Accessing Archives- A Summer of Researching the Civil War

As the Archival Research Intern at Gettysburg National Military Park during the summer of 2015, I have had the unique opportunity to conduct research at the National Archives, the Army Heritage and Education Center, Maryland Historical Society, and the Union League of Philadelphia. After such travels, working with original documents and completing approximately one hundred transcriptions, I was asked to reflect on the work I have done this summer.

Ashley Miller, Penn State internBeing able to handle, read, and study original documents is an investigative process. When you first hold an original document, there is an instant of intrigue and awe. You can observe grammatical errors, font size variations, words that were crossed out in favor of others, and the marks left by an author’s flinching hand. These subtleties each tell a story of their own. Who was this person? Who was his/her intended audience and what motives did he/she have in writing? How educated was the person who wrote this? Why are certain phrases scribbled, while the rest of a document may display perfect penmanship? One mark of the pen or misspelled word can spark so many questions. Furthermore, there are emotional aspects attached to the documents. You could be holding a departed soldier’s last letter home or a volunteer’s report on the horrors of the battlefield. Holding these sources, you cannot help but wonder among what conditions the authors were, as they wrote these documents. I have gathered diaries, letters, muster rolls, reports, newspaper articles, invoices, and inquiries about missing soldiers. Nothing inspires more curiosity than an original document.

After gathering documents of interest to my theme, which was the Gettysburg Campaign, I proceeded to transcribe them. Transcribing is important work (and tedious!); errors in transcriptions have caused people to be buried under the wrong name and/or state in cemeteries. For instance, “Mississippi” in hastily written script looked like “Massachusetts” to an untrained eye, which caused a Confederate to be buried in the Massachusetts section of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Transcriptions also allow researchers access to information in easy to read versions.

This summer I have researched countless regiments – Union and Confederate, civilian organizations like the Christian Commission, and people. For each topic, I then established a finding aid to inform the researcher, in one page, what he or she would find in specific folders and boxes. While travelling frequently, I was able to apply much of what I researched. I located where on the battlefield men whose letters I transcribed fought and fell, I followed their footsteps, and I read their stories. An individual account humanizes the people of the past. I found myself relating to certain people after learning about their experiences. These documents, although 152 years old, allowed me to bring their stories to life. That experience came true over the anniversary observance of the Battle of Gettysburg when I had the opportunity to portray Cornelia Hancock, a native of New Jersey who voluntarily came to Gettysburg to nurse wounded Union and Confederate soldiers in the field hospitals after the battle. It was interacting with the public that also me insight into the importance of proper and complete research in the subject.

 Nurse Cornelia Hancock

My living history presentation as Cornelia Hancock during the anniversary. I based my program directly on her letters and memoir.

I look forward to continuing my work in history. A summer of research may sound boring to some, but as a budding historian, it was a dream come true. To be in Gettysburg, living and working on the battlefield, is something most people do not have the pleasure of doing and for that I am grateful. From transcribing to interpretation, I will use everything I have learned from my work at Gettysburg National Military Park during this summer internship.

Ashley Miller, Penn State University
July 2015

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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6 Responses to Accessing Archives- A Summer of Researching the Civil War

  1. Fred Knauf says:

    Well written, Ashley, and a little jealous. There’s nothing like a good summer job that you love during the college years. It will stay with you forever.

    Go follow your dreams!

  2. Kim says:

    I have followed Cornelia Hancock also through her letters and memoir and completed a research report for my masters in nursing history. Incredible woman who went on after tending to the wounded soldiers at Gettysburg to achieve a GREAT many things and paved the way for reform in schools and orphanages in heavily urbanized areas. What stood out to me was that Dorothea Dix almost prevented this young woman from achieving all of this greatness, as she boarded the train the Gettysburg, Dix wanted her sent home claiming she was too young, was husband shopping, etc.. Cornelia held her ground and stayed put on that train. Imagine if she had thrown in the towel then, all the milestones she achieved for the profession of nursing, case work, as well as social work may have never come to fruition. What an experience you must have had– a truly great one!! Follow your dreams to a career that never feels like “work” and you will be truly happy🙂

  3. Jeannine Trybus says:

    I was born too soon! When I was young your choice was Mrs’, Mom or secretary. While I have had a very successful and happy marriage of 48 years and two beautiful daughters and five great grand children, what I would have done if I thought it possible is just what you are doing. All the best to you. My husband and I do some living history as civilians of the 1860’s and we love it.

  4. John Camera says:

    I’m so jealous! This is very cool!

  5. Dris Horton says:

    Great article Ashley. Seems you have definitely found your calling. I first visited Gettysburg as a little boy back in the 70s with my family. Are you familiar with the Red River Campaign which took place in Louisiana during the Spring of 1864. This link will take you to a piece of historical fiction set during that campaign, not far from where I grew up. https://www.createspace.com/5632732

  6. I thank you for your work and interest in this country’s history, many of us veterans are grateful to the time and effort you put forth. U.S. Navy (Ret.)

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