Local Civil War History Comes to Life on Web

Posted on 2/7/2012 12:16:46 PM

Indiana County may not have been a focal point of the American Civil War, but many local photographs, letters, journals, and diaries still exist that vividly document life in that era. Realizing the historical value and potential interest in those sources, two IUP faculty members set out to make them accessible to all via the Internet.

Robert Alexander Lowry letter to sister in Minors Hill, Va., January 10, 1862

Theresa McDevitt, of the IUP Libraries, and Jeanine Mazak-Kahne, of the History Department, are leading a project to digitize Civil War documents from the collections of the library and the Indiana County Historical and Genealogical Society. McDevitt, as project director, received $24,270 from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries to fund the project.

The final product, expected this summer, will be a website similar to the Coal Culture project McDevitt completed six years ago. She hopes both sites, Coal Culture and the Civil War, are just the start of a broader digitization project, Historic Indiana. ( See the digital collection for the Indiana County in the Civil War project.)

Also available on the Civil War website will be lesson plans written by History professor Soo Chun Lu that incorporate primary sources—that is, photos, diaries, and other raw materials—as well as interpretive essays and other secondary sources.

Harry White in Union Army uniform, early 1860s

McDevitt envisions the site drawing everyone from students doing research projects to history buffs, particularly given the interest in the 150th anniversary of the war.

“When we talk about the Civil War, people think of Antietam or Gettysburg, but the Civil War could not have been waged, and won, without the support of the people at home,” she said. “Researchers from university professors to genealogists are looking at what was happening on the home front now more than ever.”

Documents illustrating local history foster a deeper analysis and understanding of the period, McDevitt said. She quotes colleague Robert Millward, of the Professional Studies in Education Department, in saying, “Primary sources make history come alive.”

Included in the historical society’s collection is the prison diary of Indiana County’s Harry White, who served simultaneously as a Pennsylvania senator and Union Army officer. White’s dual service caused problems back home when he was confined in a Virginia prison camp, leaving the state Senate with an equal number of Unionists and Democrats. The resulting deadlock lasted two months in 1864.

Anna White, wife of Harry White, Union Army officer and Pennsylvania senator during the Civil War

With Unionists unable to secure his release, White sneaked out a letter of resignation, said to be on a weather-stained scrap of paper, which allowed the election of a successor and gave Unionists a 17-16 edge in the Senate. White went on to become a Congressman in the 1870s and later an Indiana County judge.

His Libby Prison diary and a number of family letters and photographs will be among the more than 80 items in the digital archive.

McDevitt’s inspiration for the digitization projects came in part from her experiences working in the library’s Special Collections area. Requests for specific documents or images, such as a photograph of Philadelphia Street in 1942, required an extensive search that would have been far easier with online archives.

“The Internet is becoming the first resort for finding information,” McDevitt said. “If we want to promote an understanding of the period, we have to make information about it easily accessible to the public, and that means making it available online.”

Harry White in Grand Army of the Republic parade, 1910-1920

Another benefit of digitization is the ability to preserve artifacts better by reducing their handling. “Thousands of people can read the letters, diaries, and telegraphs without the wear and tear on these delicate, embrittled items,” she said.

For their project, McDevitt and Mazak-Kahne enlisted the help of archivist Harrison Wick, who selected items from the collections of IUP Libraries, and three students, who will scan and enhance the images and documents, provide descriptions consistent with library standards, and place them into the digital repository software.

The students also underwent training in how to create a digital collection and how to preserve the artifacts during the digitization process. Those videotaped training sessions will be included on the Civil War website.

While working on the Civil War collection, the team is also building a framework for the broader Historic Indiana digitization project by documenting its procedures and creating a manual for future contributors to follow.

About Theresa McDevitt

Theresa McDevitt, IUP Libraries, reading the 19th amendment, about women's right to vote, during the reading of the Constitution on Constitution Day, September 20, 2011

McDevitt’s research interests include the American Civil War, women’s roles during the Civil War, and information literacy instruction. Her Ph.D. dissertation focused on the United States Christian Commission, a charitable organization that provided religious support and social services to soldiers during the Civil War.

She also edited Let the Games Begin!, published in 2011, a compilation of librarians’ strategies for engaging students through interactive information literacy instruction.

At IUP, she has taught a variety of courses, including Introduction to Library Resources, Internet and Multimedia, the Modern Era, Women and the Civil War, and Introduction to Women’s Studies.

She earned a Ph.D. in history from Kent State, a master’s degree in history from IUP, and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a master’s in library science, and a master’s in education of the deaf, all from the University of Pittsburgh.

About Jeanine Mazak-Kahne

Jeanine Mazak-Kahne, History Department

Mazak-Kahne’s research interests include public history education, small town organized crime, deindustrialization, and gender representation in FBI file reports.

Her current research examines a late 1940s conflict between a local union of aluminum workers and the district administration of the United Steel Workers of America.

Mazak-Kahne teaches courses in public history, the history of organized crime, and America in War and Depression (1914–1945). She is also the History Department’s graduate program coordinator.

She received a Ph.D. in history from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in history with a concentration in archives, museum, and historical editing studies from Duquesne University, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Gannon University.