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Helping to Write History

By Abbey Becker

Sarah Adler

Photo of Sarah Adler by Abbey Becker

For many people, it takes years to figure out what direction they want their life to take. But Sarah Adler, BA history and American studies ’13, discovered her lifelong passion when she was in eighth grade. “During our Civil War unit, we marched from my town in Pennsylvania to Gettysburg and spent the night on the battlefield,” says Adler, “and I really loved it.” Throughout high school, she served as a docent at the historic train station where President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg, and she worked at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. “I’ve surrounded myself with Civil war history, and I still haven’t lost interest.”

Now at AU, Adler is continuing to follow her passion through a research internship for a branch of the National Parks Service called the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom alongside regional coordinator Dr. Jenny Masur. Adler is helping Masur find archival records that might help to determine whether black soldiers in the 23rd U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War were former slaves, specifically if they were residents of the Freedman’s Village on General Robert E. Lee’s former plantation.

The Freedman’s Village was destroyed in 1887 to make way for what is now the Arlington National Cemetery. While there’s a marker in the cemetery to commemorate where the village once was, there’s little else there to interpret. Once Adler’s research is complete, the Parks Service can use it in its interpretive materials, like plaques or guidebooks. “They can make a definitive statement,” she says.

Adler does much of the research solo, and she’s spent time at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Arlington Central Library’s Virginia Room collecting census information from the Freedman’s Village and soldiers’ records from the particular regiment. “Now that I have the names of the people in the regiment and the names of the people in the village, I’m hoping to see if something matches up,” says Adler.

Based on preliminary findings, Adler and Masur think there’s a possibility that some of the members of the regiment didn’t enlist on their own. “We have some suspicion that there might have been people recruiting them forcefully, especially as substitutes for white men that were drafted,” Adler explains. “We have one record of a superintendent of the Freedman’s Village complaining to the U.S. government that U.S. Colored Troops were coming in and forcing the men to enlist, but that man is also accused of some pretty bad crimes, so we’re not sure if we trust him.”

Adler’s next step, after she makes connections between the Freedman’s Village and the regiment’s enlistment records, is to dig up pension records. “Those are going to be a gamble, though, because to get your pension, all you had to do was basically prove that you served honorably,” she says. “Some of them just say, ‘I served honorably.’ Other records will have their whole life story.”

Despite the difficulties that Adler sometimes faces in her research, she’s committed to her path and plans to become a professor. “I love being around my professors, and I also work in the history office, so I have some idea of what they do day to day,” she says. “It’s a flexible job, and it would allow me to essentially do whatever interests me.”

Adler knows how rare a history internship that deals with the Civil War can be, and she’s not taking any part of it for granted. “This internship is really research-based, and I’m very reliant on my own time management,” she says. “I think that’s really great practice for the future.”