Civil War Memory Syllabus

This coming trimester I will be teaching two sections of a course I am calling Civil War Memory. This is the first time that I’ve taught an elective course on the subject, and, as you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to it. Most of the students who are taking the course just completed a trimester elective on the Civil War while the others took either my survey or AP course in American history last year. Although the syllabus is not finalized I have enough that I can share it with you. You will notice that I have not included any assignments or a description of the final project as I am still working on it. Please keep in mind that this is a high school elective course.

Course Description:

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961. Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans. This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture. We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory. Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces. We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square. Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia. Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.


David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’ Press, 2004). [Please note that much of the course is structured around this book.]

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999).

Week 1: Introduction to the Course

Questions: What is memory? Why do we find a need to remember and what is the difference between individual and collective memory? Why are Americans interested in their civil war and where can we find examples of civil war remembrance?

Readings: In Brown, read pp. 1-15; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg Address (1913); In Blight, read pp. 6-15.

Week 2: Monuments and Soldiers – analysis of the evolution of civic monuments, including their designs, and inscriptions. Why were they built, where, by whom and for what purposes?

Readings: David Blight article on soldiers and memory from North and South Magazine; William Henry Trescott, Inscription on South Carolina Soldiers Monument, 1879, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Soldier’s Faith, May 30, 1895

[We will take our first field trip to observe and analyze Civil War monuments in the Charlottesville area.]

Week 3: Contemporary Commemorations – Analysis of recent debates surrounding the legacy of Civil War soldiers and battlefield interpretation. Students will search the news for examples of controversies surrounding the Confederate flag.

Readings: NAACP resolution on Confederate flag (2000); Charley Reese editorial (1997); Fredericksburg commemoration talk by Kevin Levin; John Coski article on the history of the Confederate flag from North and South Magazine.

Week 4: Women of the War – Analysis of the roles that women played throughout the postwar period from grave dedications to textbook oversight.

Readings: In Brown, pp. 57-74; Primary sources by Clara Barton, Howard M. Hamill, and Laura Martin Rose; in Fahs and Waugh, read James McPherson’s “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade”.

Week 5 and 6: Confederate heroes and the Lost Cause – Analysis of the evolution of the memory of Lee and other notable Confederate figures. We will pay particular attention to monuments, including the Lee equestrian statue in Richmond.

Readings: Primary sources by John W. Daniel, Abram J. Ryan, Charles Francis Adams Jr., as well as commentary from both white and black newspapers. In Brown, pp. 79-105 and Blight selections from Race and Reunion.

[We will take our second field trip to Richmond to tour Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.]

Week 7: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment – Analysis of the most famous black regiment from the Civil War, including the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Readings: Primary sources by Anna Quincy Waterston, Frances E.W. Harper, William James, Booker T. Washington, Paul L. Dunbar, Robert Lowell; read chapter 9, “Black Memory and Progress of the Race” in Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Week 8: Lincoln Legacies – Analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s place in American memory and culture with particular focus on recent comparisons with Barack Obama and Lincoln.

Readings: Recent newspaper articles and editorials; primary sources by Henry M. Turner, Frederick Douglass, F. Wellington Ruckstull, George B. Shaw; In Brown, pp. 139-65 and article by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln in ‘Modern’ Art” in Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma.

Week 9: The Civil War in Contemporary Culture – Analysis of reenactments and other forms of popular Civil War memory.

Readings: Selections from Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. We will also watch scenes from Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Week 10: Final Projects (TBA)

4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:41


    You may want to check out the following link to a category page that includes all of my posts related to the Civil War Memory class. It should answer all of your questions.

    I am a big fan of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center, including the film. It is the closest we have to a national museum on the Civil War so it is appropriate for a film to address the causes of the war as well as its continuing legacy. I’ve written extensively about the VC so you might want to search through the archives for more. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • Paul Bernish Aug 8, 2009 @ 10:36

    Kevin — I am brand new to this blog site, but I have an abiding interest in the topic of Civil War and memory, so if you dont mind, let me post a couple of questions:

    1. How did your course work out? That is, did you feel it reached its goals, and did your students respond as you had hoped? Like the other poster on this thread, I would have loved to had had a course like this (even in college)!

    2. Id be curious to know your reaction to the introductory film at the Gettysburg Visitor Center and Museum. I was just there, for the first time, and with my family, I watched A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by Morgan Freeman. I was surprised, frankly, with the content of the film: it dealt very little, if at all, with the Southern perspective on the elements that led to secession and the actual war. Instead, it seemed to me that the film was attempting to overturn generations of Lost Cause literature, historical narrative and popular culture by stating — and hammering away — the assertion that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, period, end of story.

    Let me quickly state that I believe slavery was the root cause of the conflict, and it was the issue that divided the nation. Im just stating my surprise that a film being shown at an NPS facility, which seems to bend over backwards to be objective and neutral about Civil War history, would offer a film that is so assertive and such a controversial matter. My question is whether you know how the film came to be; were historians such as yourself consulted on the content or asked to review the film prior to its release?

    (Incidentally, I asked our tour guide about the film. He said it was and is considered to be controversial, especially among Southern visitors — which I can understand. But I had the distinct impression he though the film was unbalanced).

    Paul Bernish

  • Kevin Levin Nov 26, 2008 @ 2:34

    Thanks for the enthusiasm John. I am also looking forward to seeing how my students respond.

  • John Nov 25, 2008 @ 22:01


    Thinking back to my high school days, I would have jumped at the chance to take this course. By offering your students the opportunity to ask informed questions through study that is engaging rather than dull, you’re encouraging them to take that same approach to history for the rest of their lives. Sadly, the only high school history class I took that offered that same level of engagement was AP history. Fortunately, I’d been hooked on history since 6th grade when my social studies teacher took the same sort of approach, geared to our reading levels and abilities of course. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to more details and how your students respond.


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