Four students created a documentary called “Defending Liberty,” which explored the lives of Hillsdale students who served for the Union in the Civil War.
The documentary focuses on three soldiers and one nurse who left Hillsdale to serve the Union. Seniors Reagan Gensiejewski and Lily McHale, junior Gabrielle Bessette, and sophomore Carter McNish created this film for the Video Storytelling class.
“The documentary started with a realization: very little is known about what can rightly be called the most critical time in this college’s history,” McNish said.
Students organized the documentary in a way that would communicate Hillsdale’s contribution to the Civil War through individual stories, Gensiejewski said.
Throughout the research process, they interviewed faculty such as Professor of Management Peter Jennings, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Miles Smith IV, and Associate Dean of Men, Jefferey Rogers.
“We started with meeting with Dr. Jennings, who gave us an overview of Hillsdale College and the Civil War,” Gensiejewski said. “From there we distinguished who were the students we wanted to highlight, and then each did research and basically created our own documentary on each student.”
McHale said the research process helped her appreciate Hillsdale to an even fuller extent.
“Going through all the research was really awesome and gave me a better appreciation for Hillsdale, and actually showed me that we do have the values that we’ve had since day one,” McHale said.
The documentary team could only focus on a handful of students, according to McNish, due to the limited time in the documentary. There were many more, however, who fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War.
“By the current count, the total number of Hillsdale Civil War soldiers is 505, but the list continues to grow,” McNish said. “Most of these students fought in the 4th Michigan infantry, which fought in the Eastern Theater in many of the war’s most famous battles, particularly at Gettysburg.”
Each student had unique experiences creating the documentary. McNish enjoyed traveling to multiple battlefields, where he obtained footage of the places Hillsdale students fought.
“You can’t help but get this tingly feeling that you’re part of something much larger than yourself in those places,” he said. “Knowing what happened there, and how you’re connected to it makes for an entirely different experience of the ground than that of the average visitor.”
Bessette, who took on the task of compiling the project into one film, hopes to pursue video production as a career. While Bessette has completed many projects in the past, nothing compares to this documentary, she said.
“It has been one of the most challenging, humbling, and rewarding experiences that I’ve had during my time at Hillsdale, and we could not have been tasked with a better topic,” Bessette said. “Learning about Hillsdale College’s role in the Civil War makes me so proud to be a student here and to carry on the legacy of defending liberty.”
Gensiejewski said her favorite part of the process was reading the letters between Asher Lafleur, a Hillsdale student who fought for the Union, and his wife Etta.
“It was beautiful to watch their relationship develop through the letters and use them in my film,” Gensiejewski said.
McHale recommended taking the Video Storytelling class, as she said this documentary sparked her interest in filmmaking.
“I definitely love filming after doing this. I did not consider it, really, at all before taking this class,” McHale said. “Now after the class and doing the whole project, I am actually considering doing it in the future.”
The documentary was completed in less than two and a half months, according to Buddy Moorehouse, the class instructor. McNish estimated that the project took over 100 hours of combined work to complete.
“It’s been great working with Reagan, Gabs, and Carter,” McHale said. “They all really bring something to the table that we need, and we couldn’t have done it without all of them.”