Monday, May 20, 2013 by Mark Grimsley
A guest post by Zachary Fry, a graduate student in the Ohio State University history department.
“Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?” -Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The Gettysburg Semester was the time of my life. As a student of the Civil War, how could it not have been? I might easily say that the allure of the place was enough to make it so – living a block or so from where Coster’s Eleventh Corps brigade tried to stem the tide of triumphant Rebels on the battle’s first day, walking the autumn fields of Plum Run on the weekends, or even studying the war’s Eastern Theater while sitting just an hour away from Antietam and Harpers Ferry. But the Gettysburg Semester was much more than just four months living on a beautiful campus in the cockpit of Civil War history. I learned more than I ever expected and forged unique friendships that have added immeasurably to my life for several years now.
I had just finished my third year at Kent State when I received a scholarship to attend the Semester, and I entered the program with seven other stalwarts from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California, and Oregon. Together, we lived in an 1870s house on campus solely devoted to Gettysburg students receiving their degrees in Civil War Era Studies, fine friends all. My academic life consisted of a crash course in Civil War historiography (where I first read my future graduate adviser’s work), a course in Civil War tactics supplemented with a battlefield trip every Friday, and a readings course on John Brown and the abolitionists of the late 1850s. For the first two courses I enjoyed the powerful lectures of Dr. Allen Guelzo, eloquent director of the Semester and the foremost academic historian of Abraham Lincoln.
In addition to my regular coursework, I procured an internship at the Adams County Historical Society, housed in historic Schmucker Hall on the Lutheran Theological Seminary campus. My bosses at ACHS were Wayne Motts, an OSU alumnus who has since gone on to even greater glory at the National Civil War Museum, and Ben Neeley, a passionate public historian who drove to work every day from distant Lancaster. During the internship, I processed hundreds of newspaper articles detailing individual experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg, the most difficult part of which was training myself not to read each one so that I could finish the day’s work efficiently. Thursday nights at ACHS were traditionally attended by members of Gettysburg’s subculture of lifestyle researchers. I was certainly among that group by the time I left in December.
The most rewarding part of the Gettysburg Semester was not the history, such as the fact that I worked at ACHS next to the door where soldiers of the 151st Pennsylvania dragged their wounded colonel to safety during the chaotic retreat on July 1, 1863. Nor was it the resources available, such as the numerous side-trips to the National Archives to conduct research for my ongoing senior thesis project on the 59th New York Infantry. It wasn’t even the unique culture of Gettysburg itself and the Remembrance Day ceremonies, which I enjoyed with a very close friend from Washington. The Gettysburg Semester was special because of the people who made it happen – Dr. Guelzo, Dr. Matthew Norman, Cathy Bain, and, most of all, the seven accomplished Semester alumni whom I am fortunate to call my friends. Nowhere else, not even in graduate school, could a student have enjoyed the companionship of so many others who live, eat, and breathe the Civil War. The coursework, the research, the culture, and the friendships, all provided me a formative experience, academically and personally. The Gettysburg Semester was, in short, a dream come true.