Josh Waechter is doing something that’s never been done before at Hillsdale. A junior majoring in history and a George Washington Fellow, Waechter has undertaken an independent research project to fulfill the fellowship’s work component. It’s the first time a student has initiated a semester-long research project on his own, especially with the aim of publishing it in the scholarly field.
“It started with the fact that I’ve been wanting to get published for some time and have that on my resume for grad school,” Waechter said. “A lot of undergraduates don’t get published in a historical journal. It’s very rare.”
Waechter spent last semester studying abroad in Oxford. He said his initial thought was to take advantage of the vast resources available there by researching a British historical event. However, when the project didn’t materialize, Waechter turned his attention toward Hillsdale College’s involvement in the Civil War.
“I reached out to Linda Moore, the library archivist, and told her I was interested in doing research on a military regiment from Hillsdale,” he recalled. “She responded and gave me the rundown on the sources we have on local regiments, but she also pointed out two collections that had been archived and digitized relatively recently and had never been used as primary source documents. I was like, ‘Wow, okay, that’s really intriguing.’”
After getting the green light from Soren Geiger, research assistant to the president and coordinator of the George Washington Fellowship, and Matthew Spalding, associate vice president and dean of educational programs for the Kirby Center, Waechter got to work.
“The project in its final form is a study of Hillsdale College women during the Civil War, the way it affected them, and how they viewed the war,” Waechter explained. “Hillsdale was the second college to admit women on equal basis with men, but what does their story look like once the war starts?”
David Stewart, professor of history, is advising Waechter on the project. He said he believes Waechter’s choice of topic will be an important contribution to Civil War scholarship.
“Josh has found an interesting angle on a frequently studied period, and I commend him for that,” Stewart said in an email. “His paper will significantly nuance historians’ understanding of and claims about the role of mid-Western women during the Civil War.”
In addition to Hillsdale’s archives, Waechter’s project has taken him to the Michigan State University Archives and the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan where he has studied family correspondence, diaries, and soldiers’ aid societies. His research has revealed some interesting insights, leading him to conclude that women at Hillsdale were politically savvy.
“Etta Hadley, a Hillsdale College student, writes to her fiancé Asher to ask him what he thinks about the 1864 election and says she supports Lincoln,” Waechter recalled. “We don’t have the letter from Asher in response, but we have her reply to Asher in which she excoriates him for being a copperhead, a derogatory term for Democrats in the North who favored ending the war at any cost. So it’s not, ‘Oh dearest, whatever you believe politically I agree with.’ Instead, it’s, ‘Here are my views, what do you think? No, you’re wrong, and I’m going to tell you why.’ The women here are thinking actively about politics and formulating opinions and are willing to argue with men about it. My guess is that that’s a pretty unique thing.”
Waechter has also garnered information about the lives of female Hillsdale college students through course catalogues from the period.
“Women are taking classes on the Constitution of the United States and Francis Lieber’s treatise on political ethics,” he noted. “They’re taking something called Political Manual and studying Cicero’s orations. The fact that they’re taking these political courses is pretty interesting in itself.”
But while his research has led him to some surprising discoveries about the political involvement of women at Hillsdale during the war, Waechter stated the documents have not suggested that a feminist revolution brewed beneath the war effort.
“This isn’t your typical Rosie-the-Riveter story,” he said. “I have letters where the women are talking about marriage and how valuable it is, which very much undermines the idea that the war was some great feminist leap forward. When you look at an article in the Ladies Literary Union, it’s not about being independent women but rather about influencing society where they can. Hillsdale women recognized their very special status of being college educated, but nowhere in here does it say they need to run for the legislature.”
What the research has revealed, however, is the patriotism Hillsdale women possessed.
“At one point, Etta’s brother comes home to visit and she says it will be hard to see him leave again but he must go,” Waechter recalled. “Then her father Cornelius dies in the war but she’s willing to accept that too. And that’s something striking that I want to communicate — this classical republican sense of duty that’s come through in this.”
Waechter said that one of the most challenging aspects of taking on a project of such magnitude is its depth.
“You always feel like you’re not giving it justice,” he explained. “There are so many questions, and the deeper you go, the more you have. I’ve had to learn when it’s okay to stop. You have to do good research and then be content with the argument. I feel like I’ve gone from being a mere student of history to being a scholar of history. I have a lot more respect for the field now.”
As he looks ahead to graduate school, Waechter said he hopes admissions departments will recognize his growth as a scholar.
“Regardless of whether or not I get published, being able to say I spent half a year working on an originally-sourced project is a great talking point,” he said. “I want to show I have what it takes and a passion that goes beyond the classroom. This is a project of my own and I’ve demonstrated my dedication to it.”
Waechter said that in addition to shedding light on an area of civil war history on which there is little scholarship, he hopes his research will enhance the understanding of Hillsdale College’s heritage and the students that have come before. Geiger agreed.
“We are all very proud of Josh’s ambition and think that his thesis and research is really going to contribute to Hillsdale’s history and a better understanding of what happened here in the city of Hillsdale and also at the college during the Civil War,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to reading what he’s going to produce.”
Waechter’s research is due at the end of the semester and he predicts the final product will be 20 – 25 pages in length. But despite the time and effort the project has required, Waechter said he’s enjoyed it.
“It’s definitely taught me a lot about the history of this place and made me appreciate it more,” he said. “Before, I just had this bullet point in my head that women were admitted on equal basis with men. But now when I hear that I think about it in a much more complex and three-dimensional way because I know the story. And I hope that through this article, other students will have the opportunity to know that as well.”