Well, my fall semester Civil War class is slowly winding down. Students are working to complete their research projects and I continue to deal with various stages of senioritis (most of my students in this class are seniors). That said, I am pleased with their progress.
The other day we had a wonderful discussion that centered on a recent article in North and South Magazine by Peter S. Carmichael, titled “Confederate Crusaders: Virginia’s Last Generation Fights the Civil War” (Vol. 8, No. 5: Sept. 2005). The article is based on his recently released study, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. Students were responsible for reading the article and evaluating the thesis. We’ve been focusing on this skill over the course of the semester and many of the students have worked hard on their 2-page thesis summaries, which are required for each article. I want my students to see history as a process. They should understand that history is not simply the collecting of facts followed by memorization, but an ongoing discussion built on interpretation, critical analysis, and revision. Carmichael’s article is an ideal piece for analysis. His generational approach to the Civil War is ideal for students not much younger than the men under consideration. The thesis is clearly articulated: Carmichael analyzes 110 young Virginia men born between 1831 and 1843. All grew up in families connected materially and ideologically to slavery, were educated predominantly at the University of Virginia, and matured during the heated debates of the 1850’s. These men, according to Carmichael, blamed their father’s for Virginia’s economic decline. While their elders preached moderation during the secession crisis, this “last generation” pushed for secession and became some of the Confederacy’s most ardent supporters. Indeed, this younger generation’s charges of “old-fogyism” highlight antebellum tension and the promise that an independent South would sooth the insecurities of young men coming of age. The men in Carmichael’s sample served as mid-grade officers; their strong sense of nationalism could be seen on the battlefield, in their responses to the North’s use of black soldiers, and finally, in their continued devotion to the cause, even in the last few months of the war when many Southerners acknowledged the inevitability of defeat. This short summary does not do justice to the richness of Carmichael’s study. It clearly reflects the fact that even with the continued flood of Civil War studies, one can still say something original.