Teaching the Civil War in a survey course is never easy. I know way too much about the subject and there is only a limited amount of time to cover the essential themes. This year I spent more time on civil liberties along with my standard approach which is to address the important ways in which race enters the war. Through the analysis of primary documents we examine how slavery entered the secession debates, the evolution of the war as it relates to the Emancipation Proclamation, the recruitment of United States Colored Troops, and the problem of reconstruction towards the end of the war. Within that discussion I provide a very general overview of the war and the important commanders.
I use the photographs of Antietam to explain how technology altered the experience of battle and the scale of the carnage. It never fails that when I get to McClellan someone in the class questions why he was not more aggressive on the battlefield. The question itself betrays a set of assumptions about what is to be expected from a commander in the fall of 1862. Beyond that it reflects a tendency to treat McClellan as necessarily incompetent as a general. This picture of McClellan is part of an ingrained bias within the community of Civil War enthusiasts. We simply do not know how to take him seriously and it is always tempting to dismiss him in class with the back of the hand. This year I tried to get the students to see the war through McClellan’s eyes by emphasizing his political views and his adherence to a limited war philosophy. In doing so we read a few letters to his wife. Though the questions remained regarding his battlefield performance they at least understood some relevant background that informed their thinking.
The tendency to treat McClellan by dismissing him out of hand is common among history teachers. Teachers need to be careful that they don’t turn historical figures into caricatures. My concern is that it reinforces what these kids see in popular culture. If they watch the evening news or listen to one of those idiotic political talkshow hosts they are bombarded with character assasination and simplistic arguments that pass for serious commentary. We are not just teaching information about the past, but trying to encourage a certain kind of critical thinking. That thinking must include a temperament that does not rush to judgment, but involves serious reflection.