Report From the Field: Interpreting Civil War Battlefields

Last night I returned from five days of battlefield stomping with thirteen wonderful students. I was hoping to write a few more blog posts, but I simply didn’t have enough time between the driving, walking and just trying to enjoy those few moments of downtime. All in all the trip reminded me of why I love working with high school students and teaching Civil War history. It goes without saying that there is no better way to convey the richness of this history than by doing it on site.

Thanks to Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust and Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute for spending time with my students. I didn’t anticipate this, but watching these two fine historians and battlefield interpreters reminded me of the ways that we approach these sites. This was something that I discussed with the group during one of our final reflections.

Garry, who spent the entire day with us at Antietam on Tuesday, focused the group quite effectively on the battle itself and the role of the landscape. Given Garry’s association with the Trust he wants visitors to connect with the ground and the history that took place there. We focused on the movement of troops, the stories of the men in the ranks, and the relevant structures on the landscape, to shape and reinforce that connection. While at the Sunken Road Garry broke out his tripod and interviewed a number of students about a broad range of questions from how they became interested in this history to how the Trust can better connect with students and about their experience on the ground at Antietam. Garry’s approach is not only to educate students/visitors about the history, but about encouraging a certain amount of empathy that has the potential to blossom into future preservationists. No doubt, the seeds were planted in my kids.

Our afternoon with Pete on Wednesday was also incredibly enjoyable and educational. First, thank you to CWI for hosting us for lunch. Following lunch we headed to the base of Cemetery Hill to talk about the controversy surrounding Ewell’s decision not to attack on the night of July 1, 1863. We took in the landscape and reviewed the events leading up to the end of the fighting that day, but the questions Pete posed were about why we continue to focus on this moment. We talked about the influence of the Lost Cause on this popular ‘what-if’ narrative, but also about the importance of what ultimately was at stake in this battle and the war as a whole. In other words, Pete encouraged the group to consider that important issues hinge on the outcome of these battles and our tendency to play with the past – issues such as the future of the Union and the end of slavery.

From Cemetery Hill we headed to Culp’s Hill, where he used the shallow burial pits to discuss the “Good Death” and what these places can tell us about the experience of soldiering that is often overlooked on such manicured landscapes topped with monuments that embrace a heroic view of war. We also read together the letter of a semi-literate Confederate soldier and discussed how the sources we have available to us and rely on point to the limits of interpreting the soldiers’ experience. For Pete the battlefield includes what took place, but it also offers a jumping off point to discuss a wide range of issues that taken together serve as a reminder of the dangers and possibilities of battlefield interpretation.

Both approaches have the potential to leave visitors with a profound sense of meaning and a deep connection with the Civil War past and, while there is plenty of overlap between the two, both approaches point to different goals and interests in the interpreters themselves. My students enjoyed a healthy dose of both and I could not be more grateful to Garry and Pete.

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6 comments… add one
  • Garry Adelman Mar 28, 2015 @ 2:29

    I had a great time with you and uour group! The kids were sharp, insightful and well prepared! Beyond all that being on battlefields with kids who like the subject simply rocks! Thanks for all, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2015 @ 2:33

      Hi Garry,

      We had a wonderful time with you at Antietam. You did a phenomenal job of engaging my students and connecting them to the landscape and the stories of the men who fought there.The conversations continued right through the end of the trip. Thanks so much for taking the time to take us around and I hope you can make good use of the student interviews.

  • Dan Vermilya Mar 27, 2015 @ 10:32

    Glad you enjoyed your time at Antietam. Thanks for the leftover sandwiches! They were much appreciated by the ranger staff.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2015 @ 10:36

      Nice seeing you, Dan, and glad to hear you enjoyed the sandwiches. Until next time, thanks for all that you do.

  • Pete Carmichael Mar 27, 2015 @ 9:29

    I was impressed with your students and it is a real credit you as a teacher for getting them so well prepared. They were energetic , thoughtful, and raised fantastic questions. I appreciate your blog post for pointing out the diverse ways that we can use the battlefield as a classroom. The tired debate about whether it is possible to contextualize the battlefield to discuss politics, issues of memory, home front, etc. is thankfully dead.

    When you get a chance I would love to see photos of the trip for the CWI Facebook page

    You will certainly be missed at Gann Academy. it is obvious that your students have great respect for you.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2015 @ 9:34

      Thanks again for spending time with us on Wednesday. We spent a good deal of time that night discussing the issues you raised. The one student you took a shine to picked up The Last Generation at the Gettysburg bookstore and I am going to stay in touch with him re: next year’s CWI. Will get some pics to you soon. Thanks again, Pete.

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