Where Do You Go If You’ve Reached a Historical “Dead End”?

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Lindqwister, the 2019 Family Fellow for the Liljenquist Collection of Civil War Photography at the Library of Congress. Elizabeth is an undergraduate student at Stanford University and will be working with the collection and the Library’s Prints and Photographs division for the summer.

I don’t believe in dead ends. A cul-de-sac is just a looping point, a retirement is a new beginning, running out of time is finding time for something else. And a Civil War nurse identified only by name and location? Well, that’s an opportunity.

When I started looking into nurse Cynthia Denham, I realized I had very little information. The carte-de-visite we have is not very telling, showing only a small image of her face in a distant yet pleased expression. Even when flipping the image over to look at the verso, I found just a name, a town, and the hospital she worked at – that was it.

Portrait of Cynthia R. Tuell Denham, a Rhode Island nurse who served at Lovell General Hospital during the Civil War. Joshua Appleby Williams

Verso, Portrait of Cynthia R. Tuell Denham, a Rhode Island nurse


So where can you look if you think you’ve run out of information about a person or place? How can we encourage students to be persistent researching in the face of a “dead end”? And how do we equip students with the knowledge of databases and archives, so that when they run into a historical dead end, they know where to keep looking?

It would seem that I reached a historical dead end with Cynthia Denham. But the image verso gave me just enough information, and I knew that there was more to be found about this nurse than what a simple online search would turn up.

Shuffling through files at the National Archives and Records Administration, I located a pension file application for Cynthia, and within minutes I was looking at the papers she submitted in 1896.

Lovell General Hospital, situated right on the water of Portsmouth Grove. The hospital was transformed out of the Portsmouth Grove Estate, when the mounting injuries from war demanded more extensive medical care. Joshua Appleby Williams

From this information, I was able to construct the life around her. Pension records gave faces to a family I had only guessed about previously; letters described her strenuous work at Lovell General Hospital; her personal notes were signed with a shaky hand that exposed Cynthia’s later-life health issues.

The Library’s collections were crucial in further situating Cynthia’s life in Civil War history, and images from the Prints and Photographs Division gave a realness to the wartime life she held and illustrated the places and people she likely engaged with. For example, this image of Portsmouth Grove shows the very hospital she worked at for the majority of the war, where Cynthia may have tended to upwards of 100 soldiers daily.

This image was a perfect springboard for me to find information about the other nurses, surgeons, and soldiers who passed through Rhode Island. Katharine Prescott Wormeley, another Liljenquist Collection nurse, was Superintendent of Lovell and might have been an acquaintance of Cynthia’s. Cynthia may have worked with Surgeon William F. McCormick, who also served at Lovell during the war.

Anna Maria Ross, Civil War nurse and Lady Principal at Cooper Shop Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This photograph was taken the year of her death, in 1863. Moses S. Hagaman

And her husband, Daniel Denham, was enlisted in a regiment that passed through Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon and Hospital – the very same Cooper Shop Hospital that fellow nurse Anna Maria Ross helped found. This research created a cohesive narrative for one woman, while further connecting seemingly unrelated photos in the Liljenquist Collection.

Finding a single nib of information can lead to millions of other related gems buried in archives. When faced with a historical dead end, I sought alternative routes. A lack of information is an open invitation to creative research. So look to the Library’s photographs, maps, or manuscripts – chances are, there’s something there.

Leave us a comment about how you incorporate visual and textual items to deepen student understanding of history!