Secession Fun

Like many of you I am getting a real kick out of reading the secession petitions that are currently flooding the White Houses’s “We the People” website.  In fact, it’s actually downright cute.  Think about it.  Americans from every region of the country requesting that the federal government allow their state to secede.  The fire-eaters from the Deep South are rolling in their graves.

It does give you a sense of how disconnected our understanding of secession has become from the events that took place in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860.  As a historical concept rooted in the Civil War era it is almost meaningless.  My favorite petition is from the good folks of the state of Washington, who decided to quote the preamble of the Declaration of Independence as justification.  You just can’t beat quoting a document rooted in revolution (as opposed to secession) that specifically points out that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  What exactly happened last week?

Ultimately, the image of thousands of Americans logging onto the official website of their government and requesting the right to secede is a sign of this nation’s strength.  I say, sign away.  In fact, I may spend some time this morning signing a few of my favorites.  I may start one for Massachusetts.  Why should we miss out on all the fun.

Finally, a little advice for the most committed secessionists out there.  I seem to remember a reference made by that Republic candidate for president.  What was it?… ah yes, it was a reference to self-deportation.  In other words, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. :-)

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The Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College

What follows is a guest post by Allison (Herrmann) Jordan, who is currently an administrative assistant at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.  Allison shares her experience as a participant in the college’s “Gettysburg Semester,” which is a semester-long immersion in Civil War studies.

I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room in Worcester, Massachusetts.  As a recently declared history major with a newfound passion for the Civil War, I passed spare moments thumbing through a tattered copy of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I was still two years away from taking my college’s Civil War & Reconstruction course (it was only offered every three years).  A simple Google search for “Civil War” + internship” + “Gettysburg,” however, led me to the website for something called The Gettysburg Semester. Instantly intrigued, I discovered a study-away program hosted by Gettysburg College.  It invites undergraduates from around the country to spend a fall semester studying the American Civil War at the Civil War buff’s Valhalla – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

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I Can’t Win

I have a fairly large file of emails that I’ve accumulated over the years from folks who interpret my writings as anti-South/Confederate or some other variation.  It’s a narrative that I’ve grown accustomed to and represents a clear misunderstanding of what I do.  More importantly, it reflects an oversimplified reading of the past, particularly when it comes to what I’ve written about Confederate camp servants and black Confederates.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I read the following comment from Mr. Ross Williams of Grand Rapids, Minnesota that was recently posted to a column I published on the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his camp servant, Spencer.  I did my best to interpret the available evidence, which comes down to Winsmith’s own letters as well as my understanding of the relevant secondary literature. As is the case with many of these stories I am left with more questions than answers.

After being accused for so long of being a “South hater” it is strange to suddenly be accused of being a slavery apologist.  Which reminds me, I haven’t heard a peep from my Southern heritage friends about this essay.

I really would like to know what they think of it.

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Flipping the Civil War Classroom

Like many of you who teach history, I am always looking for new ways to convey the subject to my students.  The move toward e-textbooks offers an exciting opportunity to expand the traditional textbook in a way that takes advantage of new digital technologies, including the community-building potential of social media.  The possibilities are limitless, but unfortunately we have yet to see much.  The large textbook companies such as McGraw-Hill and Cengage have done little more than to place their textbooks online.  Supplemental materials that can enhance the text are limited.  What we have may alleviate future back problems for today’s students, but they do little to advance pedagogy and historical understanding.

Over the past year I’ve been working with a small start-up called Flip Learning.  The company is run by Christian Spielvogel, who teaches communications at Hope College in Michigan.  Those of you who teach the survey course in World History likely use a textbook authored by his father, Jackson Spielvogel.

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‘The Best Servant By Far’

My latest column at The New York Times’s Disunion page is now available.  The essay briefly explores the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his body servant, Spencer.  The Winsmith letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy and offer an incredibly rich account of the war from a Confederate officer in the slaveholding class.  I still plan at some point to publish the letters and/or write a biography of Winsmith.

This is my third column for the Disunion page.  The first explored the challenges of using the Internet to do history and the second examined how I use battlefields to teach Civil War history.  Hope you enjoy it.

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