Why Teach the Civil War

One of the museums that I visited last week was the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. I didn’t have many expectations going in, but overall I enjoyed my visit and I learned a great deal. What stood out more than anything else was a number of explicit references to recent violence. Executive Director, George Wunderlich, addressed our group by drawing direct connections between developments in medicine and care of the wounded with the recent terrorist attack here in Boston. Even more surprising were the references made by our museum guide to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the exhibit.

It was the first time that any such reference was made during our ten-day trip from Nashville to D.C.

During our final debriefing of the trip I asked the teachers to think about how we teach our civil war. Here was a war that affected an entire nation and in ways that few could have anticipated in 1861. We talked extensively throughout the trip about the life of the Civil War soldier, the home front, the horrors of battle, the political aspects of war, and they ways in which individuals and the nation worked to properly commemorate the war. Again, it was a war that few could ignore and yet over the past ten years our students and much of the country have been able to comfortably ignore two wars.

This is a problem. I suggested that we have an opportunity to use the Civil War to talk more honestly about not only how and why we go to war, but the costs of doing so. It’s not about being anti-war; rather, it’s about reinforcing what many of us call responsible citizenship. Our students should be able to think critically about when war is justified and, more importantly, they ought to appreciate the sacrifices of the men and women (along with their families) who are placed in harms way – placed in harms way, ultimately by each of us.

I appreciate the challenges that public historians face in making these connections more explicitly at their respective sites but, as I recently pointed out in a brief exchange with Scott Hartwig, as teachers we need to charge forward. Teachers face a number of challenges as well when discussing contemporary events. Call it a “usable past”, call it whatever you want. As far as I am concerned it is simply responsible teaching.

16 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Oct 18, 2013 @ 7:59

    Gilder Lerhrman hosting course for post grads, mainly school teachers, on Lincoln. Video here at about 24 minutes talks about teaching civil war not using battlefield. Pretty interesting..


  • TF Smith Aug 18, 2013 @ 11:41

    Because those who forget the paast are doomed to repeat it?

  • Lyle Smith Aug 18, 2013 @ 10:25

    Why teach the Civil War? Violence works.


  • Janet Oakley Aug 18, 2013 @ 7:23

    My great-grandfather answered Letterman’s call for medical doctors and joined the 11th PA in March 1863. Up to that time he had been practicing medicine in Western PA. He was at Gettysburg a couple of months later. I grew up reading his journals and letters, but last year joined a group of volunteers at Gettysburg to paint fences at some of the historic farmsteads. That adventure opened my eyes to what Gettysburg was on the battlefield and my ancestor’s experience as a doctor, treating wounded up at Seminary Ridge and as a prisoner, at Christ Lutheran in town. I returned for the 150th.

    I have taught history hands-on in the classroom, museums and as a re-enactor. When I talk about history, I try to relate it to present day. The Civil War does matter. I understand now how it effected my family (though I wasn’t aware at first) and the more I understand the politics and culture leading up to it (like Free Soil, Free Labor) I can see how the aftermath effected us as a nation. Civil Rights delayed, women’s struggles to be heard. History hurts I tell people, but you have to be honest and not write it the way that suits you. Right to work states are just playing on the cheap labor that was a part of the past. The Homestead Act got passed after the South left the Union. (Big plantations opposed it) A game changer for an average man wanted a place of his own and how the West was won.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 7:30

      Thanks for the comment, Janet.

  • ChakraTease Aug 18, 2013 @ 0:59

    “…how war is justified” should read “how war is rationalized”.

  • Caldwell Aug 17, 2013 @ 9:56

    I can easily understand why a “public historian” would dismissive after being asked why a Civil War site would be interesting to a “second generation Latino”. Why would anyone be so crass as to view civil war history through an ethnic prism in this manner? It is deeply offensive, and in very, very poor taste.

    • Patrick Young Aug 17, 2013 @ 10:41

      If you don’t ask why a site’s interpretation is relevant to an evolving audience, you’ll find that the audience shrinks.

      In any event, if you talk to public historians about how they do what they do, they will typically tell you they have to present in the knowledge that they have both Southerners and Northerners in their audience. In other words, they are already considering how different groups of white people experience the site. This just opens up interpretation beyond white heritages.

  • Paul Taylor Aug 17, 2013 @ 8:32

    “I suggested that we have an opportunity to use the Civil War to talk more honestly about not only how and why we go to war, but the costs of doing so. It’s not about being anti-war; rather, it’s about reinforcing what many of us call responsible citizenship….”

    A very interesting thought, especially when we consider how the Civil War generation defined “responsible citizenship” as well as what were deemed acceptable casualties in a war initially fought for Union. If we then compare and contrast that with how today’s society views “responsible citizenship” and the attendant human loss in war, I think we would find some glaring differences.

    Regardless of what side of the political aisle one is on, I think today’s military and political desires to minimize casualties goes well beyond the obvious concern for the troops, but has a significant political calculation as well. Our political leaders know that losses approaching anywhere even remotely near that of the Civil War would simply not be tolerated by the body politic, and in my humble opinion, that lack of tolerance for losses is greatly driven by how the public perceives the “righteousness” of today’s wars compared to how the Civil War generation viewed their great conflict.

  • M.D. Blough Aug 17, 2013 @ 5:29

    In terms of combat medicine, we are still living in Jonathan Letterman’s world. Yes, the medical techniques have advanced in ways that he couldn’t even have dreamed about as well as the methods of getting medical services to them and conveying them to more detailed, long-term care. Nevertheless, the principles he established are still valid.

  • Patrick Young Aug 17, 2013 @ 5:23

    When a group of young people learn about history, one-in-ten is interested because they love to learn about what happened in the past. This small minority grow up to be history teachers, history PhDs, museum docents & history bloggers. The other nine kids sit for the first few minutes wondering “How is this about me? Does it help me understand my own life in any way?” After a few minutes, if they conclude it does not, they tune it out. Unfortunately, the 10% want the 90% to learn history for the reasons the 10% had for going into the field.

    I sometimes ask “public historians” who give the standard presentations at Civil War sites why an immigrant, or a second generation Latino or Asian American should care about the site. I most often get an answer that boils down to “so they can find out what happened here 150 years ago.” A fellow who works at a Civil War NPS site threatened to ban me from further comments on personal blog if I kept discussing such things.

    I think your post is important not because I think that a particular interpretation should be jammed down people’s throats but because the war throws into stark relief the sorts of policy choices we encounter every day. When I talk to immigrants about the war, they don’t just see it in terms of history, they clearly try to understand it through their own lives and experiences. They find it fascinating because it answers, to a small degree, every immigrants’ most pressing question “Why are Americans the way they are?”

    For example, few immigrants arrive in the US aware that there is a serious political divide in this country that can be geographically plotted. It make no sense to them that people in Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi seem to think so differently from those in New York and Illinois. When they take my very short course in US history they get a much better idea of the roots of those differences.

    • John Aug 17, 2013 @ 15:52

      I am one of those ten who loves to learn about the past, as is my closest friend of nearly three decades. However, neither of us is a teacher or a PHD or any of the other things you mention. We share a passion for history just as a desire for life long learning. I dare say our history teachers of long ago would be proud. 😎

  • Jeff Fioravanti Aug 17, 2013 @ 4:17

    Are you from the Boston area? Do you belong to any of the Civil War Roundtables in the area if you are from Boston? reading your comments, I think you could bring a great deal to the meetings.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2013 @ 4:19

      Hi Jeff,

      I am indeed. Over the past two years I’ve spoken at a number of Civil War round tables in the Boston area. You can contact me to schedule an event if interested. Thanks.

  • Gavin Aug 17, 2013 @ 4:09

    Good points. I always valued my military history education as a way to think about modern conflicts and how they affect society as well as technology, culture, etc, even though most people feel they are largely unaffected (or at all concerned with) by these distant conflicts.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2013 @ 4:16

      Thanks, Gavin. Nice to hear from you.

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