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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Essential Lincoln Reading

I’ve already received a few emails asking for recommendations on books about Abraham Lincoln.  Since I anticipate more of these requests after tomorrow, I thought it might be a good idea to put together a short list of Lincoln books.  My recommendations are for those of you who walk out of the theater in the next few weeks and want to learn something more about our 16th president, but are not interested in a dry scholarly study.  It’s a good thing that Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, is being released not so much after the election, but after the Lincoln bicentennial as the offerings are broad and deep.

The best overall biography of Lincoln remains David H. Donald’s Lincoln.  You can find it at most bookstores as well as most decent used books shops.  Though not a traditional biography, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is the best broad study of Lincoln and the evolution of his views on race and slavery.  If you are looking for something that you can read in short bursts that debunks many of the long-standing myths about Lincoln, I suggest Gerald Prokopowicz’s Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln.  Finally, since the movie is loosely based on her book you may want to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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