Up Close with History: Students and Faculty in the Archives

Friday, January 31, 2014

by Patricia Allen

Albert Henry Frost, a Private with the Third Maine Volunteer Infantry/Company K, was a farm boy who enlisted in the Union Army in June 1861 at Augusta, Maine. Frost was killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, but in the space of two years, he wrote 93 letters home.

Sophomore history majors Allison Darhun of Pottsville, Pa., and Darcey Paulding, of Schwenksville, Pa., encountered Frost’s original letters, which are held in a collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in Philadelphia.

“It was really interesting to actually hold the letters in my hand,” says Darhun. “It’s one thing to view scans of them online, but to actually see the letters is a whole different experience.”

Last semester, Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, and Randall Miller, Ph.D., professor of history, featured an innovative program called Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA) in two different history courses. Started by the Brooklyn Historical Society and originally funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, SAFA gives students the opportunity to conduct direct research in historical archives.

While Miller’s HIS 201 class delved into historical Civil War documents, Hyson’s Forging the Modern World (HIS 154) students researched the Centennial Exhibition, held in Philadelphia in 1876. Hyson, Miller and now other history faculty plan to use the SAFA program in future classes.

“The visit to HSP allowed my students to appreciate the tangible reality of the past, in the form of maps, cartoons, photographs and scrapbooks from the Exhibition,” says Hyson. “They also learned quite a bit about the challenges and opportunities of studying archival material, which, in large part, entails figuring out how to interpret it.”

Darhun, one of Miller’s students, discovered that just reading the documents can be difficult. “While Frost's handwriting was easier to read than I anticipated, letters that weren’t written in ink were hard to decipher.”

She also became invested in Frost’s story. “I felt like I got to know Albert Frost,” she says. “He was an artist. [The collection holds] a detailed ink drawing he made while on guard duty that he sent to his brother-in-law, Seth, which was really impressive. When I found out Frost died at Gettysburg, my heart broke for him. It seemed like he held such promise for a good life after the war.”

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