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Former Hillsdale College student Lau­raette Hadley poses during the civil war. Josh Waetcher | Courtesy

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gave me the rundown on the sources we have on local reg­i­ments, but she also pointed out two col­lec­tions that had been archived and dig­i­tized rel­a­tively recently and had never been used as primary source doc­u­ments.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.”