I wrote two years ago about Penn State’s “HIST 197: History of Penn State” course, which was debuting as a “special topics” (temporary) course for the Fall 2017 semester as an undergraduate elective. A handful of Penn Staters had started talking about the need for a course that would formally introduce Penn Staters to their own history, and in both Professor Michael Kulikowski and Professor Mike Milligan we found kindred spirits who believed in the importance of such a course. Penn State News reported on the launch of the course at the time.

This morning when I opened my inbox, I saw a note from Penn State letting me know that the University Faculty Senate has approved the course for permanent status, and with that comes a change in its number to “HIST 148: History of Penn State”. Here’s the newly-listed course in Penn State’s LionPATH course catalogue:

 

What makes “HIST 148: History of Penn State” even more special is that the permanent course number itself refers to some of Penn State’s earliest history:

When President Lincoln called for 300,000 more troops to quell the rebels from the South [in advance of the Battle of Gettysburg], Centre County produced 700 able-bodied men who would largely fill the roster of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment. Later tagged the Centre County regiment, it was led by Col. James Beaver, who would go on to become the 20th governor of Pennsylvania as well as acting president of Penn State after the death of George Atherton.

Matthew Swayne puts a bit more color on the portrait of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment:

Robert M. Forster (spelled Foster in some records), who served as the Farm School’s first postmaster, actively recruited students to join Lincoln’s call for an additional 300,000 soldiers in 1862. Several students left with Forster, joining the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. …

While dozens of Farm School students fought to keep the Union together, the institution’s president, Evan Pugh, struggled to hold onto enough students to keep the new institution from fading into oblivion. …

As Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marched north, war fever and war fears spread throughout Pennsylvania and into the Farm School. Lincoln and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin called for 50,000 volunteers from the state. Students, often without consent from their parents or from school officials, left to join the hastily formed militias. …

The battle of Gettysburg had less to do with the Confederate Army’s hunt for shoes — a common explanation of why the two armies decided to fight it out in the southeastern Pennsylvania community — and more to do with the town’s position as a transportation hub in the mid-1800s, according to Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History at Penn State. The town was at the center of several roads, or pikes, as well as a rail line, that connected to the cities of Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Harrisburg. …

On July 2, 1863, Postmaster Forster, now a captain of the 148th’s Company C, and his fellow soldiers, including several former Farm School students, were positioned near the Union’s vulnerable left flank [at Gettysburg] in a wheatfield that would be transformed into, as Reardon describes it, “a horrific no-man’s land covered thickly with the dead and wounded from both armies.” …

[Captain Forster] was listed as one of the many casualties during the bloody fighting in the Wheatfield on July 2. … A nearly daylong series of charges and counter-charges ensued. While leading one of those charges to maintain the Union position, Forster was shot in the head. He was initially buried near the remains of Confederate Gen. William Barksdale on a Gettysburg farm. Forster’s brother-in-law later retrieved the captain’s remains and re-interred them in Centre County’s Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery. …

While Pugh struggled to stop students from leaving the school to fight in the war, he also considered joining the Army. Pugh wrote in a letter to Johnson, “Prof. Wilson and myself have been helping to raise a military company at Boalsburg. He is elected captain and will go if called upon. I would have gone if I could have left. Walker, Buner, Stoner, and Rich have gone.” He added, with uncharacteristic venom, “I would leave my quakerism at home till we could give those traitor scoundrels such a thundering thrashing as no people ever got before.”

Instead, Pugh fought the war by wielding a pen to write letters, campaigning endlessly for the Farm School in Harrisburg and enduring batteries of meetings with government officials and bureaucrats to shore up its land-grant status. Pugh, though, had an almost prophetic belief that while the war would be won on battlefields, the peace and the reconstruction that would follow would be won on the campuses of universities like Penn State.

If you want to support this course, consider a gift to the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment in the College of the Liberal Arts, which specifically supports HIST 148: History of Penn State.

I’ve made a habit of visiting Penn State to sit in on the course for a lecture each semester it’s been offered so far (Fall 2017 and 2018), and am planning to do that again sometime this autumn.