credit by taking a class at Saint A’s taught by students of the College. I teach Public Speaking, and my students blow me away with their dedication and skill every semester. If I’m not in the History Department, Admission, or Meelia, you may find me at a club meeting, in the library, or cooking in my apartment with my roommates.

Q: Do you see yourself integrating a project like this with your students when you teach? 

A: Before doing this project, I would have said no. Local history isn’t something that is often studied at the high school level. But having finished this project, I would love doing something like this with my students in the future. Although my students may come from many different backgrounds ethnically, religiously, linguistically, financially, etc., one thing they will all have in common is belonging to the same school community. I think local history is tangible in a way that US History or World History, broadly, isn’t to students who don’t have a passion for it. I think a project like this would also suit the high school classroom, because a lot of the time I hear from people “I never liked history, it was just memorizing a bunch of dates and facts,” and I want to shout from the rooftops that no, it isn’t, it is so much more than that! A project like this shows people just how much more the study of history can be. That it is important, valuable, interesting, and worthwhile.

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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.