You are here: Home / News & Events

News & Events

Robert Morss Reflects on his 2017 Richards Center Digital Humanities Internship

Robert Morss Reflects on his 2017 Richards Center Digital Humanities Internship

An entry from Adam Pickel's diary, recording his wounding at Gettysburg

Robert Morss is a second year student pursuing an undergraduate degree in Penn State’s College of Education. This fall, he was the Richards Center’s digital humanities intern with the People’s Contest digital project. During his internship, Robert, a veteran of the U.S. Army, chose to transcribe the diary of Adam Pickel, a Philadelphia native who served in the 68th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry during the Civil War and participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg (you can view Pickel's diary here). During the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickel was mortally wounded. Robert learned to use ArcGIS mapping software to create an online digital exhibit that maps Pickel’s travels as a soldier and narrates his experiences in the Army of the Potomac. This online exhibit, still under construction, eventually will be linked to the People’s Contest digital collections page. Robert plans to become a Social Studies teacher at the middle or high school level upon completing his degree. At the conclusion of the internship, Robert participated in a brief interview, reflecting on his experiences as a Richards Center intern.


1. How did you become interested in Penn State and what made you decide to attend school here?

When deciding upon Penn State, I had looked for Veteran-friendly schools in Pennsylvania, and a close friend of mine with whom I served in the Army was planning on attending here, so I decided to apply and go to college with him. Penn State is the perfect school for me. It has lots of school spirit, incredible history, a large student body providing opportunities to make new friends, and honorable traditions to contribute to. It was an easy decision to come to Penn State.

2. During your internship, you transcribed the diary of Union soldier Adam Pickel and created a digital exhibit about his experiences in the Army of the Potomac. What do you hope people will learn about Pickel from your online exhibit?

It’s my hope that people will learn that Adam Pickel was one of us. He was an ordinary man who had a family, friends, hobbies, but answered his nation’s call in a time of crisis. Adam was a good man whose faith and love for his country and his family appears on every page of his journal. It is my hope that my digital exhibit about his life can be a vehicle to teach people not just about Adam but about the Civil War. I especially hope that this exhibit shows people what the war looked like through the eyes of an ordinary volunteer soldier.

3. What were the most challenging and, conversely, the most enjoyable aspects of this internship?

I can say that the most challenging part was deciphering Adam Pickel’s handwriting when the writing was faded or unclear. Without some historical context or a cursive reference by your side, it could be painfully challenging to decipher what Adam is trying to tell us.

The most enjoyable aspect of the internship was being exposed daily to Adam’s thoughts, what he valued, and his struggles as a private in the Civil War. With each new journal entry, I became more interested in who Adam was and what he had to say. When he wrote his last journal entry, I felt like I had said goodbye to someone I had a deep acquaintance with, someone who “spoke” to me on a daily basis through his diary.

4. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Adam Pickel or this internship experience?

Adam Pickel was a great guy, and my one regret was that I never got to see his face. I tried, to no avail, to track down a picture of him. I wish I could put a face to the name that I have known for a semester now. I have appreciated every word he wrote in his journal. This was a fantastic experience. Hopefully my transcriptions and Story Map do Adam justice for his sacrifice in serving our country with honor.

I would recommend this exercise, transcribing a journal from the past, to any and every history student. This not only made the history I stumbled upon within Adam’s pages more authentic and personal, but this was a completely different approach to learning that I thoroughly enjoyed. Now moving forward, I am thinking about introducing a transcribing requirement in my future classes when I teach history. I know for a fact that I will use the ArcGIS Story Map program in my classes to teach history in a visually innovative way.

5. How did you decide to pursue a career as a social studies teacher after college?

I want to become a history teacher because it combines my attributes, my passions, and my desires, all in one job. I love public speaking, and I’ve been told that I’m good at it. And I love connecting with people, too.

I also had a high school history teacher named Mr. Bowers who taught my world history class in my sophomore year at Spanish Springs High School in Sparks Nevada, where I am from. He had served in the 82nd Airborne and had travelled the world. He was calm, collected, encouraging, inspiring, passionate… I remember watching him as he taught, thinking that “One day that could be me.”

My passion is history, any and all of it; I love to learn about the past. My historical appetite isn’t limited to famous characters in American history, I enjoy learning about history on a global scale. I guess I’m just a sucker for a good story, something that stirs the soul, or answers questions about why we do things or how come “that” is the “way it is”… Understanding history helps me value our country more…

My desire is to help people, especially the youth. If I can guide them as a mentor, while teaching them our shared history… I will have achieved my goal of contributing to the future and leaving a positive mark on the world. I believe I can make learning history fun, interactive, and worth a student’s time. I plan on being a teacher like Mr. Bowers, someone who will be remembered for the rest of a student’s life due to the positive impact I made.


-Robert Morss Class of 2020

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War by James Marten

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War by James Marten

Thomas Nast’s “The Drummer Boy” offered readers scenes that became part of the stereotypical narrative of drummer boys’ experiences. Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863.

"I am with my youngest son George compelled for the love of our Beloved country to take up arms in defense of that liberty that our for Fathers fought to establish. May Heaven grant a speedy restoration of the hapy [sic] days once enjoyed & a safe return to our beloved ones at home.” So wrote Alva Cleveland on his birthday, a few months after he followed his twelve-year-old son George into the First Wisconsin, where George served as a drummer and Alva as a nurse. He was nearly sixty years old and a master painter. He and George lived in Racine, Wisconsin, with their wife and mother, Mary, an older brother, and two older sisters (another young woman and two young children also lived with them).[1]

This rather unusual situation says a lot about the ways that Civil War-era Americans thought about parental duty, military service—and childhood.

A modern version of childhood had begun to emerge a couple of decades before the war started. It envisioned an extended, nurtured childhood free of economic responsibility. This was beyond the reach of most families, and older traditions of work prevailed for most children. Young boys had for centuries been expected to begin working as apprentices, as farm laborers, or as helpers to their fathers when they were nine or ten years old; by the nineteenth century, the decline of the apprenticeship system and the rise of the factory system led to more boys working in mills and mines. (Girls, of course, dominated the child and youth labor markets in many factory systems.) During the Gilded Age, as many as one quarter to one half of all industrial workers were teenagers, and boys and girls as young as twelve or thirteen worked in mines or with dangerous machinery. And those statistics did not include the millions of boys and girls who performed sometimes dangerous work with livestock and machinery on farms and ranches.[2]

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Graduate Students Present Research at Major Conferences

This past November, Richards Center affiliated graduate students presented their research at two major conferences in the U.S. and Canada. Cecily Zander, a third year graduate student in the department of history’s PhD program, presented the paper, “Improvised Warfare: The United States, Canada, and the Sioux in a Civil War Borderland,” at the 57th annual conference of the Western History Association in San Diego. Drawn from her dissertation research, Zander’s paper explored how conflicts between U.S. troops and Native Americans in the borderlands both reflected and reshaped official attitudes toward warfare and notions of just war.

While Zander presented her research in San Diego, Mallory Huard and Carolyn Levy traveled to Montreal to present papers at the international Social Science History Association’s annual conference. Huard, a third year graduate student, presented the paper, “Haoles in Honolulu: New England Whaling Wives in Mid-Nineteenth Century Hawaii.” Her paper examined the experiences of New England whaling captains’ wives who sailed with their husbands to Hawaii and helped shape the growth of the multicultural community of Honolulu as it became an important stop in the late nineteenth century trans-Pacific trade. The paper traced how questions of race, gender, and culture informed these women’s perceptions of the diverse society they encountered in Honolulu.

Levy, a second year graduate student, presented the paper, “Constructing a Legitimate Family: State Control of African American Marriages and Families in the Post-bellum United States.” Using under-explored Freedmen’s Bureau records, Levy’s paper argued that the federal government’s first order of business following the destruction of slavery during the Civil War was to regulate and legalize African American marriage and family practices. The Freedman’s Bureau crafted compulsory, legal regulations that forced freedmen to conform to a system of marriage created by white lawmakers that discouraged (or banned) “miscegenation” and sought to model supposedly respectable forms of marriage.

Zander, Huard, and Levy’s papers were selected by these conferences through a competitive submission process. Earning acceptance to major conferences and presenting research to the broader scholarly community is an important part of graduate students’ professional development in a competitive field. These students’ successful conference presentations is a testament to the strength of their research and their acumen as young scholars.

2017 Brose Lectures Examine Mortality in the Nineteenth Century

2017 Brose Lectures Examine Mortality in the Nineteenth Century

Dr. Stephen Berry

Steve Berry, Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at the University of Georgia, delivered the 2017 Brose Lectures, November 2-4. Dr. Berry’s lectures examined what he called the most important event in human history: the doubling of human life expectancy from 1840 to 1940. For thousands of years human life expectancy hovered around 30 years. In the West, this number dipped slightly in the early nineteenth century due largely to the effects of industrialization, but then life expectancy rocketed upwards beginning roughly in the mid-nineteenth century. This unprecedented increase typically has been explained through developments in science and medicine. Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796. John Snow advanced the germ theory of disease in 1854. Joseph Lister developed his system of antiseptic treatment following surgery in 1868. The subsequent increase in human life expectancy owed much to these advances, but Dr. Berry argued that it was due equally to advances in government bureaucracy. Over the course of three lectures, he argued that the decision to view mortality as a public health concern led to the creation of statistical methods to track mortality and its causes and to the development of government policies that would mitigate premature mortality and improve people’s lives.

Berry’s interest in the rapid growth in human mortality grew out of his study of thousands of southern coroners’ reports from the antebellum period. Those reports recorded the circumstances behind citizens’ deaths and revealed that alcohol, poverty, and lack of sanitation figured prominently in many people’s deaths. In the Civil War era the state’s interest in the public health and mortality intensified. Lemuel Shattuck convinced the Massachusetts legislature to undertake a sanitary survey of the state in 1849 to probe possible links between lack of sanitation and premature death. Shattuck’s survey inspired Joseph Kennedy to collect mortality data in the United States census of 1850. During the Civil War, the public demanded news of soldiers’ deaths. Newspapers regularly published death lists, and Clara Barton created the Office of Missing Soldiers in Washington, D.C. to try to determine the fate of Union soldiers whose status was whereabouts were unknown. During Reconstruction, coroners’ offices and the Freedmen’s Bureau recorded political assassinations and outrageous crimes committed against freedpeople, building a massive record of the murderous violence that returned unreconstructed southern Democrats to power in the former Confederate states.

Counting the dead was the first step in creating new public policy. Rapid postbellum advances in numeracy and statistics allowed government authorities to tally and render death data in ways that allowed them to highlight public health concerns. During the Progressive Era public officials marshaled mortality statistics to push for a variety of reforms to make industrial work safer and to secure the purity and safety of processed foods and drugs. The growth of the insurance industry and its increasing reliance on sophisticated actuarial tables informed by mountains of statistical data illustrated the beneficent effects of postbellum public health policies on American mortality.

Dr. Berry’s lectures tell a new story of the incredible growth in human life expectancy from the Civil War era into the twentieth century. It places government bureaucracy and public policy alongside developments in science and medicine at the heart of this story. The University of North Carolina Press will publish the lectures as part of the Brose Book Series.

The Duty of a True Patriot by Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

Today, Christopher Hayashida-Knight shares his first Field Dispatch on Muster. Chris completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, in addition to working at a nonprofit. His research centers on African American women in the post-Civil War period. He will be contributing pieces that reflect on gender and women’s history in the Civil War era.

Monday-morning quarterbacking used to have a far more literal meaning, but recently events occurring before kickoff have sparked far more heated debate than Tom Brady’s passing game. What began as Colin Kaepernick’s quiet, personal response to repeated and unpunished deaths of black citizens at the hands of police became a national protest phenomenon.

Drawing broad praise from racial justice activists and quick condemnation from those who like to keep their football and politics separate, President Trump lamented the NFL’s delayed decision to allow the act as “total disrespect for our great country!”[1] Though athletes’ free expression has been erroneously framed as an “anthem protest” by opponents, their kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner is a powerful statement of alarm from one of the biggest soap boxes in the public sphere.[2]

Scholars have rightly pointed to the respectful custom of kneeling for the anthem in times of crisis, as well as the barely-concealed white supremacist undertones of the “shut up and play” crowd. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson, arguably the most famous black athlete of the twentieth century, wrote during the Vietnam era, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”[3]

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America by William Blair

Here we share the editor’s note for our special issue in December 2017, by guest editor William Blair. The issue includes groundbreaking and insightful work by five scholars studying continental connections across the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 2015, sixty-some scholars from at least four countries gathered in the breathtakingly beautiful town of Banff, Canada, to explore the common struggles over sovereignty that shook North America during the 1860s. Featured were the crises faced by the countries of Canada, Mexico, the United States, and the indigenous populations within them. The five articles in this special issue represent a fraction of the rich ideas offered about the struggles over which ruling and economic structures should prevail and which people should determine them. Both Mexico and the United States, of course, endured civil wars. Canadians, meanwhile— partly prompted by the disorder south of their border—in 1867 moved to create the Confederation that allowed for local autonomy under the protection of Great Britain. The outcome of these struggles affected economic, labor, and political systems around the globe.

The conference, “Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” grew out of discussions between Frank Towers at the University of Calgary and me, we think, in 2013. Frank had been looking for some way to connect the Canadian and U.S. crises with broader transitions in the world. Ever since starting the journal in 2011, I had been looking to encourage a hemispheric approach to Civil War studies. We both were convinced that the U.S. Civil War, while certainly having its unique aspects, just as certainly was not exceptional. The assumption was that we were missing interconnections that existed among the nations that constituted the Western Hemisphere and perhaps could find either commonalities or unique situations that furnished new insights into the structuring of power in the nineteenth century. While the Richards Civil War Era Center supplied seed money and staff support to make such a project possible, Frank did much of the heavy lifting of organizing the conference by presiding over the program committee and bringing into the fold as cosponsors the University of Calgary, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University. It seemed time to shift the usual way of conceiving the Civil War in international terms—primarily a story of the diplomatic relations between England and the United States.[1]

The full editor's note can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.