Elmhurst College: History Gets Personal

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History Gets Personal

For nearly as long as she can remember, Samantha Musick has had an uncommon interest in American history. But it wasn’t until she went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July for the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Civil War battle fought there that she discovered how deeply personal that interest was.

Musick, a sophomore from Justice working on a double major in history and economics, traveled to Gettysburg on a First-Year Seminar Summer Fellow Grant from Elmhurst College to research the role played by one of her ancestors in the battle. For years, Musick had been hearing family stories about Confederate General George Edward Pickett, who is best remembered for leading the doomed Confederate assault on Federal lines that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. The failed attack turned out to be the decisive moment in the battle and, some have argued, of the entire war.

“I wanted to trace what Pickett did at Gettysburg,” Musick said. She walked the historic battlefield and talked with scholars and reenactors who had gathered for the anniversary of the battle that came to define her ancestor. She followed the path marched by Pickett’s troops on July 3, 1863, when they crossed nearly a mile of open country under intense artillery fire to attack Federal troops atop Cemetery Ridge. “It was a powerful experience. I’ve done research, I’ve seen pictures, but to physically cross the fields those soldiers crossed made you see what a horrible battle it was. It made history come alive for me.”

Pickett’s Charge has become one of the most exhaustively studied and debated actions of the war. But for Musick, Pickett’s story is American history with a decidedly personal resonance. She was still in grade school when her grandmother Mildred showed her a photo of the old general, explaining that the family descended directly from the general’s brother, Charles. Looking closely, Musick thought she spotted a family resemblance. The general had her grandmother’s eyes.

“That sparked my interest in the Civil War,” Musick said. “I didn’t know a lot about him, but I read more and more. It was cool to see where I came from.”

Musick’s reading revealed more about Pickett’s part in one of the most momentous days in American history. At a key moment on the climactic third day of fighting at Gettysburg, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, Pickett had urged his troops forward toward the center of the Federal lines, telling them, “Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia.” But the Confederates were repulsed with heavy losses. More than half the men who charged with Pickett on July 3 were killed or wounded. “I never saw such slaughter,” one Michigan soldier later recalled. Riding out to meet the retreating survivors, a sorrowful Lee took the blame for the defeat, telling his soldiers, “It is all my fault.” But it was Pickett’s name that would forever be associated with the failed charge.

Intrigued by her ancestor’s story, Musick developed a fervor for history. She admits to an enthusiasm for archival research that puzzles her friends. “They’ll complain about having to deal with dusty old books in the library, but I love it,” she laughs. “I can sit in a library for 12 hours and still want more. There is something about old books that’s fascinating. Libraries makes me happy.”

At Gettysburg, though, Musick delved into history in a more visceral and sobering way. Walking the battlefield in midsummer heat, she imagined bearing the 40-pound packs that soldiers typically carried, and wearing their heavy uniforms. She saw how the knee-high grass, the uneven terrain and the smoke of battle could obscure the perils awaiting an advancing soldier. And there, too, she bonded with others drawn to the battlefield by scholarly interest or personal passion. She met descendants of General Lee and talked with them of the long-rumored animosity between Pickett and Lee. Some have suggested that, despite Lee’s acceptance of responsibility after the battle, the two generals blamed each other for the defeat at Gettysburg. But 150 years on, among their descendants, there was only a shared respect for the sacrifices made in battle.

“I felt like I was among my own people there,” Musick said. “Everyone understood why this was important. Everyone got it.”

Musick hopes to have more chances to exercise her love of archival research. She plans to dig deeper into Pickett’s life, which was fascinating even before he stepped onto the national stage at Gettysburg. (During a pre-war stint in Springfield, Illinois, he came to know a young state legislator named Abraham Lincoln.) Musick plans to apply for another summer fellowship in 2014, this time to fund research at the Library of Congress. Deep in the archives there, she hopes to find more to help her understand a very personal chapter of American history.

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