That North Carolinian Is Pointing at the Bryan Farm

This morning I spent some time reflecting at the North Carolina monument along Confederate Avenue at the Gettysburg National Military Park. I was thinking specifically about the entry points for engaging students on the battlefield. After a few minutes a group of high school students gathered around the monument with a guide.

He said nothing about the monument and for close to 20 minutes recounted in great detail the fighting that took place on July 3, 1863. At most half the group was paying attention and as the talk continued more and more tuned out. At the end the guide asked if there were any questions and the group walked back to their bus.

Now don’t get me wrong, students need to understand what happened on the battlefield, including how the decisions made by commanders shaped the outcome of the battle and the experiences of the soldiers themselves. The Gettysburg battlefield offers some wonderful opportunities to talk about the ebb and flow of battle, but I would suggest that students do not need a great deal of detail. In fact, I suspect that students lose most of this knowledge within a few hours of departing the field.

Before proceeding let me suggest that the most important decision that a teacher needs to make before bringing students to a place like Gettysburg is what they want their students to learn. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen too many teachers hand over that responsibility to others. If possible, contact your guide beforehand to help frame their time on the battlefield. What kinds of questions do you want students to consider? How will this trip reinforce what has been and/or will be discussed in the classroom? If you want students to think about the big questions surrounding American freedom, don’t rely solely on Morgan Freeman in the visitor center’s introductory movie. There are plenty of ways to bring these questions onto the battlefield itself.

OK, back to the North Carolina monument. In this case the guide missed a wonderful opportunity to connect the North Carolina monument with how we remember and memorialize soldiers and the impact of the battle on the very people who owned the land on which the fighting occurred. Here is how I would approach it.

First, I would orient students to this specific spot on the battlefield and provide a basic overview of what happened on July 3 and the participation of North Carolinians in the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault. Then I would have students read and reflect on the tablet accompanying the monument.  What are the keywords or phrases that stand out? What are visitors expected to believe about these soldiers? What exactly is the cause that is referenced here?

Now move to the monument itself, which in my mind is one of the most impressive on the entire battlefield. Have students reflect on how the monument reinforces the meaning of the tablet just discussed. What features of the monument stand out and what emotions do you believe the sculptor hope to invoke?

The entire monument evokes movement forward in desperation. These men are committed to sacrificing everything to achieve victory. At some point ask students to suggest what the kneeling soldier is pointing at. After considering a few suggestions point the group to the Bryan Farm along Cemetery Ridge.

Abraham Bryan, a free black man, purchased this farm in 1857. During the last week of June, Bryan, along with much of the rest of the black population in and around Gettysburg, fled as Lee’s army entered Pennsylvania. As soon as the Army of Northern Virginia entered the state they were ordered to capture as many fugitive slaves as possible and send them back south. These advance units made little distinction between former slaves and free blacks. Throughout this campaign Lee’s army functioned as slave catchers. The presence of the Confederate army threatened the lives and very freedom of this community, who chose to build their lives just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

On July 3, 1863 Confederates were now poised to attack across the property owned by this free black man. Like other residents of the town, Bryan returned to a devastated home and farm. He eventually filed a claim with the federal government, but only a small portion of the damage was covered. Bryan sold his property in 1869. [For more on Bryan and the African-American experience, read Margaret Creighton’s Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle]

Now return to the North Carolina monument and tablet with your students. How, if at all, does the story of the Bryan family alter the meaning of this monument? How might Abraham Bryan and the rest of the black community have responded to such a declaration during the dedication ceremony within site of their former home? Can these two sites be reconciled?

You will rarely see visitors stop for a significant amount of time at the Bryan farm, but I would suggest that it is just as important as any other site on the battlefield. Including the Bryan family should not be understood simply as broadening the historical narrative. It is, unfortunately, still a matter of uncovering a lost past.

I am very interested in placing specific sites in relationship and even in tension with one another as a way to understand not just the Gettysburg battle, but its broader significance in American history. There was something at stake in this battle for the entire country and you can begin to understand it on the field itself.

8 comments… add one
  • Joyce Harrison Apr 21, 2017

    Wow, that’s good stuff, Kevin! So much more thoughtful and imaginative than what most students–or general visitors, for that matter–might get. I think we all have to remember that tourists and younger students don’t have the depth of knowledge that many of us have, and many come rather unwillingly, being “made to” by teachers or family members. How do you get someone interested and involved? How do you get people to see how all of this ties together and show how it has resonance for us in the twenty-first century? By asking exactly those sorts of questions.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2017

      Hi Joyce,

      Thanks for the kind words. There is a huge gap between student knowledge and seasoned guides. I think we fail to appreciate just how difficult it can be to get properly oriented on a field like Gettysburg and then be expected to synthesize three days of fighting. Even after all these years I find it a challenge. I still find myself looking off in the wrong direction around Culp’s Hill.

      It’s not necessary. A basic overview is sufficient. The important questions ought to be focused on how to connect students/visitors to specific places on the field. Gettysburg is ideal given its rich commemorative landscape and the physical landscape itself. It lends itself to a good deal of creativity for those who are willing to embrace it.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 21, 2017

    That’s a really great lesson plan, Kevin. And what also stuck out to me in your blog was your mention that the Bryan Farm is largely overlooked but nonetheless important. Kind of like the slave auction block down the road from Antietam National Battlefield Park.

    I know a lot of people don’t like history, especially when you’re made to learn it by an adult. But I often wonder if some of that dislike, at least in this country, is from a rejection of the whitewashed narrative that made the Confederacy a “noble” cause that it wasn”t and tried to erase stories like Abraham Bryan’s and all of the other Blacks affected by the Gettysburg Campaign.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2017

      Thanks, Bryan.

      I know a lot of people don’t like history, especially when you’re made to learn it by an adult.

      I really think this has more to do with how students are engaged as opposed to the age of the individual in question.

  • Bob Beatty Apr 21, 2017

    Well done Kevin. I love how you’ve combined the “what” and the “why” of the study of history and sites with the “how.” Great, thoughtful piece.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2017

      Thanks, Bob.

  • Julian May 4, 2017

    I certainly saw many visitors stopping and looking at the Bryans House, it is well indentified but as it is not open for inspection, its not going to capture the recreation and tourist visitor looking for gimmicks and infotainment, more the thoughtful visitor and follower of the battle. The story of the very minimal compensation that Bryans received in comparison to other citizens of Gettysburg from the US government (not any racist Southern entity) was told.There is also a group collecting artefacts for a Gettysburg and Adams County African American Museum, given that there has been a presence there from the townships founding in the 18th century

  • Louis Drew Aug 14, 2017

    Thank you, Mr. Levin. Important and enlightening information…

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