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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.

Undergraduate Summer Jobs

Gettysburg National Military Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Deadline:  Monday, January 29, 2018

(Call for applications for summer 2018 internships)

Do you have an interest in preserving our nation’s history and sharing it with the public? Do you want to put your knowledge of history to good use this summer?

The Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State invites applications from qualified Penn State undergraduate students for four paid positions at historic sites during the summer of 2018: two at Gettysburg National Military Park and two at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The internships provide students hands-on experience in the work of public history. These non-credit internships come with a $3,500 stipend and free housing at the national parks.

Gettysburg National Military Park

  • Interpretive operations: The interpretive operations intern designs historical presentations for the public and puts on programs for park visitors that interpret the history of the town and the battle. This intern also periodically designs and participates in living history programs that educate the public on life in the 19th century.
  • Museum services: The museum services intern will learn fundamental skills of archival and museum management. He or she also will assist with the conservation and preservation of the park’s vast historical collections, which include diaries and letter collections from soldiers and civilians who experienced the battle, as well as material objects from the battle itself, such as flags and banners, uniforms and weapons, and paintings and prints, among other items.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

  • Education division internship: This internship is especially useful for future teachers, though you do not need to be an Education major to apply. The intern develops and leads Civil War-themed educational programs for middle school students participating in the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based National Youth Leadership Council.

The intern also presents living history programs, while clothed in period dress, for park visitors. This is a physically active internship, where the intern uses the outdoor environment as their classroom.

  • Visitor services: The visitor services intern develops public presentations on any one of a variety of topics from Harpers Ferry’s unique history, such as Thomas Jefferson’s survey of the area, John Brown’s raid, the founding of Storer College (one of the nation’s first colleges to admit African Americans), and the birth of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the NAACP. The internship also involves working at the park’s visitor center, the John Brown Museum, and other locations in the park and town of Harpers Ferry.

Each year, Richards Center interns play a crucial role in the National Park Service’s mission to preserve the nation’s history and help connect Americans to their shared past. If you would like the opportunity to support this mission and gain valuable skills in historical interpretation and public education, we encourage you to apply, following the directions below.

Application Process: Applicants must have at least a 3.0 grade point average at University Park and have not graduated by the time of the internship. Applicants should submit a one-page statement of interest detailing why they would like to work at one of these National Parks and how they think the experience will further their education. They must also provide a résumé, one letter of recommendation from a faculty member (email is acceptable), and an unofficial transcript (it is not necessary to provide a certified official Penn State transcript).  Statements of interest and transcripts must be received by Monday, January 29, 2018. The letter of recommendation can follow.

Direct all application materials to Matt Isham, Richards Center Managing Director at For more information, see the Richards Center Web site:, or contact Dr. Isham directly.

Funding is made possible through the generous support of Larry and Lynne Brown and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Richards Center Interns Return to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Over the Columbus Day weekend, Penn State undergraduate students Mary “Katie” Belonus and Anelia Slavoff returned to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where they had spent this past summer as Richards Center interns with the National Park Service. Belonus and Slavoff were back in Harpers Ferry to volunteer at the park’s celebration of the sesquicentennial of the founding of Storer College, which was one of the earliest institutions of higher education in the South that admitted students without regard to “race”, sex, or religion. Storer College played a crucial role in freedpeople’s pursuit of higher education in the aftermath of the Civil War. The college’s venerable status inspired W.E.B. Du Bois to hold the second national conference of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the NAACP, at the college in 1906. The college closed in 1956. You can learn more about its history at the National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry website.

During the sesquicentennial celebration Slavoff greeted tour buses, providing riders with an overview of Harpers Ferry’s rich history. She also roved around the park, answering visitors’ questions and directing them to some of the sites where special sesquicentennial events were being held. Belonus participated in some of those special events, volunteering with the park’s Education division staff staging educational events for visiting children and families to teach them about the history of Storer College and its significance in the post-Civil War freedom struggle. In this role, Belonus worked under the direction of Samantha "Sam" Sarsfield, a Penn State graduate and currently a seasonal ranger at Harpers Ferry. Like Belonus, Sarsfield had been a Richards Center summer intern in the Education division at Harpers Ferry, when she was an undergraduate student. She immediately fell in love with the park and completed a second internship there before graduating from Penn State. She teaches social studies at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Virginia. During the summers she works as a seasonal ranger and a supervisor of interns in Harpers Ferry’s Education unit.

Katie Belonus and Sam Sarsfield Storer College sesquicentennial
Former Richards Center interns Katie Belonus (second from left) and Sam Sarsfield (right) at the Storer College sesquicentennial in Harpers Ferry
Sarsfield is one of more than half a dozen former Richards Center interns who have gone on to full-time or seasonal employment with the National Park Service after graduation. They play an important role in helping the Park Service pursue its mission to preserve the nation’s “natural and cultural resources” for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Slavoff hopes to follow in their footsteps. She called her Richards Center internship at Harpers Ferry “one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” and it convinced her to pursue a career with the National Park Service. With the support of her Harpers Ferry internship supervisor, she is applying for a seasonal ranger position with the NPS for this summer. Likewise, Belonus described her Richards Center internship as “the most amazing summer I have ever experienced.” She will graduate in May with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science and is exploring potential careers in public history. They have joined a growing group of Penn State students who have discovered a lifelong love of public history through the Richards Center internships.