The toughest challenge as a high school teacher is finding an appropriate textbook for the survey course in American history. I teach both the survey course and Advanced Placement courses. Most textbooks are dull and seem to be written by people who have absolutely no concern in attracting people to the study of history. The biggest problem is that many of these books are written by a team of professional scholars. There is little evidence of collaboration; the upshot is a book that has no overarching theme that ties together events over time. Not too long ago historian James Loewen analyzed the lingering problem of not addressing controversial issues such as slavery and racism head-on in his book, Lies My Teachers Told Me. It seems that the problem today is historians are too focused on packing in the latest interpretations in their texts, but at the cost of ignoring the importance of narrative. Most of these books are written for introductory level college courses, but even on this level one wonders whether they are effective in attracting students to the subject.
I finally found a textbook that meets all of my demands for a high school AP course. It is titled, Give Me Liberty: An American History by Eric Foner. Foner is best known for his seminal study, Reconstruction. His textbook is beautifully written around the theme of the expanding and often contradictory ideas of freedom that have evolved over time. The maps are also beautifully done and compliment the text well. What is most impressive is that Foner’s narrative does not ignore interpretation; in fact, the book does just as good a job of including the latest historical interpretations as any other text that I’ve seen. My class is now studying antebellum slavery, and is analyzing the concept of paternalism and how it shaped the relationship between the master class and the slave community. Whereas many chapters on antebellum slavery simply present a survey of slave life and the abolitionist response, Foner introduces readers to ideas developed by Eugene Genovese. Two companion volumes of primary sources are also available. The best part is that my students actually enjoy reading the text, and I suspect this is the case because it does not feel as if you are reading a text. Thank you Eric Foner.
It wasn’t too long ago that the statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad placed in Richmond at the Tredegar Museum caused such a rucous. The argument from the Sons of Confederate Veterans suggested that the placement of the statue should be seen as a slap in the face to Southerners. This raises the question of which Southerners were/are being referred to. This is a wonderful example of why a close study of the memory of the Civil War is so important. The argument by heritage groups rests on the flawed assumption that the only Southerners that matter in this debate are white Southerners. Unfortunately, this overlooks the fact that there were white Southerners who welcomed Union troops in April 1865, not to mention the thousands of black Virginians who believed that Lincoln’s visit was symbolic of their freedom. As the political make-up of local and state legislatures continues to change there is bound to be conflict over the way public spaces are to be used in commemorating the Civil War. The Lincoln statue is an example of this. I would like to recommend a title which examines the final days of Richmond and Lincoln’s visit to the city. The book is titled, Richmond Burning by Nelson Lankford. Lankford is the editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography which is published by the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. It is as well-written account that forces the reader to rethink the fall of Richmond. Click here for my review of this book which appeared a few years ago on H-Net.
As I stated in my opening message, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing on a daily basis the blog maintained by Dimitri Rotov. He represents the kind of reader that I easily relate to. We are Civil War enthusiasts who demand intelligent history that continually challenges our central assumptions surrounding the war. Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s site knows that he is especially concerned about our tendency to interpret Gen. George B. McClellan from a naieve and simplistic perspective which ignores the historical context in which he operated. I’ve read most of Ethan Rafuse’s recent study of the general, called McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005). Rafuse emphasizes “Little Mac’s” Whig background and how that perspective shaped his thinking re: grand strategy. I do not want to get into a debate about whether Mac has been unfairly treated.
I am much more interested in Rotov’s obsession with historians James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, and Stephen Sears, who he claims continue to push a centennial style view of the war. I think this is unfair and looses sight of the way both McPherson and Gallagher have challenged specific assumptions of the war. Both McPherson and Gallagher have emphasized and led the way in encouraging students of the war not to overlook the myriad ways in which the battlefield was connected to the home front. Both historians have also emphasized the importance of slavery and emancipation as both central to understanding the cause of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The emphasis on social history is clearly a positive step; I believe that social histories of the war are by far the most interesting contributions in the last few years. Exactly how many studies of the second day of Gettysburg do we need? Gallagher has challenged the long-standing assumption that Confederate defeat was inevitable. This of course is a central assumption in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. I can still hear Shelby Foote in his southern drawl argue that the “North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back.” He has also encouraged students of the war to acknowledge the ways in which ex-Confederates shaped the earliest histories of the war to serve their own political and perhaps psychological needs.
My point for now is that Rotov goes to far in his criticisms of these historians. I would urge him to be a bit more inclusive given his interest in Civil War historiography.
I just finished a fascinating discussion with my Civil War class on an article written by David Blight and published in North and South Magazine. The article is an overview of his book Race and Reunion published a few years ago, which examines the disappearance of African Americans from the national narrative of the Civil War that emerges at the turn of the twentieth century. Blight stresses that African Americans such as Frederick Douglas were forced to fight a rear guard action as veterans from both sides clenched hands “across the bloody chasm” by ignoring the role of slavery as a cause of the war and emancipation as the war’s most important accomplishment. This is not an easy discussion to have as it reminds us of the 180,000 African Americans who were willing to fight for the United States only to be abandoned by both the federal government and their fellow northern veterans for the larger goal of national reconciliation.
In addition to the Blight article, we also watched the movie Glory, which is in my mind the best Civil War movie out there. Unlike the movies Gettysburg and Gods and Generals which only reinforce the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, Glory challenges it by reminding us that emancipation is absolutely essential in understanding the conflict.
Thanks for stopping by. I have been quite impressed with the Civil War blogs hosted by Dimitri Rotov and Eric Wittenberg. I hope this site will compliment and/or add to the growing e-dialogue on the Civil War. While I am not a professional historian (in other words, I do not hold a Ph.D), I have published Civil War related articles in both academic and popular publications. I am interested primarily in Civil War memory or the evolution of our perceptions surrounding fundamental themes of the war, including slavery and emancipation. Such issues continue to challenge our assumptions of what the war was about; this can be seen in the debates over the National Park Service’s decision to revise its battlefield interpretations and the public display of the Confederate battle flag.
I am also a high school history teacher who teaches a class on the Civil War. My site will also be used to raise issues related to the teaching of the Civil War in the classroom.