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.
As the Liljenquist Family Fellow at the Library of Congress this summer, I am developing a set of source materials that focuses on the collection images of Civil War nurses. The task includes writing biographies and blog posts, and gathering information about each character. My hope is that this work situates nurses in the heart of the Civil War and proves their importance in the growing war historiography.
In focusing on a group of less studied Civil War figures, I’ve run into a few challenges. While some nurses have whole sets of books written about them, some nurses only have half of a name or a location where they lived.
These challenges have led me to do some historical detective work. I’m constantly digging up nearly-illegible census records in databases and recording birthdates from gravestone images posted online; I’ve even visited the National Archives and Records Administration to study the documents kept in each nurse’s pension file.
Even as I found all of this information, it’s made me wonder how I – a student attempting to present accessible biographies for all audiences – should be conveying the lives of these war heroes through my writing. It leads me to ask these questions: How do I synthesize a lifetime of experiences and information into a concise, compelling, and creative biography? Conversely, how can I draw a holistic narrative about a character from just a few facts?
In working with primary and secondary sources, I always consider what information is there and what isn’t. It then becomes my responsibility to create a healthy balance between the two when I write my own nurse biographies.
For example, I can include information about a nurse’s childhood, or I can spend more time explaining her services in a war hospital. Choosing the former might place outsized attention on a nurse’s domestic upbringing and diminish her wartime achievements – a narrative reframing that unfairly represents a nurse’s lived experience. Writing nurse biographies thus becomes a tricky game of including what I think is salient to their life story and excluding what could go unmentioned in a short source biography.
The three-fold dance between researcher, educator, and student is important because it holds all sides accountable to the pursuit of honest knowledge. As I continue working with the Liljenquist Collection this summer, I hope to keep these relationships at the forefront of my mind while I learn and write and share.
I appreciate this essay as a counterpoint to the later post on persevering to overcome research dead ends. The decision of what to include and what to exclude in a short biography is in this case a conscious, active one, but can stand for the partial and selective nature of most records, which give us only one view of a life or event. Which you choose makes a difference in what is known or remembered. It would be an instructive lesson to give the set of sources you draw on to a student group to ask them to decide what should be included in that short biography. They can ask the question: do biographies written about men usually differ from those written about women? If so, how? If so, do you have ideas about why?
I appreciate this blog and am wondering whether the work continues.
I am seeking facts regarding nurses Harriet Phillips and Rebecca Craighead, who worked in the western theater of war with the Western Sanitary Commission. Miss Phillips lived to claim a pension through the (belated) nurse pension program.
Linda Bryan, St. Paul, Minnesota.