Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

Richard C. “Rich” Saylor, an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives, has been deep within the treasures that are the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) collections for nearly twenty years. He has become a highly respected expert on Pennsylvania Civil War history, research, and artifacts on behalf of the Commission. With a master’s degree in American Studies from Penn State University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Elizabethtown College, Rich is also an established author. His works include two features for Pennsylvania Heritage, and he was one of the contributors to Documenting Pennsylvania’s Past: The First Century of the Pennsylvania State Archives, published by PHMC in 2003.

While Rich has held many positions in the agency, he’s about to be known for a new role as a military history author with PHMC Publications and Sales Division’s release this winter of Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders. The book is a visual celebration of PHMC’s Civil War collections and serves well to reveal many lesser-known aspects of the war and those responsible for Pennsylvania’s leadership as governors through the post-war period. While the book, like many of its scope and caliber, has taken time to unfold, the timing and segue of its release with the upcoming commemoration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War couldn’t be more ideal. As publisher of Soldiers to Governors, I interviewed Rich in order to provide a preview to readers and reveal how PHMC has fostered the development of the access and interpretation of its extensive Civil War collections.

This interview was conducted in the offices of PHMC’s Publications and Sales Division, Harrisburg, on Thursday, May 21, 2009.


History Has Always Had Meaning

Rich, when and how did you become interested in history?

I’m a native of York County and grew up in a small town named Dallastown and spent about thirty-five years of my life living within the borough limits. When I was eight years old, the first time that I ever remember becoming interested in history was during the bicentennial year [1976]. It really peaked my curiosity about the country’s history.

Who inspired you the most and in what ways?

My father was a collector. He collected coins, glassware, and things of that nature. I went to auctions with him as a youth. My mother was, and is, a voracious reader, and she really loves reading history and historical fiction books. She instilled the love of reading in all three of her children. I was fortunate to have parents who had an appreciation for American history. When I was a kid, my parents had a cabin in Franklin County, near Cowans Gap State Park. In the summertime, we would go up there almost every weekend, traveling the Lincoln Highway the whole way to Fort Loudon, which would take us through downtown Gettysburg.

Sitting in the back of my parents’ car on these trips back and forth every week was often the highlight of the travel for me. It was exciting to go through Gettysburg and see all the monuments along the roadside. It made me want to learn about the men who were represented by the monuments, and discover what they did at Gettysburg.

Was there ever a moment or series of experiences that set your course for your career?

I had just finished my sophomore year at Elizabethtown College and was lucky enough to get a paid summer internship as a museum assistant at Gettysburg National Military Park [GNMP]. That summer happened to be the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was my very first job in the history profession, and I was fortunate to work with GNMP museum curator Larry Eckert. I was able to learn a lot of new things like the proper handling of artifacts, cataloguing them, and being able to assist with cleaning exhibits and General [George Gordon] Meade’s headquarters on the battlefield. This really intrigued and fascinated me and made me think that this might be something I want to try as a career. The summer at Gettysburg and getting that internship really opened my eyes to the public history field.

Fast-forwarding to when you began your internship with the Pennsylvania State Archives in 1990, how has your role changed over the years with the PHMC?

I was very fortunate to have initially had exposure to both the State Archives and The State Museum collections with my internships. In terms of military history and Civil War history, I was very lucky to work with Bruce Bazelon. Bruce has been with the agency for many years and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the collections. I worked with Bruce from 1991 until he became a division chief in the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums in 1993. John Zwierzyna then became the curator of military, political, and industrial history at The State Museum, and I was fortunate to work for John for a number of years on various military exhibits. My career then progressed by becoming the assistant registrar for PHMC. This gave me a broader overview of the collections in the various PHMC historic sites and museums. In 1999, I earned my master’s degree and was offered an opportunity to go to the State Archives as an archivist.

I am currently an archivist and the section head of appraisal and acquisitions for the Pennsylvania State Archives. In that position, among other duties, I review offers of donations from private individuals, and also records transferred from state agencies that oftentimes have a military history element to them. I also serve on the PHMC collections committee that reviews all donations and purchases of artifacts that are brought into any of our field sites or museums.


The Importance of Civil War History

Much of the national, current interest in Civil War history is heightened by the upcoming sesquicentennial, beginning in 2011. Why is this history so compelling to so many?

The history of the Civil War has had a continuing popularity in the country dating back to immediately following the war when soldiers and veterans organizations like the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans established in 1866] tried to document their own history through collecting artifacts and records, writing their regimental histories, and creating their own mini-museums in the late nineteenth century. Then, through various periods in the late nineteenth century and the first two-fifths of the twentieth century, major battle anniversaries created a great awareness, at least in this part of the country — the East Coast — of things happening, events going on with these veterans. Then came the Civil War centennial from 1961 through 1965 — this really stirred a lot of public interest. At that point, you see a lot of reenactors and reenactment units becoming more and more prevalent. I think the interest generated from that time has not waned. And with today’s means of technology and disseminating information, it definitely has gained more and more public interest.

To further understand why Civil War history continues to be popular, you have to think about it in terms of how it continues to have an impact on our daily lives. Without the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederate states, our country would be a very different place. Many historians bring up the thought that if the Confederacy had survived, it may have split into various sections and smaller communities. The nation would not have had the manpower and resources as a united country to move forward into the twentieth century when we affected the outcomes of World War I and World War II. Things like that are the “what ifs” of history.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the Civil War touched the lives of everyone in America, due to its magnitude. I think nowadays people lose sight of the fact that more than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives during the war. I am not including various people that may have died on the home front with that figure, but that is the number of lives that were lost in military service combined from both sides — Union and Confederate. That exceeds the number of Americans who have died in service in all of the wars from the beginning of the country through the Vietnam War. That puts things in greater perspective for not only how important, but how pervasive the war was.

Looking to Civil War history we can see today, what is so special about PHMC’s Civil War collections?

The collections are very extensive and document Pennsylvania’s involvement in practically all facets of the Civil War, not just in political, governmental, or military matters. It extends into home front issues, women and children, and the production of various supplies Union armies needed.Looking to Civil War history we can see today, what is so special about PHMC’s Civil War collections? The collections are very extensive and document Pennsylvania’s involvement in practically all facets of the Civil War, not just in political, governmental, or military matters. It extends into home front issues, women and children, and the production of various supplies Union armies needed. Included are records and artifacts related to medical care that was being delivered not only in field hospitals, but also in hospitals that were located in northern communities. Civilian residents of Pennsylvania did what they could to help the soldiers in the field and in the hospitals. In many instances, not only do we have the objects or the original documents, but we also have the provenance that provides these stories with greater authenticity and provides a context for Civil War stories and studies that can be missing if you are not delving into collections as broad and deep as those at PHMC.


Civil War Soldiers Who Became Governors

In your forthcoming PHMC book, Soldiers to Governors, you offer a compelling story that is supported by the agency’s vast collections. For our readers, please provide a brief synopsis.

The book focuses on the military and political experiences of the six governors of Pennsylvania who were also veterans of the American Civil War. They were Brevet Major General John White Geary, Brevet Major General John Frederick Hartranft, Brevet Brigadier General Henry Martin Hoyt, Brevet Brigadier General James Addams Beaver, Second Lieutenant William Alexis Stone, and Private Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker.

The book covers the Civil War era, what they did, where they fought, what they thought about, what they were going through, and the greater issues of the war. It then goes on to follow these men as they transition from volunteer warriors, to private citizens again, and sees them enter public life by running and obtaining high political office. I made a conscious decision to allow them to tell their own stories, in their own words, through extensive use of quotations related to both their military and political experiences drawn from letters, diaries, and autobiographies from within PHMC and other historical collections.

Why is it important for us to know more about these Pennsylvania governors?

For me, these are collective experiences during the war, and afterwards, during their political lives, which encompass a large swath of the stories of the American Civil War generation. People like James Beaver not only became governor, but he was also a state Supreme Court judge. John Hartranft was not only governor; he served in a number of other roles in state government and was actually one of the Republican Party’s nominees for president in 1876. After the war, these men also had an impact, none more than Hartranft, on the state militia system — which eventually became the National Guard of Pennsylvania. They not only had an impact in Pennsylvania, but they also had national influence. Collectively, the military experiences of these six include most of the major battles fought throughout the Civil War. There is a lot of drama in their stories, as they were often right in the thick of the combat action.

The immediate post-war period is fascinating for several of these men, as well. For example, Hartranft was in charge of the U.S. Arsenal Prison following the war, which made him the chief jailor of the Lincoln conspirators. He was responsible for carrying out President Andrew Johnson’s order to have them executed. John White Geary was part of the military tribunal that tried Confederate Captain Henry Wirz for war crimes, who had been the commandant of Andersonville Prison. So as you see from just the few instances I’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of depth and stories to be told about these men.

What war experiences will readers find pivotal and unique?

One of the interesting things for me as a researcher and writer of this book was having access to the immense amount of first-person or original source material that these men left behind. So many of these narratives were entertaining or very significant and sometimes dealt with somber or tragic issues. In terms of tragedy, the letters written by John Geary to his brother and his wife talking about the loss of his oldest son killed at the Battle of Wauhatchie, Tennessee, in 1864, was a major one. It devastated him, and his love for the boy comes through poignantly in his letters. The other thing that comes through loud and clear is that Geary pulls no punches about how, from that moment on, he views the rest of the war as a quest for vengeance. He is determined to do everything in his power to seek out retribution from the Confederates for the fact that they took the life of his oldest son.

We also have the diaries and letters that James Beaver wrote home to his mother. In one letter he talks about how he learned of the death of his only full brother, J. Gilbert Beaver, at the Battle of Antietam. J. Gilbert was an officer in General Hartranft’s 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment at Antietam and was killed during the attack to take Burnside Bridge, an important strategic point of the battle. Beaver writes home about how he had been following the newspapers closely since learning of the battle, hoping not to see his brother’s name listed as a casualty. Eventually, a little over a week after the battle was over, he came back to his tent from performing some routine duties during the day and saw a newspaper had been left on his desk. He talks in expressive terms about his feelings of opening the paper and seeing his brother’s name in the mortality listing. Later the next year, on September 17, 1863, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, he colored in that date in a black outline in his diary, indicating that it was a day of mourning.

These writings recount much sacrifice, numerous war injuries and, in one case, near death.

Absolutely. Hartranft was wounded in battle, and Geary was shot a number of different times. But without a doubt, the one that sustained the most significant combat wounds was James Beaver. Beaver sustained serious wounds on numerous occasions throughout the war and finally, in August 1864, at the Battle of Ream’s Station, he is wounded so severely in the right leg that it necessitates amputation. Besides these moments of tragedy that these men have left behind for us in their writing, many of their military stories are heroic. They tell the tales of various battlefield experiences that, while couched in the frame of carnage and blood of warfare, are personally fulfilling to their careers and are uplifting. So there are a lot of different emotions in these primary documents that really humanize these figures and seem to almost bring them back to life.

From the standpoint of leadership, which of these six men had the greatest impact on Pennsylvania as governor – positive and negative?

In terms of positives, I would say Geary had a tremendous impact on state government while he was in office; he reduced the state debt by $10,000,000. He reformed railroad laws that diminished the railroad companies’ political influence in this state. He improved coal mine safety by getting inspectors into the mines. Geary promoted public school education and called for a new state constitutional convention. He was also a great proponent of the soldiers’ orphans’ schools and for the establishment of a home for Pennsylvania’s disabled veterans.

In terms of negatives, I would be remiss without mentioning that during Pennypacker’s term there was the great scandal regarding the amount of funds that were expended for furnishing the new State Capitol building. It was originally supposed to be limited to $900,000, but when the final totals were added up, it was $7.7 million over the appropriation. No one has ever successfully linked any wrongdoing to Pennypacker himself, but certainly there were people in his administration who took advantage of the situation and that reflects badly on his administration.

Hartranft also had some negative events occur during his administration. The state suffered through a serious economic decline following the Panic of 1873. He was also in office when the state executed a number of the Molly Maguires, which was very controversial.

Who is your favorite among the governors?

One of the governors of this book that I really enjoyed and became fascinated with is James Beaver. Here is a man that enlists in the Union Army almost immediately after the war breaks out. He goes in as a first lieutenant in the Second Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment and is promoted three times during the war. Beaver is wounded frequently while leading troops in combat but keeps coming back as fast as he possibly can. He really thrives and enjoys the role of being a commander in the field. Beaver was fearless in combat, and there are numerous reports of him leading from the front, in the thick of the action. There is a great letter that he wrote to his mother on a cartridge wrapper that we have in our collection. He used the wrapper because he did not have access to any other writing material, as he and his men were pinned down in front of the Confederate lines at the Battle of Cold Harbor.

When reading his letters and diaries, it becomes evident that he had a great belief in God. He had a great belief that preserving the Union was something that Divine Providence had ordained, and he was willing to do anything and everything in his power to try to secure that. I mentioned before that he lost his only full brother at Antietam. He lost his own right leg at the Battle of Ream’s Station. This is a man that suffered emotionally and physically for his beliefs and yet, after his leg is amputated, when he finally gets a much overdue promotion to brigadier general, he resigns his commission because he can no longer lead troops in the field. There is also a great letter from General Winfield Scott Hancock, Commander of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and also a native of Pennsylvania. He writes to the U.S. War Department requesting they convince Beaver to stay in the Army, because Hancock holds Beaver in such high regard as an officer and wants him to stay in service. Beaver declines these overtures and states that he does not believe that he can adequately serve his country anymore due to his disability. We have his letters and diaries, some of his uniforms and uniform accoutrements, and his actual campaign desk that he used in the field, which makes this a really nice assemblage of three-dimensional artifacts and documentary evidence that PHMC is fortunate enough to have and reveal in the book.

How did the book get started?

In 2001, PHMC decided to make the vast Civil War holdings of the PHMC accessible to a broader audience. Dr. James P. Weeks of Penn State University was brought on to do a survey of PHMC collections and to write a book about the most important objects in the collection. Tragically, in 2004, Dr. Weeks died, and I was asked if I was interested in taking on the responsibility of seeing the book project through to completion. I accepted. In terms of the book [Soldiers to Governors], it started off as a chapter I proposed to add to the larger book project initiated in 2001. I thought this chapter, focusing on the six post-Civil War governors who were veterans, should be added to what Dr. Weeks had originally framed with the other chapters. I was very intrigued by the subject, and in realizing the amazing amount of material, both documentary and illustrative, about these governors that PHMC possesses, it became a natural decision that it deserved to be its own book. Thus, Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders was born.

When we mention the larger book project, we are talking about what will be a second PHMC book to be published in the future entitled Gettysburg and Beyond: The American Civil War Collections of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Correct. This second book, for which I’ll be the lead author and editor, will be more expansive and involve much more of the comprehensive PHMC Civil War holdings, including a number of objects and images from PHMC historic sites.

From the standpoint of contributions, how much of the content of Soldiers to Governors was originally contributed from private collections?

A lot of them came into agency hands through private donations of individual family members. In particular, we believe that is how The State Museum acquired the Geary collection. We know for certain that a large percentage of the Beaver material came directly from the Beaver family. The Pennypacker Collection came to us from descendants of Governor Pennypacker. A number of the manuscripts that we have for Hartranft came in through the Stockham and Shireman families, descendants of Hartranft. Without these donations, the depth and quality of our collections would be severely diminished. When a family decides to entrust these treasured family artifacts, documents, and heirlooms to PHMC, so that they will be preserved in perpetuity and shared with their fellow Pennsylvanians, I feel that they deserve a standing ovation.


A Keystone of the War

Why is Pennsylvania central to American Civil War history?

There are many reasons, and I’m providing them here in no particular order.

One reason would be the Battle of Gettysburg was fought here from July 1–3, 1863, which in combination with the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, was a significant turning point in the military story of the war. It’s also important for us to remember that Pennsylvania supplied more troops to the Union cause than any other state, other than New York, by sending 362,000 Pennsylvanians into the Union Army. The cost suffered by the state in terms of lost soldiers’ lives was 33,183. This produces a fatality ratio indicating that if you were from Pennsylvania and went into the service during the Civil War, there was little more than a nine percent chance that you were not going to come back alive.

The largest northern assembly and training camp during the war was at Camp Curtin, in Harrisburg. Many important leaders during the Civil War came from Pennsylvania, including politicians Simon Cameron and Thaddeus Stevens. Many military leaders were native Pennsylvanians such as George G. Meade, George B. McClellan, John F. Reynolds, and Winfield Scott Hancock. More African American troops for the U.S. Colored Troops were raised in Pennsylvania than in any other northern state, with a total of 8,612. That total does not include the many African Americans from Pennsylvania who enlisted in other states’ regiments prior to the establishment of the U.S. Colored Troops.

In addition, Pennsylvania was incredibly endowed with natural resources that were important for military purposes, which helped make the Commonwealth the key manufacturing center for the Union war effort. In rankings, it was first among all the states in the production of coal, timber, oil, iron, and steel during the war. Another thing that is important to realize, and is markedly different today, is that at the time of the Civil War, Pennsylvania had the second largest population of any state in the entire country. So all of those factors and many others help make Pennsylvania central to the American Civil War story.


Pennsylvania’s Role in the Sesquicentennial

How do you see Pennsylvania’s stories and your book fitting into the up-coming sesquicentennial, from 2011 through 2015?

These resources will increase awareness for the amazing Civil War collections that PHMC holds. The initiative will help a wider audience discover the ways that many people in Pennsylvania impacted the Union war effort, not just the troops. They will bring more attention to Pennsylvania’s Civil War stories that go beyond the Battle of Gettysburg.

In what areas of this initiative have you participated?

Two of the sub-projects within the initiative that I have been most pleased to be part of are the Civil War Muster-Out Rolls Project and the Pennsylvania Civil War Trails Project.

The trails project has been led by both the Department of Community and Economic Development and PHMC and assisted by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, so it has been a nice working relationship amongst state agencies. It grew out of the desire for the state to properly identify areas in southcentral Pennsylvania, outside of the traditional battlefield sites, that were important locations for events that happened during the war years. Four themes were developed and a total of fifty-six stories were written with help from the local communities in which these sites exist. The four themes are African American stories, commerce and daily life, women and children, and the defense of the Commonwealth. I have served as the co-chair of the interpretive committee for the trails program since its inception and served as the final editor of all these stories and the author of several of them. To date, forty of these stories have been produced as [state historical] markers and installed in their respective communities.

The muster-out rolls project began in 2006 and has been funded by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Humanities Save America’s Treasures grant. It targeted twenty-five hundred muster rolls in the Pennsylvania State Archives’ collections for treatment and conservation. These original Civil War muster rolls show the final disposition of Pennsylvania troops at the time that their individual companies and regiments mustered out of service. They have been used as proof of service by, and for, veterans for nearly one hundred and fifty years and, unfortunately, show the wear of much overuse. I have served as the project archivist for this much-needed conservation and preservation initiative.

What is your greatest motivation with Civil War history?

The desire to make the lesser-known Civil War stories and sites in Pennsylvania better known is a driving force for me. It’s a great moment when your writing, or speaking, tells a story related to the Civil War that is outside the general boundaries of what an audience might already know, and you hear people say, “Really, that happened here?” It’s very rewarding.

I know our readers are going to be eagerly awaiting the publication of Soldiers to Governors, and with respect to PHMC and your involvement in Pennsylvania’s Civil War history, the contribution will be tremendous. Rich, thank you very much for this interview.

Thank you, Ted. It has been a pleasure.


For Further Reading

Blair, William A., and Bell I. Wiley. A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Bradley, Erwin Stanley. The Triumph of Militant Republicanism: A Study of Pennsylvania and Presidential Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

Dyer, Frederick H. Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959.

Gambone, A. M. Major-General John Frederick Hartranft: Citizen Soldier and Pennsylvania Statesman. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1995.

Greene, LeRoy. Shelter for His Excellency. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1951.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry for Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Pennypacker, Samuel Whitaker. The Autobiography of a Pennsylvanian. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1918.

Steers Jr., Edward, and Harold Holzer, eds. The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.

Swetnam, George. The Governors of Pennsylvania, 1790–1990. Greensburg, Pa.: McDonald/Seward Publishing Company, 1990.

Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial. New York: Random House, 1961.


In addition to lauding Rich Saylor’s recent authorship of Soldiers to Governors, Ted Walke gratefully acknowledges the outstanding creative roles of Michael J. O’Malley III as editor and Kimberly L. Stone as art director for the book. Edward L. Ayres, Ph.D., president of the University of Richmond, and the panel of PHMC and external reviewers must also be acknowledged for their participation in this timely book project.


Ted R. Walke is the chief of PHMC’s Publications and Sales Division. He has led creative services and publication development for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 1983.