Gearing up for the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the Classroom

On Tuesday I was contacted by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for my thoughts about what students need to be taught during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The SCHEV is collecting ideas from a range of educators and historians which will then be shared with the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.  Since I was only contacted on Tuesday, and given my trip to Petersburg for another round of interviews, this letter had to be written in a hurry.  I post it here for your consideration.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts concerning the education of Virginia’s students during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  I welcome this as both a Civil War historian, but especially as an educator.  The four years between 2011 and 2015 will no doubt attract a great deal of attention to the Civil War and related events.  Not since the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s has there been such an opportunity to impress upon the general public and our children the importance of the Civil War to American history and its continued impact on our society today. 

I welcome and applaud the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission’s enthusiasm for wanting to address issues of education; however, with that enthusiasm comes great responsibility.  Tough choices will have to be made that will involve competing agendas and interpretive assumptions between various interest groups.  During the Civil War Centennial celebrations that struggle was drawn between those who chose to emphasize entertainment and those who sought to push a more scholarly agenda.  More importantly, various groups battled over more divisive questions of whether the themes of race, slavery, and emancipation should be emphasized as opposed to a reconciliationist message that steered clear of such issues.  Such disagreements, along with distraction of the Civil Rights Movement, fueled a steady decline of interest in the Centennial by 1963.  While the country may not be as fractured along racial lines as it was in the 1960s it is reasonable to anticipate a certain amount of bitterness from various quarters depending on how the sesquicentennial is remembered and commemorated.  My hope is that the attention to education will be influenced by people who have a sincere interest in imparting history that is inclusive, reflective of recent historiographical trends, and relevant to today’s students. 

First and foremost the "message" to Virginia’s students needs to be grounded in recent interpretive trends.  Over the past few years historians have explored popular subjects such as battles, campaigns, and leaders along with a range of other topics from slavery and politics to the home front.  Many of these more recent studies challenge traditional ideas that have their roots in the first few decades following the war.  Just as important is the need to direct educators to primary documents.  There is an abundance of primary source material that can be found on the Internet, in archives, and various publications.  Students should be introduced to the Civil War through the words of the participants themselves.  Their words bring home the myriad ways in which Americans understood a world that was constantly changing and in ways that few could predict.  This abundance of source material makes it possible to emphasize the importance of multiple perspectives.  Students should understand that the war’s meaning and outcome can be understood depending on political persuasion, regional affiliation, gender, and race. 

The overall message that Virginia’s students should take away is a difficult one since there are so many avenues that can be explored.  That said, students at various levels should be able to appreciate the ways in which the debates that led to the war and the war itself were a continuation of longer trends, such as the history of slavery, as well as more recent open-ended questions about federalism, which proved to be a difficult issue during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in the years to follow.  The campaigns and battles will no doubt receive a great deal of attention (as they should); however, students should be asked to look beyond the traditional categories of commemoration and battlefield heroics to a more sophisticated appreciation of their experiences, including camp life, battlefield experiences, politics, and their connection to the home front.  Once again the voices of the soldiers themselves should be utilized whenever possible. 

At the center of any curriculum on the Civil War must be the subject of slavery and race.  While this is clearly a sensitive topic for many, and will no doubt be debated by various groups, the consensus among professional historians must be acknowledged.  Students need to understand the complexity and centrality of slavery/race as a cause of secession and its role in the evolution of the war itself.  Few people could have anticipated the end of slavery by 1865 let alone the ways in which the lives of slaves and free African Americans were shaped and in turn shaped the outcome of the war.  Attention to this subject will help place the Civil War within a broader historical context that connects with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and our contemporary dialogs about race.  In addition, students will be able to more accurately judge the results of what some historians have called a "Second American Revolution."  Like the first Revolution, the Civil War answered some questions, but left others to be worked out by future generations.  Progress on such questions can lead to important historical class debates and discussions. 

Finally, though Reconstruction tends to be taught as a separate unit I would hope that Sesquicentennial organizers can look beyond such arbitrary distinctions.  The period of Reconstruction is one of the most misunderstood periods of American history though the political debates and racial challenges faced were directly connected to the war.  This is another area where there is now a great deal of primary source material available for classroom use.  Old stories of carpetbaggers and corrupt African-American politicians must be supplanted by more recent interpretations. 

The development of age/grade-appropriate curricular materials ought to be a top priority for Sesquicentennial organizers.  I encourage curricular developers to work closely with museums, historical societies, and especially the National Park Service.  Many of the NPS branches have already developed plans for the Sesquicentennial with education as a key component.  There is no better way to introduce students to the study of history and the Civil War than to bring them to the places where the war was fought and lived.

While I anticipate that most Americans will be attracted by reenactments, parades, and other forms of public commemoration it is my hope that the national and state Sesquicentennial Commissions devote most of their attention to the education of our students. 

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