It Is Well That War Is So Terrible (Water Balloon Style)

Water Balloon Fight

I do my best on this blog to highlight the innovative work being done day in and day out by history teachers across the country, but there is absolutely no excuse for this activity. Hey, I have no problem if you want to end the year with a water balloon fight, but why anyone would frame it as a Civil War battlefield simulation is beyond me.  Welcome to what Parkside history teacher Robert Riedel thinks is a serious exercise that is intended to give students a sense of what a Civil War battle (in this case, the battle of Fredericksburg) was like.

Students were split into Confederates and Union members. About 20 students who were part of the Confederate group were behind a fence, blocking the assault of the Union members. The remaining students were split into four groups of Union soldiers and led into the field by Riedel and fellow eighth-grade teachers Sharon Schneider and Courtney Forner.

Riedel said he has hosted this activity for the past nine years because he feels it is a unique way for students to think about the fears and confusion soldiers experience during war.

“It’s intimidating when you get out there and there are 40 balloons flying at your head,” Riedel said. “(The activity) helps students realize how hard and intimidating it was for Union soldiers to take hits.”

Each Union group took several turns throwing water balloons at the Confederate side – getting progressively wetter as the hour progressed. The Confederate side was armed with the majority of the 3,000 balloons, which were filled by the students on their own time.

The students learned about the Civil War in class in March, and Riedel said he believes events like this help illustrate battles that are ancient in the minds of eighth-graders. While many students can learn material through reading and lecture, Riedel said most students are “multilevel learners” and learn best by physically acting.

“When you do it, you learn the most,” he said.

It isn’t simply that the activity itself is useless as a historical exercise.  What I find troubling is just how disrespectful it is to the men on both sides who experienced the horrors of battle and to those who died as a result. This is a nation that has been at war for over ten years.  We would do well to try to impart to our students what that means for the men and women who experience battle, the challenges they face afterwards and the sacrifices made by their families.  This does nothing more than trivialize violence.

Dear Mr. Reidel, next time try bringing in a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan War to talk to your students about the “fears and confusions soldiers experience during war.” My guess is that it will leave them with a more meaningful experience even if it doesn’t involve so much fun.

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Just In Case You Missed Sunday Services

2013 Confederate Memorial Service, held at St. Andrew and St. Margaret Anglican Church in Alexandria, Virginia. The sermon begins at roughly the 10 minute mark.

[uploaded to YouTube on June 9, 2013]

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Why Historians Should Care About Black Confederates

Over the past few years, Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been working on an essay that explores the implications of the controversy surrounding black Confederates on our understanding of history in the digital age. It’s been available online as part of an open peer-review project and will soon be available, along with other essays, in Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013).  The author steers her reader through the evolution of the black Confederate narrative and what it tells us about how history is being done, who is writing it, changing assumptions about authority resulting from this digital turn, and why professional historians ought to care.

This is the first scholarly essay that I know of that takes this controversy seriously. I am putting the finishing touches on an essay that also explores some of these issues for an upcoming issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. The author gives us quite a bit to think about in this essay. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve experienced a cold reception from fellow Civil War historians whenever the topic arises. Many simply can’t imagine why I take the issue seriously or why it is important that they care what those outside the academy are writing on blogs, wikis and Facebook pages. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took a historian from outside the field of Civil War history to take this subject seriously.

Those of you who take the time to read the essay will recognize most of the players. Madsen-Brooks utilizes this blog as well as those authored by Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall, and Corey Meyer. You will also hear from my friend Connie Ward (a.k.a. Chastain), Ann DeWitt, and Dave Tatum. It’s a real circus.

I strongly encourage you to leave your comments below on any aspect of this essay to assist me further in thinking through these issues.

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Crater Book Reviewed in Journal of American History

Crater Journal of American HistoryThe latest issue of the Journal of American History (June 2013) includes a review of my Crater book by Chad L. Williams, who teaches here in town at Brandeis University. This is a very fair review. I couldn’t be more pleased to see that Professor Williams highlighted the chapters on William Mahone, the Readjusters and local Virginia politics as constituting the most important contribution to the literature on Civil War memory. Williams is also the first reviewer to mention my blog since Jim Cullen’s review at History News Network last summer. Overall, the reviews have been very positive, which is incredibly gratifying.

Interest in the Battle of the Crater has become something of a cottage industry recently. Books on the July 30, 1864, clash between the Union army of the Potomac and the Confederate army of northern Virginia on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, have appeared from a diverse assortment of “historians,” ranging from Richard Slotkin to Newt Gingrich. The massive explosion (which created the crater and was intended to break Confederate defenses) and the subsequent disastrous Union assault mark two of the most spectacular and tragic moments of the Civil War. However, much of the renewed scholarly and popular interest in the battle has centered on the presence of African American troops and their slaughter at the hands of opposing Confederate soldiers—one of the worst racial massacres of the war. [click to continue…]

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Can the Republican Party Reclaim Lincoln?

National Review LincolnNext month National Review editor, Rich Lowry, is publishing a book about Abraham Lincoln. Part of the project is an attempt to reclaim Lincoln from the extreme Libertarian Right of Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams, among others. In the most recent issue of NR Lowry offers a taste of his forthcoming book.

The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.

Anyone familiar with mainstream academic work on Lincoln will find absolutely nothing new in this article.  It doesn’t take much for Lowry to dismantle the DiLorenzo-Williams interpretation of Lincoln because so little of it is actually built on a serious reading of the relevant history.  The humor of it all quickly fades. In fact, this article (and perhaps eve the book) has very little to do with Lincoln or the Civil War. Rather, Lowry is clearly worried about the current state and identity of the Republican Party. “A conservatism that rejects Lincoln,” writes Lowry “is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st-century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.” [click to continue…]

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Cody Smith Talks About Ulysses S. Grant

I am sending this one out to Brooks Simpson. Surprisingly, Mr. Smith is able to cover a great deal of ground in just over one minute. Yeah, it’s a slow night.

[uploaded to YouTube on June 5, 2013]

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R.I.P. North and South Magazine (1997-2013)

North and SouthCan’t say that I am surprised by this news. After sixteen years Keith Poulter is calling it quits at North and South magazine. I still remember opening up the first issue back in 1997. At that time I was managing the periodicals section at Borders Books in Rockville, Maryland. At the time I was just beginning to read Civil War history seriously and I even tried my hands at writing a few book reviews for the Washington Times. I contacted Keith early on to see about writing book reviews for the magazine and he gave me the green light to contribute on a fairly regular basis. You can find a fair number of my book reviews in those early issues, which helped me quite a bit to begin to build up a resume and make new contacts.

For much of its history N&S was a quality publication, though now I understand that much of that had to do with the work of Terry Johnston, who eventually left and founded The Civil War Monitor magazine. For those of us looking for a bit more academic rigor North and South offered a wide range of topics from some of the leading historians along with footnotes. Who ever heard of such a thing in a glossy. I continue to use many of the articles in my Civil War courses. [click to continue…]

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Mark Twain: Lost Cause Art Critic

Everett-B-D-Julio_XX_The-Last-Meeting-Of-Lee-And-Jackson-1864_XX_Museum-Of-The-Confederacy-Richmond-VirginiaWith the help of my book credits earned through Amazon’s affiliate program I recently purchased The Civil War and American Art. It’s incredible.  While I enjoy looking at art, I don’t spend nearly enough time reading about it. In the introduction I came across Everett B.D. Fabrino Julio’s The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, which as many of you know is located at the Museum of the Confederacy. I did not know that Julio initially offered the painting to Lee himself as a gift, who politely refused. I mean, where would you put it given the painting’s dimensions.

For a time it was on public display in New Orleans, which is where Mark Twain viewed it. Here is his colorful review.

[I]n the Washington Artillery building…we saw…a fine oil-painting representing Stonewall Jackson’s last interview with General Lee. Both men are on horseback. Jackson has just ridden up, and is accosting Lee. The picture is very valuable, on account of the portraits, which are authentic. But like many another historical picture, it means nothing without its label. And one label will fit it as well as another:

First Interview between Lee and Jackson.

Last Interview between Lee and Jackson.

Jackson introducing himself to Lee.

Jackson Accepting Lee’s Invitation to Dinner.

Jackson Declining Lee’s Invitation to Dinner–with Thanks.

Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat.

Jackson Reporting a Great Victory.

Jackson Asking Lee for a Match.

It tells one story, and a sufficient one; for it says quite plainly and satisfactorily, “Here are Lee and Jackson together.” The artist would have made it tell that this is Lee and Jackson’s last interview if he could have done it. But he couldn’t, for there wasn’t any way to do it. A good legible label is usually worth, for information, a ton of significant attitude and expression in a historical picture.

Clearly, Twain’s brief stint in Confederate ranks did little for his respect for the Lost Cause. And for that we thank him.

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