It’s a Monday evening, in a second-floor conference room at Schewel Hall, and a group of students — mostly history majors — is working on an exhibit for The American Civil War Museum in Appomattox, Virginia. The exhibit, “Local Stories, National Struggle,” focuses on individual stories of people — black and white, male and female, soldier and civilian — who were in and around Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the day the Confederates surrendered and the nation officially reunited after the Civil War. It opens April 6 at 10 a.m.
With guidance from graduate student Laura Meisner and members of University of Lynchburg’s history faculty, the students have been researching these individuals and gathering artifacts. The work has encompassed much of the academic year and the students are receiving stipends for their efforts. Some students also will receive internship credit.
But for the moment at least, on this evening at Schewel Hall, the big question is whether or not Kendall Grierson ’18 has found the right J.W. Gordon. Gordon, a Union soldier, is said to be buried on the property at Historic Sandusky, a house museum owned and operated by University of Lynchburg. His burial is mentioned in the diary of Ada Hutter, who lived at Sandusky during the Battle of Lynchburg in 1864. Hutter’s diary will be featured in the exhibit, making Gordon a person of interest for the student researchers.
Grierson, a history major from Williamsburg, Virginia, has found someone named J.W. Gordon in an internet search. He’s male, he’s a northerner, and it looks promising. Grierson calls history professor Dr. Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego over for a look, but waves him off before he can get there. “Oh no, he died in 1918,” Grierson said, meaning that it’s impossible for this to be the right J.W. Gordon.
Such is the nature of historical research, as Katelyn Lee ’19 has discovered over the past several months during her research of Hutter and Appomattox cavalryman James Edward Burge. Lee, a history major from Reisterstown, Maryland, started her research at local museums and cemeteries, scouring more than 3,000 burial records from Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery alone.
‘Cracking a case’
While Lee said she found “bountiful amounts” of information about Hutter, the cavalryman posed more of a challenge. “For James Edward Burge, the search was more difficult,” she said. “However, I was able to contact some individuals who are related [to him] and knew family history pertaining to Burge.”
Lee, who plans to become a lawyer, said the experience has been exciting and challenging, and the skills she’s gained will be useful in and after law school. “Research-wise, I’ve learned that there is nothing better than cracking a case that you thought you could never solve,” she said.
“Research also proves difficult when there are various spellings of an individual’s name, or discrepancies about details of their life. Some history is not properly kept, which can be difficult when you are looking to find and verify information. By working on this project, I have been able to expand my research abilities, which will only benefit me in law school and in a legal environment. Being able to find a human being that you never knew existed truly expands one’s ability to research and find information.”
Isiah Coleman-Combs ’20 researched Charles Diuguid, an African-American blacksmith who bought his and his wife’s freedom, and Charles Shearer, son of a white slave owner and one of his slaves. After the Civil War, Shearer went on to teach at what is now Hampton University. For the exhibit. Coleman-Combs also will portray Shearer in a video reenactment.
“Finding information on the people is easy, but going deeper in the details and finding direct descendants of my people, especially Charles Shearer, has been quite challenging,” Coleman-Combs, a history major from Locust Grove, Virginia, said in mid-February. “I’ve learned different research techniques and how to dig deeper when finding information.”
Other individuals profiled in the exhibit include, among others, Hannah Reynolds, an enslaved woman who was wounded during the Battle of Appomattox but died free; Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, of Lynchburg, who was killed at the Battle of South Mountain, in Maryland; and Josephus Hopwood, who fought for the Union, was a prisoner of war in Richmond, and later founded University of Lynchburg.
“There is a great variety of individuals, coming from a lot of different backgrounds that the students have been researching,” said Meisner, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from Lynchburg and is currently working on a master’s in nonprofit leadership. “There are nurses, soldiers, and people that were not directly involved in an official capacity but [were] certainly still impacted. Their stories range from personal diaries, to battle experiences and prisoner of war experiences, as well as simply being in the right place at the right time to be connected to a historically significant event, such as the surrender at Appomattox.”
Learning to interpret history
After spending the fall researching people who will be featured in the exhibit, this spring Ian Pollock ’18 took on a bigger role. Alongside Meisner, Dr. Dinnella-Borrego, and Dr. Adam Dean, associate professor of history, he’s helping design the exhibit. He’s also gathering artifacts from Historic Sandusky and The American Civil War Museum and developing an overall theme.
“I learned how important deadlines are on a project, how to work on a team, how to interact with outside organizations, and how to provide input about others’ contributions on a project,” Pollock, a history major from Pittsburgh, said. “I also learned how history can be told with the stories of individuals who would not be considered major historical figures. When we are taught history, particularly about wars, we learn about the battles and significant figures, like generals. However, generals could not be successful without the contributions of individuals who are just ordinary people.”
Over the past several months, the students have learned a lot about public history and how to interpret it. “The overarching skill they’re learning is how to actually deal with public history,” Dr. Dinnella-Borrego said. “This is really a public historical project, so they’re engaging in how to conduct research, how to set up a museum exhibit, and how to engage that historical exhibit with the public, in a way in which the public can understand what’s going on. The big skill is how to be public historians, which I think is invaluable. It’s an invaluable undergraduate experience. Very rarely do we get to do that as undergraduates.”