Students’ Civil War Research on Display in Rauner Library

“Walt Whitman has that famous quote about the Civil War: ‘The real war will never get in the books,’” says Colleen Boggs, a professor of English and of women’s and gender studies.


“Our first class session in Rauner we spent time reading the inscriptions commemorating Dartmouth’s Civil War fallen,” says Professor Colleen Boggs of her “Civil War Literatures” seminar this term. At Rauner Special Collections Library are, from left, Elissa Watters ’15, Amanda Geduld ’15, Colleen Scannell ’15, and Boggs. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

That’s why students in her “Civil War Literatures” senior seminar this spring have opened their study of literature to include not only the poetry and prose of authors of the era, but also what Boggs characterizes as “a vast array of cultural materials,” published and unpublished, from letters and speeches to sheet music, illustrations, and more.

Much of this study has required students to make extensive use of the archives in Rauner Special Collections Library—itself housed in Webster Hall, where two plaques honor Dartmouth students and alumni, Union and Confederate, who fought in the war. “Our first class session in Rauner we spent time reading the inscriptions commemorating Dartmouth’s Civil War fallen,” says Boggs.

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First session, but not last. “Roaming Rauner” assignments required students to use the collections to propose exhibitions that will be on view Rauner’s display cases beginning June 13. Each member of the course presented a proposal and then voted to select the three projects that would be realized.

The chosen projects include visual depictions of women during the war, curated by Elissa Watters ’15; a soundscape of a Confederate prison, curated by Amanda Geduld ’15; and a showcase of speeches and letters showing the depth of the war’s impact on New Hampshire, curated by Colleen Scannell ’15.

“They are imagining the Civil War away from the battlefield,” says Boggs, who also serves as director of the Leslie Center for the Humanities. “Each one is emphasizing how the battlefield and other spaces become interconnected, even at geographical distances. They’re thinking through the cultural impact of the Civil War beyond the military action itself.”

Learning by Doing

Scannell, an English major and psychology and French minor, says she wants her exhibit to “show off Rauner’s collections.” Her display case includes a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Amos Tuck, Class of 1835. “We’re so lucky to be in a place where in five minutes we can be holding documents that Abraham Lincoln wrote,” she says.

Watters, an English major minoring in art history, became fascinated with the library’s collection of patriotic envelopes, whose iconography is not as simple to interpret today as perhaps it was intended to be in the 1860s.

“They’re really bizarre,” Watters says. For example: “A woman wearing red, white, and blue lighting a cannon that says ‘secession’—but she’s standing where the cannonball would hit her. I’ve tried to open a dialogue about how women functioned in visual images of the war, and leave it to viewers to try to figure out what they mean.” 

Geduld is creating a sound recording, which visitors can access on their phones, to accompany a display of prison letters. The recording will feature Dartmouth students reading the letters, as well as sounds—such as church bells—that were significant to their authors.

“One thing I loved about this class was how much we were immersed in the material,” says Geduld, who has modified her English major with women’s and gender studies. “I want to convey that same experience. I’m hoping that people put headphones on and become completely enveloped by the letters of the Civil War.”

“We love to tie our exhibit spaces to student projects,” says Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield. “It offers students a whole new way to present their research. Student-curated exhibits offer a real-world challenge by demanding that students communicate their ideas to the general public in a meaningful way. This is something that many people in the academic world find very difficult but is so essential to what we do.”

Teaching-Informed Scholarship

The study of literature from the Civil War era, Boggs says, fills a kind of gap in the traditional American literature curriculum.

“When we think about teaching American literature, we tend to think in terms of ‘beginnings’ to 1865, and then 1865 to World War I or the contemporary moment. So the Civil War becomes this dividing line, but the war years themselves often get left out of the narrative.”

After teaching the seminar for the first time in 2009, Boggs says she was “inspired to think about the different contexts in which people teach this literature and the methods they use.” So she proposed an edited volume on the subject for the Modern Language Association. The resulting book, Options for Teaching the Literature of the American Civil War, will be published in 2016.

 “The book will showcase Dartmouth’s teacher-scholar model—but in communication with models from other institutions around this shared topic,” says Boggs.

“American literary studies used to be a field that had a pretty set canon, but we’re in a moment where, for one thing, prose doesn’t necessarily hold the dominance that it once did. And in part because of the digital age, we just have access to so much more material. Part of the innovation comes from the fact that this literature has become accessible to us in a different way.”