A Detective Story—And Some Fascinating Civil War Research
A history professor, Sally McMurry, was going through old tax rolls in the basement of the Centre County Historical Museum in Bellefonte, and she needed a break. (Understandably.) She happened to notice a hunk of what appeared to be deteriorating leather on one of the shelves, and when she opened it, she discovered it was records from the Civil War, a list of deserters from Pennsylvania.
So she alerted her colleague, William Blair, head of Penn State’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Center, who was amazed. “I’d never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. “That’s not easy to do these days.”
Thus began some detective work for Blair, whose current research focuses on northern homefronts during the Civil War. This was a detour, but an enlightening one. He decided to focus on the 148th Pennsylvania Regiment, known as the Centre County unit, as a microcosm of the whole, and he looked for connections on the highly detailed rosters (which you can peruse here) to determine whether there was anything special about the age, place of birth, occupation, or other characteristics of the men. Nothing leaped out.
Two questions were paramount: Why was the federal government—specifically, the Provost Marshal General—preparing such a document? And why was the document prepared in 1866, after the war ended?
Eventually, Blair came up with the answer: to prevent them from voting. He told a fascinating tale that I’d never fully understood: There was no secret ballot, and the Republicans—the party of Lincoln, which held power—wanted to punish the anti-war Democrats and secure their own positions in power. So Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting deserters—most of whom were Democrats—from voting. The list enabled whoever was monitoring the ballot box to prevent the Democratic deserters from voting. “And it was easy enough,” Blair added, “to overlook if there were any Republican deserters.”
Not Pennsylvania’s finest moment, for sure. The law was eventually challenged and ruled unconstitutional by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which noted that because the law was ex post facto—the punishment was decided upon after the offenses had already occurred—it could not stand.
The story was entertaining enough. But the bigger picture was fascinating, too. The deserter documents have been entered into a database, and they—along with a lot of other data, including a selection of Pennsylvania Civil War era newspapers that Blair called “a real treasure”—are being made available to everyone by the University Libraries.
“This is the way to move forward with databases,” said Blair, explaining that searching through such data is one of the important new ways to do historical research. “It doesn’t replace walking the shelves or flipping through newspapers, though.”
The Civil War exhibition runs through Friday; hours are 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 to 5 on Friday. You can see the list of the deserters—and a lot of other interesting primary sources—at this website whenever you want.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
Entry filed under: College of the Liberal Arts, Faculty research, Pattee Library, Penn State faculty. Tags: Centre County Historical Society, George and Ann Richards Civil War Center, Sally McMurray, William Blair.