My W&L: Alex Retzloff ’15
“W&L professors have a knack for making their students realize their true potential.”
As I stepped out of the hot July sun and into the cool, sleek marble halls of the National Archives Building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C., I could not help but get a chill. It was more than the sudden change in temperature that struck me; it was the sudden realization that what I was about to do had never been done before.
That hot July day was the beginning of a summer spent sifting through the dusty files and miles of microfilm that constitute the complete records of the Union’s Commissary General of Prisoners and other such Civil War-Era records. I was searching for data relating to the men of the 2nd Regiment, United States Volunteer Infantry — the “Galvanized Yankees,” Confederate prisoners of war who, in 1864, accepted the Lincoln Administration’s offer of amnesty in exchange for enlisting for military service in the Union Army on the Western frontier. Very little has been published about these odd Union soldiers, and even less has been written about the lives of these men before they joined the Union Army. My goal was to change that — to write an in-depth history of these curious, forgotten men. Over the next few months, these men, the subject of my honors thesis for the W&L History Department, would become very familiar to me as I sorted out who they were, where they were from, how and why they served in the Confederate military first, and why they chose to join the Union Army after fighting for the Confederacy.
I had not planned on writing an honors thesis in history when I first came to W&L. The idea of researching my own topic and then writing dozens of pages on that topic was simply unfathomable. I just did not think I could do it. Yet W&L professors have a knack for making their students realize their true potential and revise their initial assumptions of what they are capable of accomplishing.
Dr. Holt Merchant, my academic advisor and first history professor, was the first such professor to change my outlook on my scholastic potential. With his spellbinding lectures and infectious passion for his subject, he instantly hooked me on the History Department and everything it has to offer. Through his rigorous instruction he took me from a green, confused first-year and molded me into a confident scholar. And it was he who first approached me with the idea of writing an honors thesis. After listening to his pitch and the advice of the numerous other history professors with whom I had become friends, especially that of Dr. Barton Myers, the man who would become my thesis advisor, and Dr. Ted DeLaney, my second academic advisor, I decided to take the bull by the horns and agreed to write one.
Now, months later and nearly finished with the project, I can say that writing an honors thesis in history has been the most rewarding experience of my time at W&L. It has taught me how to research a topic on a grand scale, continue a narrative for dozens of pages, and write in a manner that is both interesting and persuasive. More importantly, it has instilled in me confidence in my own abilities. I now know what I can do; I am closer to understanding my true potential. Without the help, guidance, encouragement, and support I received from the faculty and staff in the University’s History Department, this would not have been possible. It is thanks to the many amazing individuals here at W&L that I have succeeded in this project and now have something tangible that I can hold up proudly as my greatest achievement at W&L.