When I learned that an essay on teaching would be included in the Common-place project I immediately thought of my friend, Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Chris and I met at an OAH conference a few years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. We’ve exchanged ideas and on a few occasions I joined his class discussion via Skype. Chris’s efforts to introduce his students to the subject of Civil War memory as well as his use of digital tools and social media sit at the forefront of classroom innovation and creativity.
One of the projects that I find particularly interesting is his work on connecting his students with classrooms across the country to compare and contrast approaches to– and assumptions about the Civil War. In the area of Civil War memory this can be extremely helpful in challenging some of the assumptions that we still hold about how the war is currently being remembered along regional lines. Chris set up meetings with a classroom in Virginia and Georgia. The classes utilized a Wiki page to post images that reflect their respective communities.
The Virginia students posted a furlough and a pardon slip that belonged to ancestors of one of their teachers: one a Yankee and the other a Confederate. But it was a photograph they shared that prompted one of my students to come into class and ask enthusiastically, “Did you see what the Southern class posted yesterday?” The photo depicts a local park’s Christmas light display that reads, “Once Divided, Forever United” with the Monitor and Merrimack firing at one another from either end of the phrase. Students were surprised at the openness of this community to its history of secession. When I asked why, a group of students said they thought Southerners would be more defiant and not openly support the concept of reunion through public memorials. Another group of students assumed the South—and especially Virginia, which was the center of the war’s fighting—would be embarrassed by their attempts at secession and not want to publicize that effort and failure.
During the week’s online exchanges, many Virginia students made it clear that they held a memory of the war that is similar to that held by northern teenagers. Others stated that, although some in their community do fly the Confederate flag, they do not support it. One student, for example, posted on the Wiki, “What do you all think about the fact that we have a highway nearby called Jefferson Davis highway? I believe it makes Virginia look bad and we shouldn’t be remembering him.” Another stated in response to my student’s question whether European intervention on the Confederacy’s behalf would have led to a Confederate victory: “I’d like to think the outcome today wouldn’t be different. It might have taken much longer to get to where we are now but I think we would eventually get there.” These comments online and others during a Skype conversation contradicted our initial concerns and assumptions. Although they encountered more battlefield monuments—due to their location on the Peninsula—the Virginians remembered the war in a similar manner to Wisconsin students. To further illustrate this similarity, an online Wiki poll designed by our class asked both classrooms what caused the war: seventy-six percent clicked “slavery,” nineteen percent clicked “states’ rights,” and five percent clicked “a lack of respect for southern way of life.” Not one student clicked “Lincoln and his Republican party policies.”
It might be easy to dismiss the Virginia students as representative of a broader southern view given their location in Newport News, which sees a good deal of change over owing to the military base. Perhaps the Georgia kids will deliver the goods.
When we collaborated with students in Georgia, we followed the same basic methodology but changed two aspects of our interaction. First, we added the preface to Gary Gallagher’s The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History as a joint reading exercise; both classes responded to the reading in a Wiki page comment box. And rather than videoconferencing with the entire class, students split up into small groups of four or five and used an iPad to view one another. My students wanted the ability to speak face to face with their counterparts in an attempt to experience a personal connection. For most of my students, Southerners and their history seemed almost foreign, and the students hoped to gain an understanding that their text could not provide. The difference between our collaborations was striking. The smaller group size provided more students the opportunity for direct experiential learning. I also believe the stronger defense of Southern heritage presented by some of the participants in Georgia allowed for clearer distinctions regarding the war’s memory. At one point, a Georgia teacher asked, “You don’t have a problem that the University of Wisconsin plays football games where Confederate prisoners were once held and died?” The question left this young group of Wisconsin football fans speechless. Although my students knew the stadium’s history as a prison camp, they had not even considered that Southerners could find fault in how their state remembers the Civil War in that space. Many saw the stadium’s use as a prison camp as so far in the past as to be irrelevant today. That question was a perfect example of how my students’ perceptions of the past were challenged by a Georgian interpretation of their history. In a later follow-up discussion, I asked my class how they would feel if the University of Georgia played football on the grounds of Andersonville. Many admitted they would be uncomfortable with that scenario. My students stated that this one exchange increased their awareness of conflicting memories of this shared national event. The Georgia class had a similar response to our conversations: a member of their classroom wrote on the Wiki, “My class enjoyed it a great deal and benefited from the paradigm shift that resulted from seeing the differences in culture and views about the Civil War.”
Through these collaborations, my students’ hypothesis—that since the majority of the war was fought on Virginia soil, the Virginians’ memory would be the strongest, or more “Southern”—was proven incorrect. They also were surprised that the linguistic differences between the two southern schools proved that a perceived “Southern-ness” varies from one region to another. For example, in addition to its stronger overall sense of pride in Southern heritage, the class in Georgia had a very distinct Southern accent and used the term “y’all” much more than the Virginia students. Most of my students assumed that the two southern schools would sound and think the same. The poll numbers from our Georgia interaction further exemplify the differences between these southern states. Fifty-eight percent of Georgia participants believed slavery caused the Civil War, and twenty percent thought it was states’ rights; eleven percent selected “lack of respect for southern way of life,” and ten percent chose “Lincoln and Republican party policies.” My students concluded from these disparities with the Virginia students’ answers that the farther south you go, the stronger the Southern memory of the war will be.
The contrast between the two southern classrooms is interesting and worth acknowledging, but what stands out to me more than anything else is what these kids have in common. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as sharp a regional divide over the central issues of the war and memory that we might be led to believe still persist based on the latest Confederate flag controversy. More than half the students in Georgia believe that slavery was central to the cause of the war. The defiant posture that typically accompanies blaming Lincoln is minimal.
It is very easy for those of us who get bogged down in controversies about Civil War memory to lose sight of a simple truth. The younger generation is no longer fighting the Civil War. Their Civil War is located in their history books and other primary and secondary sources along with the rest of American history. The war over memory is finished and from a certain perspective we should be able to say with a straight face: “What a relief.”