Teaching Gettysburg

My Civil War class begins a three-day discussion of Gettysburg tomorrow. I never feel comfortable teaching Gettysburg. Actually, I rarely feel completely comfortable teaching anything related to battlefield tactics and strategy. You may laugh, but the reason is because I have such difficulty following the movements of the armies. I can handle the movements of corps and divisions, but get below that and I just throw my hands up in the air. This is a bit of an exxageration, but not by much. Perhaps all of this is just a symptom of the fact that I really do not care about the minutiae of the battlefield. I am fascinated by the battlefield experience, but I have little understanding of people who focus on knowing every detail about the placement and movement of various units. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there is a place for all of this — I just don’t want to have to read it. I have read the books by Gordon Rhea, most of Stephen Sears, and even the Pfanz book on the first day of Gettysburg, so it’s not as if I’ve completely ignored the genre.

My students – and most people in general – expect the same old tired stories that portray Gettysburg as the turning point of the war from a perspective that emphasizes what could have been for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Here is a possible lesson plan: Explain how the battle might have turned out had “Stonewall” Jackson been present. (Please notice the sarcasm) Seems to me what is most important about the campaign is what happened off the battlefied. Why is Lee’s army engaged in rounding up fugitive slaves in the Gettysburg area 7 months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect? How did the battle and the progress of the war in the North contribute to the draft riots that took place in New York City shortly thereafter? How did Confederates and Southerners evaluate the results of the campaign? These are much more important questions if you are interested in understanding the evolution of the war. I hope that my classes are entertaining, but at the same time I hope that my students walk away with a more sophisticated understanding of the Civil War.

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