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The Other Gettysburg Address

Wilson Gettysburg

First, a bit of good news. Today I learned that my essay, “Black Confederates Out of the Attic and Into the Mainstream” has been accepted for publication in The Journal of the Civil War Era. I suspect I will have to wait some time before I see it in print. I argue that as historians and teachers we need to be thinking harder about how the Internet has changed not only how history is written, but more importantly, how it is being consumed and shared. From the essay:

The success of the black Confederate phenomena can be traced directly to the expansion of the Internet, including access to rich databases of primary sources and the availability of digital tools such as blogs, wikis, and other platforms that allow practically anyone the opportunity to publish a website and engage and influence a wide readership.  This has led to a sharp increase in the amount of history published online by individuals and organizations with little or no formal training in the field.  As a result, the democratization of history through online publishing continues to blur the distinction between professional and popular historians and challenges any presumption of who has the right to research and publish history. While professional historians assume the responsibility of critically assessing the work of their peers they have yet to explore their role in responding to and evaluating online content.  The black Confederate narrative provides academic and public historians with an opportunity to reflect on how they might engage history enthusiasts and the broader general public in an environment that promotes an unregulated marketplace of ideas.

Next week I am heading to Gettysburg College to take part in this year’s Civil War Institute. It’s always a blast and this year is extra special given that is the 150th anniversary of the battle. I hope to be able to soak up some of the sesquicentennial vibe without having to be there in the middle of all that craziness the following week.  This year I am going to be working with a group of high school students, who will be taking part in the conference. It’s nice to have a chance to be filmed for C-SPAN, but I much prefer a classroom setting where I can interact with students.

I am going to use the opportunity to introduce students to the subject of Civil War memory by having them compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 address from the 50th anniversary. The text is below, but as you read it think about how you would introduce this speech to a group of students.

  • What questions would you ask to frame the two documents?
  • What sentences, phrases, or words stand out to you and why?
  • What was Wilson’s goal in addressing his audience in 1914?
  • What events would you reference to frame the historical context of this speech?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts. Continue reading “The Other Gettysburg Address”

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.

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.

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. Continue reading “Crater Book Reviewed in Journal of American History”