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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.

Hometown: Tupper Lake, NY

Major: History (American emphasis)

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • University Board of Appeals
  • Student Judicial Council
  • University Writing Center
  • Peer Tutoring Program
  • Sigma Nu Fraternity, Lambda Chapter
  • Appalachian Adventure Pre-Orientation Program
  • Traveller Safe-Ride Program
  • W&L Fly-Fishers Club

Off-Campus Experiences:

I spent the summer of my junior year in Lexington and Washington, D.C. researching the topic of my Honors Thesis in History. It was an enlightening and fun experience that took me deep into the stacks of Civil War-era prison and recruitment documents housed in the National Archives.

Favorite W&L Memory: Fly-fishing in Woods Creek behind Elrod Commons is definitely my favorite W&L memory. Few people realize that there are fish to be caught in Woods Creek, and even fewer ever fish for them. Indeed, in the four years that I have spent stalking the banks of Woods Creek in pursuit of fish, I have never encountered another fisherman. Of course, I have received some pretty funny looks from passers-by, but the fish make it worthwhile — diverse, feisty, and colorful little creatures.

Favorite Class: History 244: Military Leadership of the Civil War with Dr. Holt Merchant.

Favorite W&L Event: Appalachian Adventure, the series of First-Year pre-orientation trips that hike along the Appalachian Trail for five days, is my favorite W&L event. I went on a trip my freshman year and found it to be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. I even joined the same fraternity as two of my other fellow trip participants. As good as the trip was as a freshman participant, it was exceedingly more fun as a trip leader my junior and senior years. I got to meet a host of awesome, zany people all the while enjoying some of the most beautiful places in the Commonwealth. I learned so much about others and myself by participating in and leading these trips and will forever cherish my memories of bears, rattlesnakes, blisters, wild crayfish boils, mountain sunsets, breathtaking views, and uncountable laughs.


Favorite Campus Landmark: The errant Civil War-era Federal artillery shell still lodged in the side of the Morris House — a reminder of General David Hunter’s raid on VMI and W&L during the Lynchburg Campaign.

What professor has inspired you? That would, without a doubt, be Dr. Holt Merchant. I had my first class with Dr. Merchant, my initial academic advisor, in the Fall Term of my freshman year. We studied the administrations and legacies of the first four American Presidents. It was a first-year writing seminar and I do not think I have ever learned so much in so little time. He got me hooked on the History Department and inspired me to follow my passions for history and historical research. Just under four years later, I have completed six courses with Dr. Merchant and am currently working with him on my honors thesis in history. He has been a phenomenal role model, friend and mentor for me during my entire career at W&L. Few men have had so profound an impact on my life.