A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia. Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted. I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.
Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event. I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:
Confederate History Month Proclamation
WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and
WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and
WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and
WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and
WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.
as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk. I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom. A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary. I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.
The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning. More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:
- What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past? Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
- What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
- Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
- Were the criticisms of the governor justified? If so, why? Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified? If so, why?
- Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
- What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?
Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation. In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation. References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained. Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation. I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea. Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory. This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.