Kaci Nash, M.A.

the past in progress


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Historical Side Effects: Befriending the Dearly Departed

I have a problem with attachment. I am not talking about an attachment disorder wherein I have separation anxiety or am unable to form bonds with the people in my life. No, I am talking about a habit of becoming overly-attached to the subjects of my research. I do not know if this is a common condition among historians or just a weird quirk of mine resulting from some strategically-placed strand of genetic material, but I tend to get invested in the lives (and deaths) of the people I read and write about.

This came to my attention while writing my Master’s thesis. Research for said thesis including reading over fifty sets of letters and diaries written by doctors, nurses, teachers, officers’ wives, but especially soldiers during the Civil War. After reading years’ worth of diary entries and letters—becoming endeared to his colorful personality, sharing in his hopelessness as he wrote repeated letters despairing, “I have not received word from you in months. Why don’t you write me? Have I said something to offend you?”— I always dreaded that last piece of evidence, the letter from a friend or that editorial sentence informing me of the death of the person I had grown so found of. As if being informed of the death of the author of 150 year old writing is a surprise. But there is something incredibly personal about following the journey of someone’s life through their own writing, especially through something as harrowing as a war.

The research project I am working on at present involves reading hospital registers filled with the names and afflictions of Civil War soldiers and inputting them into a searchable, sortable spreadsheet. This might seem like a chore to some people, but for me it is a privilege. The seemingly simple process of reading and transcribing a name can actually be an intimate experience. Perhaps no one has thought of musician Joseph Laycox of the 136th Ohio National Guard in nearly 150 years. But there he is, on the pages in front of me, admitted to the Post Hospital at Fort Williams, Virginia three times during the summer of 1864.

VOL 626 P2Just like people-watching at the airport, it is impossible for me not to imagine the life of this soldier. As a member of a national guard unit, Joseph Laycox was enlisted for a 100-day term of service. Surely, he must have thought that as a musician in a unit that would only exist from May-August 1864, he might serve his country at minimal risk to himself or the R. G. Laycox that enlisted as a musician alongside him— a brother perhaps? They were admitted to the hospital on June 5, 1864, with Joseph complaining of “Intermittent Fever,” malaria most likely. Both men would be sent back to their regiment after a few days’ stay in the hospital, but Joseph was admitted again several days later and returned to duty after ten days.

As I continued down the register, musician Joseph Laycox remained on my mind, for being one of the few musicians who appeared in the records, but also as a name I had seen more than once. And then there he was again. Joseph Laycox. Musician. 136th Ohio National Guard, Company F. Room 4, Bed 35. Admitted August 8. I ran my finger across the columns: Returned to Duty; Deserted; Discharged from Service; Sent to General Hospital; On Furlough. All blank. And finally: Died. August 21. His term of service would have ended nine days later.

Poor Joseph Laycox.

Thoroughly invested now in the life (and death) of the man, I turned to the Internet to discover that he left behind more than just his name on a line in a hospital register. The U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center in Carlisle, PA holds “The Joseph Laycox Papers,” containing a letter written to his brothers and father dated after his second stay in the hospital and a letter to his wife enclosing a poem entitled “To My Wife.” Perhaps he did not know that one day someone might happen upon his letters—or even just his name—and remember him back into a living, breathing man. But his family did. They treasured that little bit of their son and brother and husband enough to preserve his words throughout the centuries. For someone like me, just a bit too sensitive for her own good, who might look upon him as something like her own ancestor, even if only for one afternoon.

The discovery of the existence of this poem reminded me of something I had encountered during my initial research. In Mr. Lincoln’s Fort: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, I remembered there being a poem at the end of the section on Fort Williams. And there he was again, Joseph Laycox, but this time, his own words. “Libbie, I am going to send you this sublime poetry. . . . I think it is the nicest thing I ever saw for this occasion.”

To My Wife
Dearest wife I still remember
With a husband’s aching heart
How it filled my soul with sorrow
When we two were called to part.
Though I’m but a private Soldier
Gone to fill my country’s call
All my trust is in the savior
Let me stand or let me fall.
When I get your welcome letters
As in Dixie land I roam
And you speak of our dear children
How it makes me sigh of home.
Then if we are only faithful
To the lord our truest friend
Safe we’ll rise to realms of glory
Where our bliss will never end.[1]

I do not know what became of Joseph Laycox— whether or not his family came to collect his body, where he was buried, if he had any children to mourn him or pass on his name. But I do know that he existed. And now so do you.

1. Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 74-75.

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What Do You Do With an M.A. in History?

What makes a historian? Is it the degree? The training? Does one become a historian upon the completion of a master’s degree or is the title withheld for those determined enough (or is it crazy enough) to pursue a PhD? I am not sure I know the answer, though I can say that I feel like a historian.

On the surface, I suspect my journey is no different than most: lifelong interest in history changes undeclared to declared; master’s degree follows bachelor’s degree; trained historian seeks dream job; &c. But in actuality, the process has been more complicated than that.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Kansas, I struggled with finding a profession that would suit the person I had become throughout the course of my studies. Surely there is such thing as a historian who has no plans of being trapped within the uncertainty of the academy, yes? I looked at museums and historical sites only to be met with the “minimum requirement: master’s degree or comparable experience” brick wall. So, turning to the “What To Do with a History Degree” handout my generic undergraduate counselor gave me, I went the legal route. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But one legal assistant certification and three years later, I found myself doing clerical work in an office surrounded by lawyers with impeccable shouting abilities, terrified that a simple typo might lose a case for the attorneys I worked for. Unending anxiety was hardly what I had in mind when I hung my history degree on my wall. But that’s okay, I thought, I can still be a historian on the side.

In my spare time, I decided to continue a project that had followed me for most of my life: reading, understanding, and researching the Civil War journal of my third-great grandfather. Coming from a very history-conscious family, genealogy had initiated my interest in history. Most of my childhood memories involve listening to my father, uncle, and grandfather tell tales of our family’s history, stories that had been passed down through generations of individuals who understood the value of preserving the past, whether in oral or written form. Family vacations often included entire days spent within the walls of a museum, journeys to cemeteries for photos and etchings of ancestors’ graves—and even complete strangers’ to research when we got home—trips to Civil War battlefields, or pitstops at the homes of various historical figures. At each destination, I would ponder my own place in the history of the locations I visited. What did it mean to be the 5th cousin 5 times removed of Alonzo H. Cushing, who gave his life on the battlefield at Gettysburg defending his post? Had my midwestern family lived like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his quaint Victorian home in Brunswick, Maine? Did my grandfathers have any sense of the Native Americans they had displaced when they claimed their homestead in southern South Dakota?

All my life I have been a student of the past, but found that there were very few options for me outside of the academic world, with its scholarship held hostage in unaffordable journals and obscured within mostly-inaccessible prose. Sitting in a cubicle two hundred miles away from my alma mater, my access to scholarly materials was limited. Unaware of the growing community of historians on the Internet, I felt out of sync with the current trends, research, and discussions. Working a standard eight-to-five, low-paying job limited my prospects in terms of getaways to archives in search of research material. What do you call a historian with no ability to practice her craft?

In the end, I chose to bail on my career in the land of lawyers and to cast my lot in a place that would allow me to know what being a historian felt like. Cue coursework, colleagues, thousands of dollars worth of books (and student loans), and seminars where I discovered I had overcome my fear of speaking up. It was paradise. As was the discovery that a future employed by a museum or historic site, sharing history with the masses and being a part of people’s vacations and guilty pleasures like so many others had been a part of mine was in the realm of possibilities. Three years and one degree later, I am waiting for my chance to do just that.

So back to the question at hand: what is a historian? Am I? Does one define a historian by her job title or does a historian define herself?

No, I am not a member of the academy—in that it is not my intention to ever seek a PhD en route to a tenured position—but I am an academic. No, I do not plan on becoming a professor, but I will be teaching. And yes, I would love to make a living as a genealogist. Perhaps in some circles that strips me of my historian credentials, but it is the kind of historian I choose to be—a student of history who is not necessarily bound by limits of era or geography; who wants to learn about herself just as much as she does about the citizens of the past. I am a historian whose affiliation is not to some institution I hope will find my work worthy of tenure, but rather to the people who wish to learn of the past. One who intends to create scholarship that is open to said people and includes them in its discussion. One that takes advantage of the technology at her disposal and uses it to do, share, and promote history. To bring together the scholar with the wannabe student, sitting in her cubicle, daydreaming of archival research or the little girl writing her own History of the Civil War in a yellow Fat Lil’ Notebook at home. It is a lofty goal. Wish me luck.