Interns play important roles in Civil War research, education

As part of her work at Gettysburg National Military Park this summer, history major Ashley Miller created and performed a living history program based on the memoir and letters of a volunteer nurse who tended wounded soldiers after the battle. Credit: Courtesy Caitlyn KosticAll Rights Reserved.

Penn State interns are doing whatever it takes to help preserve and teach Civil War history, whether that means digging through mounds of old service records, searching for letters and artifacts from living descendants of ancestors who fought in the war, or dressing up like a 19th-century nurse.

These interns, who have been working at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry this summer, have gained impressive amounts of hands-on experience in the field of public history, according to their mentor Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History and the 2015-2016 Penn State Laureate.            

At Gettysburg—a battle that involved more than 150,000 soldiers, about a third of whom became casualties—understanding the battle can be like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of thousands of pieces, many of which are missing. Much of the interns' research centered on trying to find those pieces, which often come in the form of documents, letters and stories.

"Every soldier and wartime Gettysburg resident has a story, and the interns seek out the untold tales," says Reardon.

The Pennsylvania Monument, a prominent landmark at Gettysburg, honors every Pennsylvania regiment that fought in the historic battle. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Andrew Ondish served this summer as a research intern at the Seminary Ridge Museum, located in the former Schmucker Hall on the campus of the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary. During the battle, it served as a Union field hospital.

Ondish, a junior history major, researched the military service of some of the more than 600 soldiers who received treatment there.

"I'm weekly touching base with supervisors and informing them of my progress, contributing to the creation of the soldier database here, and searching for quartermaster receipts," he says. "I'm also finding and contacting descendants of these soldiers in the hopes of completing the picture of what happened to them after the American Civil War, and beyond the Battle of Gettysburg."

He particularly enjoyed contacting a living descendant of a soldier who served in the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The descendant sent a complete file on both his direct ancestor and the ancestor’s brother, including photographs.    

Another surprise find was the history of Elkanah M. Gibson, a soldier in the 19th Indiana Infantry who was wounded only a few hundred yards away from Schmucker Hall.  Gibson survived the war, lived through key moments of the Reconstruction era such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and then moved to California, where he rose to the position of Alameda County Superior Court judge.

History on the RoadSome of the Penn State history interns do a considerable amount of traveling as part of their duties.  Ashley Miller, a senior majoring in history and a research intern in the Gettysburg National Military Park's library and archives, visited the Frederick Historical Society, the Maryland Historical Society, the Army Heritage and Education Center, and the Union League of Philadelphia, looking for records the park's archives did not hold that could advance research on the Gettysburg battle. 

She also examined the U.S. Christian Commission records at the National Archives in Washington, a repository where few undergraduate students ever get to work.  

"While I'm at these archives, I research and handle original documents, copy them, and bring the copies back to the Gettysburg Library," she says. "While in Gettysburg, I transcribe all of the documents I acquired from my trips."  

Miller then prepares the documents for inclusion in the park's archival collections. Probably her most important contribution was creating overviews, called finding aids, to help future researchers find files in the collection.

Among Miller's big finds during her travels was a series of letters and documents about John Martin Steffan, a captain in the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. He died of wounds received in combat at Gettysburg. 

"I found a letter from his brother Frederick dated July 2nd, that John never received," Miller says. "The story goes deeper and becomes more intimate."

Miller wrote an article about John Steffan for Gettysburg National Military Park's blog, which, as she says, is "something no other intern has had the opportunity to do."


A Confederate artillery position on Benner's Hill at Gettysburg National Military Park. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Living HistoryWhen the anniversary of the three-day battle -- July 1 through July 3 -- arrived, all the interns helped with the busy schedule of public events.  Many had a chance to take on other roles.  Miller, for example, played a character in the Mystery History Guest Program that was held each day of the battle’s anniversary.

"I created a living history program about Cornelia Hancock, a 23-year-old volunteer nurse who came to Gettysburg after the battle, based on her memoirs and letters," says Miller. "I memorized my program, dressed up in period attire and delivered my program in first person, as Cornelia." 

At the Seminary Ridge Museum, Ondish donned the uniform of a Union soldier for living history programs.  Recent Penn State graduate and Erie native Nick Welsh, Miller's predecessor last year, transformed himself into Colonel Strong Vincent, a hometown hero who fell on Little Round Top.

The program may have helped attract future history interns, Miller says, adding, "The feedback was outstanding, and some parents even came up to me afterwards, telling me that their children wanted to read Cornelia's book and study history."

The Winfree professorship is one of Penn State’s named professorships focused on a specific academic discipline and funded by private donors. It includes support for interns. This was the second year for Winfree Professor interns to work at Gettysburg, according to Reardon, and this summer, Dan Micco became the first intern in the program to work at the Antietam National Battlefield.

"It's a great opportunity because everyone gets something out of it," says Reardon. "The parks benefit from the extra help to accomplish important tasks that might not get done in a timely way --or get done at all. The students benefit from a unique research experience in a professional environment that introduces them to different career paths and options in the fields of public history, education, and even the work of non-profit organizations."

Nate Hess's internship at Gettysburg National Military Park in the summer of 2011 led him to pursue a career in interpretive history. This year he is working as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg. Credit: Courtesy Caitlyn KosticAll Rights Reserved.

Reardon points out that a similar internship program, supported by Penn State's George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, has sent interns to the interpretive programs at Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry since 2005. Some of those interns have used their service at the parks as a springboard into a career in history, and Reardon hopes hopes the Winfree Professor interns will do the same.

William Blair, director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and professor of American history, says the internships can benefit the students beyond shaping and boosting careers.

"This internship clearly has resulted in a career path for a handful of our former students," says Blair. "And even if they don't choose public history for their life's work, their confidence grows in so many other important life skills, such as making presentations to an audience." 

Nathaniel Hess, who served as a Richards Center intern during the summer of 2011 and currently works as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg, said his service had an enormous impact on him. During his internship he staffed the information desk, assisted with children’s programs and developed interpretive programs, among other duties. In August, he will begin graduate work in history at West Virginia University.

"It’s safe to say that had Penn State not sent me to Gettysburg, I would not be on my current career track with the dream of one day becoming a full-time National Park Ranger," says Hess.



Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History, mentors student interns working at Civil War battlefields and museums. This year's Winfree Professor interns worked at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harper's Ferry. Reardon is also the 2015-2016 Penn State Laureate. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 29, 2017