One of my favorite sayings is an oft-quoted one by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich- “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” This quote not only makes me feel better when I do things others consider wrong or strange, but it also has inspired a great deal of the research I’ve done both as a college student and now here at Conner Prairie. Let me explain a little more.
Every year, on the Thursday and Friday before our Civil War Days weekend,
which is May 19 & 20, Conner Prairie hosts a Civil War School Program. During the program, students visit six different stations where they learn about a variety of Civil War topics.
Last year I created a new session for the Civil War School Program, and choosing the topic for the session was easy. When I was in college I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a Confederate spy named Belle Boyd. Since discovering Belle in my research a few years before, I became fascinated with just how many women served as spies in the Civil War. Because of the way people thought about women at that time (that they were virtuous and innocent and would never hurt a fly), women made particularly good spies. They were able to gather information and send it on to the men they knew in the armies. Even if they were caught, the punishments they faced were far less than what male spies received, and so they could continue their work beyond the point where most men would have stopped.
There are stories about women who hid information in the layers of their dresses or the coils of their hair, because no one would ever demand to search a lady. Belle became notorious for charming information out of Union soldiers and then sharing it with Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson. Another woman, Elizabeth Van Lew, lived in Richmond, Virginia, but she supported the Union.
She ran a Union spy ring out of her home, sent secret messages with invisible ink, and allowed Union soldiers escaping from Confederate prisons to hide in her house. Emma Edmonds enlisted in the Union army disguised as a man, and then volunteered to become a spy. She had several alter egos, including a young male slave named Cuff and an Irish peddler woman named Bridget O’Shea. I could go on and on.
This year, we’re adding another new session to our Civil War School Program about nurses. Before the Civil War, most nurses were men. The high number of casualties on the battlefield soon demanded additional help in hospitals, and women stepped up to fill that need. Despite criticism from many doctors and government officials, who thought a military hospital was no place for a woman, women began serving as nurses. By war’s end, literally thousands of women had helped to care for sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the war.
It is so exciting to me that we get to now share the stories of these incredibly courageous women with our students. Many people in their own times told them their behavior was wrong or out of bounds, but they had the audacity to fight, in their own way, for what they believed in. And they made history.
Krystyna Karr - Conner Prairie Volunteer
In past years, Jane Hetrick, a former Conner Prairie employee, encouraged me to consider volunteering
, telling me that with my interests, it would be a good match. She knew how important service is to me and how volunteering has been a critical component in my life. With a background in education and a history of working with families and children, the opportunities available were appealing, and as I could be selective of the events and the positions, it would provide flexibility and avoid over scheduling.
When my schedule opened a little over a year ago, I completed the process; getting started was easy, one application, a background check, and orientation. Arlene and Jody at Conner Prairie made the process seamless, and when that first volunteer flier arrived, it was Headless Horseman
sign-up time. Taking advantage of the descriptions listed, I signed up for a few different positions so I could get some variety. After that event, I realized what Jane had been telling me.
It was a wonderful experience from that first day. I was blessed to meet people who had been volunteering for years, and they welcomed me openly. The staff provided clear instruction, and while they were “old pros” at what to expect, they, too, respected my newness. The children’s anticipation of the hayrides, families bouncing at the gates, and the stories circulating of what to expect resonated. After that, signing up was not a question but more of, “How can I help?” As long as my work and personal schedule allowed, I decided to give as much time as I could. I have been fortunate to assist with special events (Follow the North Star
, Headless Horseman, Civil War Days
, Symphony on the Prairie, Country Fair
, Conner Prairie by Candlelight
) other ongoing positions (school groups, new member orientation, free days, opening of Civil War Journey Raid on Indiana
), and, of course, the Conner Prairie Store
To say that I enjoyed one over another would be a lie, but I am not a believer in small roles. Each one has unique qualities, and the guests that choose to come to the different events make it worthwhile. Interacting with guests is more than just part of what I expected to do. Hearing how far they have travelled, learning about their lives, and sharing in their experience on the grounds/at the event, only make me want to help provide them the best time possible. And the more time I spend on the grounds, the easier it is to serve. The attention to detail in historical accuracy, the passion and knowledge of the staff, and the opportunities for the guests continue to impress me.
I mean it when I tell people that CP is a labor of love, and I seldom have met a staff person who acts as if this is just a job. I am ashamed to say I think I get more out of Conner Prairie than it gets from me! While other volunteer opportunities have crossed my path, I know where I will continue to serve. Conner Prairie can have my time and service as long as they want it.