A Virginia Fourth Grader’s Civil War

General Winfield Scott

I came across this question not too long ago on my Facebook News Feed.  It was posted by a well-known Civil War historian, who was helping his 4th grader study for the Virginia Standards of Learning Test:

Name the roles of the following
1) White Virginians
2) Freed African Americans
3) American Indians

Choices:
A) Supported the Confederacy
B) Fought for the Confederacy to protect their rights
C) Did not take sides during the Civil War.

Let me know how you did because I still can’t figure out the right answer.  This past week I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers in Virginia Beach.  It presents a unique challenge since I do not have children of my own and my work as a history teacher is on the high school level.  Even more challenging is the fact that many of these teachers are not trained in history.  That’s not necessarily a problem given the level at which they are working at with the kids and the skills they are working hard to impart.  However, we should expect that every attempt is being made to provide these teachers with curricular materials that reflect the latest scholarship and that allows students to see as much of the richness of their state’s history as possible.

If this question reflects what our kids are being taught at this level than we’ve got a lot to worry about.  In fact, if I have the right answers the question clearly reflects the content of Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present in which she suggests that slaves supported the Confederacy in large numbers.  As bad as that is it could be argued that the assumption that all Virginians supported the Confederacy is also a gross distortion of the past.  At one point during my teaching session we were discussing Robert E. Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army.  I brought up General Winfield Scott’s name as another example of a Virginian, who struggled with the same decision and my audience largely stared back in silence.  Scott was one of the most important Americans by 1860 and he was a Virginian.  Please don’t tell me that 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist.  I don’t see how you can understand the war in Virginia without it.

On a related note I also learned that public schools in Virginia Beach are not allowed to visit the Museum of the Confederacy.  No one could give me an answer beyond the vague rumblings over their name, which have plagued it over the past few years.  I made it crystal clear that the MOC is truly one of our most important historical institutions and that they should be taking full advantage of what it has to offer.   Here we are at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Virginia and we are still teaching our kids not only an outdated version of the Civil War, but one that somehow manages to fall short of the cognitive capacity of 4th graders.  Of course, I have no doubt that there are teachers, who are doing a first-rate job in their classrooms, but these little signs are not encouraging.

If the above question is what passes for historical knowledge in our public schools than I suggest we just bag the entire project and devote the time to math and science.

Our children deserve better.

Update on Crater Manuscript

Update: I just agreed to do my first book signing in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Of course, the date has yet to be determined. This is shaping up to be a pretty good weekend.

I am pleased to report that Remembering War As Murder: The Battle of the Crater took a giant leap forward yesterday toward publication.  As many of you know back in August I submitted a revised manuscript to the publisher after responding to extensive comments by three anonymous reviewers.  All of them provided a healthy dose of criticism and suggestions for improving the overall manuscript.  Following the resubmission I was told that the manuscript would be sent to one of the original reviewers as well as a new outside reader.  A few weeks ago I heard from the first reviewer, who gave it the green light and yesterday I received a copy of the second report.  The reviewer was incredibly enthusiastic and concluded that the book, “stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War Memory studies.”  That’s music to my ears.  Both reviewers pointed out a few minor things to address, which I will take care of over the next few weeks.  I’ve been working with a university press, which is why the process is perhaps a bit more involved than usual. Let me just say that it’s been worth it. The peer review process once again served me well and no doubt saved me from a few errors and helped to point out ways to make my argument even stronger.  The final step will be to present the manuscript to the publisher’s board of editors in May.  In addition to making these final changes I am also putting together a list of possible photographs as well as a few ideas for the cover.  I would love to have the famous John Elder image of the Crater on one side and Don Troiani’s recent print of Mahone’s Charge.  The two images beautifully capture the central theme of the book, which is the evolution of how Americans remembered the racial aspect of the battle.

This will be my first book and like every author I hope it sells well.  The reviewer quoted above also suggested that the book will likely be used in college classrooms and be attractive to Civil War enthusiasts as well.  That’s a positive sign, but how many academic titles have been marketed as having the potential to bridge these two communities?  I assume that most people who publish with university presses don’t expect their book to break into mainstream readership.  In my case, however, it will be very interesting to see the extent to which my Online presence will push sales.  Yesterday I offered a brief update on the status of the manuscript on my Facebook page and within a few hours I had over 40 people express their enthusiasm.  A number of people emailed me to let them know when the book is available for pre-order.  I am going to go out on a limb here to suggest that this may be the first academic history title to come out of a strong social media presence.  As many of you know much of this project was discussed at one point or another on this blog and many of you offered assistance through your thoughtful comments and offers to share your own research materials.  What I am suggesting is that many of you have become invested in this project for one reason or another and I have every reason to expect that this will translate into additional sales.

It’s too early to tell, but I may have stumbled upon not only a legitimate method of vetting my ideas with a large audience, but in turning that interest eventually into a book sale.  Stay tuned.

Evaluating Black Confederate Websites: Petersburg Express

This post is the first in a short series of videos that will focus on some of the more popular black Confederate websites.  I decided to do this as a follow-up to my recent New York Times editorial in which I discuss the importance of properly assessing information gathered Online.  We begin with the Petersburg Express, which in my opinion is the best example of many of the problems that you will find on these sites.  This is a beginner’s guide, but I hope that it is helpful to those people who are struggling with some of the basic questions of media literacy.  Unfortunately, I had to rush a bit at the end.  Here is the link to Whois, which you can use to find information about the source of the website.

Full Disclosure

This is just a brief announcement to let you know that I am now an Amazon.com Associate.  Actually, I joined back in early November.  As many of you know just about every book link goes to Amazon only because they seem to provide pretty good deals.  In becoming an Associate I earn a small commission on each sale.  I chose not to say anything at the beginning because I wasn’t sure I would maintain my membership and I had no sense of whether I would make a single penny.  Today I received my first commission gift certificate for $17 which covers the first month.  I had a choice of receiving a check as well, but I decided to stick with a gift certificate.  I feel pretty comfortable with this program given that there is nothing that prevents me from giving an honest assessment of individual titles.  It is entirely your choice to click through and make a purchase.

This was also a trial to see if I could make any money from this site.  I’ve played around with monetizing the blog before, but a number of factors have kept me from making the move.  First, I do not want to ruin the look of this site with a bunch of Google ads that will more than likely not make any money.  There are a few Affiliate programs that seem attractive, but that route is going to have to include products that are not only relevant to the subject of my site, but ones that I can fully endorse.  I may put up a couple of 125×125 ad spaces in the sidebar, at the bottom of the page and even before the comments section on individual posts.  This is a popular method and one that should not negatively impact the aesthetics and user experience.  All of this is still up in the air, but please feel free to share your own thoughts.  I am all ears.

Now, if you will excuse me I am going to purchase a book.

“Teachers Are Nation Builders”

Today was one of those days that I live for as a historian and teacher.  I spent the day in Virginia Beach with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Fitz Brundage sketch out some of the salient commemorative themes during the postwar period while I worked with the group on analyzing a collection of primary sources and discussing how to approach some of these themes in the classroom.  The teachers were enthusiastic throughout both sessions.  It was impressive given that the material can be incredibly difficult and even a bit draining to those who are approaching these issues for the first time.   We have amazing teachers in our classrooms and we need to support them.

The president was right to describe teachers as “nation builders.”  I wish the general public had the image of teachers sitting around engaged in serious discussion as part of their professional development rather than the stereotypical views so closely associated with our worst fears about public education.  So, what were we really doing today in Virginia Beach?  We were doing what we do every day in our respective classrooms, which is making a G-d Damn Difference.  Now what about you?