In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg. I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history. Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia. Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences. Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column. This is my second essay in the series.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.
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