It’s really interesting (at least I find it interesting, not to mention a little strange), but when I was working up a plan for my thesis (for my M.A. in history), I never expected it to go down the path that findings from research took me. Some would think that the student would have more control, but that wasn’t the case with me. I wanted to write one thing… and, well… it just wasn’t to be… I ended up writing about something quite different.
No matter the amount of work, I always find myself taking on more. So, in the midst of trying to work up a topic for my thesis and taking graduate courses in History at ODU, I was also satisfying a sudden fascination with the First World War. Juggling two periods of history, one because of studies and another because of curiousity, I started digging through the county newspaper for stories about the soldiers from Page County in WWI. To say I found a treasure trove of information doesn’t even come close to telling just how much “stuff” I really found. It just so happened that, at the time of the war, the editor of the newspaper was also the chairman of the local War Bonds effort. So, every letter he received from a soldier, he put in the newspaper. Needless to say, after wrapping up my current graduate program, a manuscript for another book will come into production.
However, in the process of looking for this World War I stuff, I found a lot more. I ended up going backward to the beginning of the newspaper (1867) and forward (to 1940), harvesting story after story about people, events, and so on. It proved to be a wealth of information for my weekly newspaper column.
Yet, there were some things there, in the newspaper articles, that began to hit home. What I was reading was challenging something within me (something with which I had been regularly engaged for over thirty years). While there were some great articles and letters from Confederate Veterans, telling experiences from the war and talking about postwar reunions… and there were also letters from people who experienced another side of the war… as Unionists and Disaffected Confederates. It was something I never really considered, despite the books that were in circulation at the time (and, while I cannot now recall, I may have actually viewed these books as revisionist prior to my own findings). Suddenly, the ”moonlight and magnolias” imagery of the war within me (which was very much based on the memory of the ”Lost Cause”) came under fire, because of my own research (and thus the reason for posting the quote from Charles B. Dew yesterday… exhibiting words and feelings with which I can relate). While the findings were purely accidental, these stories were real, and written by people who were there. It was not “revisionist history.” There was even a story about one of my own distant uncles! Not long after combing through these stories, I made a trip to the National Archives 2 (the one in Maryland) to see the Southern Unionist applications for the county, to see if there was something else… and there was, and it tied-in perfectly with what I had found in the newspaper. I wanted to know more, and the thesis provided the perfect opportunity, not only to know more, but to make sense of it all and put it all together in one flowing story. Not only did the findings in the wake research into materials from the First World War drive my thesis, it (along with something else that happened at nearly the same time) altered my ideas of the Civil War… and the way that the war is remembered.
I’ll share one story from my thesis research in an upcoming post.