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Western Civilization Series Addresses Ohio and the Civil War

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dr. Robert Engs, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Pennsylvania, talked to Western Civilization 2 students on Tuesday. Professor Engs, who is currently working on a project at the College of William and Mary, told them about the Evans, an Ohio family, and the Civil War. The Evans family left behind a treasure trove of letters written during the Civil War. Samuel Evans went off to fight in the war, eventually becoming an officer with a troop of African-American troops. Engs mentioned that Samuel's motivation seemed to be that he was tired of walking, and since non-commissioned officers who volunteered to become officers with African-American troops were issued horses, he jumped at the chance to save his feet.

Evans' father, Andrew, was less than thrilled about his son's decision, and even threatened to disown him. He told Samuel that "I would rather clean out shit-houses than accept your position." Engs, who was Dr. Waters' undergraduate adviser at Penn, also related the story that handling the dead from the Battle of Shilo was chaotic, and many of the coffins that were sent back to Ripley had the wrong bodies in them.

Samuel's habit of sending home the letters that he received from his family members ensured that when one of his decedents was cleaning out a house, the complete record of family interactions came to light. Engs knew a relative of the man who found the letters and so was asked to put them into book form. Their Patriotic Duty: The Civil War Letters of the Evans Family of Ripley Ohio was the result.

Engs talk was valuable for students who were given an inside look at how history is written, and what sources are sometimes available. Engs was doubly lucky. First to gain access to the letters, and secondly that the Ripley family had remarkably readable handwriting, which is not always the case in these situations.