Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

This is my fourth year teaching the Civil War course and as all of you know I thoroughly enjoy it.  When I planned the first year I was very concerned about the balance between battle coverage and broader political, cultural, and social issues.  Basically, I was concerned that teaching a course on the Civil War in the heart of Virginia would bring young boys with a voracious appetite for the Lost Cause and the kind of battlefield coverage that I am not qualified or even comfortable teaching.  In yesterday’s post Hugo Schwyzer briefly touched on this tension in reference to his own Western Civilization course:

In my survey courses, I do very little military history.  In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example.  But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want.  Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae!  I’ve noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.

What is interesting to me is that most of my students in this class over the past four years have not pushed or questioned the amount of straight-forward military history in the class.  I’ve never had a student come to my office and complain that I didn’t do justice to Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville or Meade’s defense at Gettysburg.  Since this course is structured thematically we tend to touch on broader issues over time rather than a strict chronological approach.  For example, last week we talked about the broader issue of emancipation and the Federal government’s steps towards the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Seven Days’ Battles and the battle of Antietam were discussed in this context, but were not covered in any serious detail apart from their connection to the transition from "Limited" to "Hard War," emancipation, and foreign recognition.  Even our trip to the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is fast approaching and will be focused heavily on the realities of battle, will also be used to address a whole host of issues beyond the battlefield. 

To be honest, I don’t think my students really care about the kinds of things that drive most Civil War enthusiasts.  The "Lee To The Rear" accounts simply fail to stir.  I remember once during that first year where I gave a fairly detailed lecture about the actual battle of Antietam.  Now, I should say that I am a pretty good lecturer, especially when I am discussing something that I care about.  By the middle of the class at least 75% of the students had lost focus or had that look of complete despair.  This doesn’t mean that military history is ignored – far from it.  What it does mean, however, is that at least in my class the battles and campaigns must be connected to the bigger issues of the war.  So, I tend to agree with Hugo’s bold comment in reference to the balance between religion, gender, social history (I should also add politics) and battle tactics.  And I also make no apologies for it.

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4 thoughts on “Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

  1. Peter Carmichael

    Kevin:
    I agree with your point about balance. I lectured about Antietam yesterday and found the students to have a very low tolerance for details and maybe an even lower tolerance for me! I break up my lectures with mini-interpretive examinations of primary sources which tends to bring out how the rank-and-file made meaning of the event. The students welcome opportunities to be historians in class. Since they seem to desire balance, it is lesson that we should remember when we are interpreting the war at historic sites.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    I should have been more specific as to my approach here as I also use primary sources mixed into my lectures. In fact, my lectures tend to be short overviews to set up the analysis of a document. I tend to pick those sources that will give my students a flavor for persepctive; in other words, Confederate, Union, and civilian sources. And you are absolutely right that the students tend to enjoy taking charge through interpretation.

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  3. Peter I

    hey Mr. levin–
    as one of the students in your class i enjoy hearing the cultural issues opposed to the actual battles (not to say that i had a look of despair…)
    -p

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