Anticipating Richard Kirkland’s Big Day

Civil War Culture, Lost Cause, Memory, Religion

This morning I was interviewed by Mike Zitz of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star concerning the Saturday premiere of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a movie about Richard Kirkland.  I made it clear that I could not comment on the movie beyond the few videos previews and other assorted postings that I’ve read on the movie website.  We talked for about 30 minutes and I confined most of my thoughts to what this story tells us about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War.  As far as I am concerned there isn’t much to talk about regarding the factual basis of the story since there are no wartime accounts.  If I remember correctly, the earliest account is dated around 1880.  I am going to hold off commenting further until the article is published on Thursday.

For now, consider this little video, which touches on some of the same themes in the Kirkland story.  In 1913 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received a letter from a veteran of the 15th Alabama concerning the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

Here we have another story where in the heat of battle the compassion of a Confederate soldiers saved the life of his enemy.  Of course, there is no way to confirm this story.  In the end, however, the truth of the matter isn’t as interesting as what this tells us about how Americans chose to remember the war in 1913 – the same year as the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.  Let’s not ask how the soldier in question knew that the man he was writing to in 1913 was the same individual that he remembered in 1863.  I’m not even sure we can confirm that the author of the letter was, in fact, a veteran of the 15th Alabama.  Like I said, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone decided to write to Chamberlain 50 years after the battle and acknowledge an act of compassion.  What matters in reference to the Kirkland story is that someone decided to write a letter that highlighted the compassion of another soldier in the heat of battle.

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Oh That Gettysburg

Civil War Culture, Teaching

Thanks to the folks at the Civil War Preservation Trust for putting on a first-rate conference.  I had a great experience and I look forward to the opportunity to help out again next year in Franklin, Tennessee.  My panel discussion last night was successful.  The audience asked some very thoughtful questions about the role and use of technology in the classroom and this was after a long day of walking the Gettysburg battlefield.  I can’t say how impressed I am with this organization.  Nicole Osier did a great job organizing the conference and it was a pleasure meeting the rest of the staff, including Robert Shenk and Gary Adelman.  The CWPT understands that saving battlefields is about educating the general public, especially our students, who will one day be responsible for taking on leadership positions in this good fight.  I can think of no better way of showing my support than by joining the CWPT and I encourage you to do so as well.

I especially enjoyed my time at Gettysburg.  This was my first trip to the battlefield with a group and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  For one thing I can’t tell you how many times I overheard references to the movie, Gettysburg.  Workshop presenters referenced the movie as did participants in casual conversations, and it was even mentioned on the tour.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I have to wonder whether folks are able to distinguish between a Hollywood interpretation and the history of the actual site.  It’s as if people view the battle and its participants through the lens of the movie.  Luckily, I didn’t hear any references to Buster Kilrain.  Even though the movie was released back in the early 1990s it shows no sign of letting up.  The actors remain popular attractions and even Mort Kunstler’s paintings look more like the movie’s actors than the actual historical figures.  The strangest and, in my mind, the most disturbing aspect of this phenomena is the bench dedicated to Michael Shaara that was recently placed in Hollywood Cemetery next to the grave of George Pickett.  How this was allowed to happen is beyond me, but I encourage you to take photographs of yourself doing something disrespectful on it having some fun with it.

[click to continue…]

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I Guess Someone Didn’t Get the Message

Civil War Culture, Lost Cause, Memory

ACTS AND RESOLUTIONS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA 1958

1958 Vol. 1 — Page: 561

Sequential Number: 229

Short Title: USE OF BATTLE FLAG OF THE CONFEDERACY FOR COMMERCIAL PURPOSES DEPLORED.
Law Number: No. 144
Origin: (House Resolution No. 520).
Type: A Resolution.

Full Title: Relative to the battle flag of the Confederacy; and for other purposes.

Whereas, it has been brought to the attention of the General Assembly that the battle flag of the Confederacy has been and is being used for commercial purposes; and

Whereas, the battle flag of the Confederacy is a symbol of the historic past of this State, and presently forms an integral part of the flag of this State; and

Whereas, it is an insult to the memory of our dead heroes and an affront to the good taste of all true Georgians to permit this historic flag to be used for commercial purposes;

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the General Assembly of Georgia that this body does deplore the present use of replicas of the battle flag of the Confederacy for crass and commercial purposes.  Be it further resolved that this body does respectfully request all citizens of this great State to refrain from using this symbol of our past in a manner other than with the utmost respect.

Approval Date: Approved March 25, 1958.

I guess someone didn’t get the message.

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Bud Robertson and the Legacy of Union

Civil War Historians, Memory, Teaching

I am having a great time here in Hagerstown at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s annual Teachers Conference.  Today was the first day.  I had a chance to chat with Bud Robertson at lunch and I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.  It’s a talk that I’ve heard before, but it is always nice to listen to a man who has dedicated his life to scholarship and education.  The organization was sad to learn that this will be his final appearance.  It looks like Professor Robertson is going to retire this year.

Robertson spoke on the many legacies of the Civil War, but he was the most eloquent when it came to the importance of Union.  According to Robertson, this nation did not have a history until the Civil War.  Robertson quoted Lincoln and rammed home his belief that the Civil War was nothing less than a test of whether the work of the Founding Fathers could be preserved.  There is nothing surprising about such a view, but I bet some people are taken back by the fact that it is Robertson’s view.  After all, Robertson is best known for biographies of Confederate leaders and he is to a certain extent the academic darling of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Unfortunately, there was no time for questions.  I really wanted to ask him how he views the uptick in rhetoric of secession that is coming from both the grass roots level as well as our elected leaders.  To what extent should we view this as a legacy of the Civil War?  I wanted to know, given his comments about the value of Union, whether we should encourage this rhetoric and whether he believes it ought to be viewed as patriotic.  Tonight we will get together for dinner and a talk by Peter Carmichael and tomorrow we are off to Gettysburg.

[photo of t-shirt at Gettysburg Visitor Center]

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Sifting Through the Social Media Hype (Part 3)

Teaching

[Part 1 and Part 2]

I want to close out this 3-part series with a few words about social media in the classroom.  This can be both a positive experience for some as well as a walk on the slippery rocks for others.  For me it has been a little of both.  When I first dove in I felt intimidated by the possibilities and pressured to try everything.  Even worse were feelings of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough with it.   It helps to remember the following:

  • Very few so-called social media experts are history teachers.
  • Social media is about the sharing of information and not about building community.
  • You can’t do everything.  Become comfortable with a few tools and explore their full range and potential.  Less is more.
  • Allow yourself to fail.

Social Media Experts?

Let’s face it, social media is the hip thing to be doing in our classrooms.  There is a great deal of pressure from within our school administrations and the broader teaching community.  Even a quick perusal of this universe reveals a multitude of social media folks with the latest tool that will somehow change the way we teach.  My advice is to always remember to stick with your fundamental goals.  What skills that are specific to the study of history are you trying to impart to your students?  Remember that the majority of these people are not history teachers and may know very little about the kinds of skills that are specific to our discipline.  You are the authority.  One way to sift through talk is to find fellow history teachers who are engaged in the same projects.  I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource.  It’s easy to find people with similar interests and it’s a great way of sharing information and ideas.

Information v. Community

Quite often you will hear talk about the importance of connecting your students to a larger community beyond the confines of your classroom and school.  While I am open to differences of opinion here, it is my view that the only community worth worrying about is the one that you interact with on a daily basis.  While social media can play an important role in the strengthening of ties among students in your classroom, its pedagogical benefit is in the sharing of information.  Sharing information does not, in and of itself, bring about community.  Many of these tools offer students a way to make connections beyond the confines of the classroom, which can be incredibly fruitful.  A Skype interview with an expert or radio interview offer new avenues for the gathering and sharing of information.

Less Is More

Take the time to explore the limits of specific web tools.  Make sure you and especially your students understand why they are using a specific social media program.  I can’t tell you how many horrifically awful YouTube videos I’ve seen.  Most of them are done by students who have been given very little guidance by their teachers.  Let’s face it, it is easy to say go make a video.  Video production, however, is a wonderful way of getting students to think about the presentation of history to the general public.  It is worth discussing how various filmic elements such as narrative, sound, and images come together to form a coherent interpretation.  Try analyzing a segment of Ken Burns’s The Civil War as a part of their preparation.  If you want your students to blog make sure they understand the format.  Talk about what goes into an effective blog post and if the site is open to comments than discuss what kind of personal profile it is appropriate to present to the general public.  Discuss the importance of collaboration when creating a wiki page or the inevitability and challenges that come with revisions to a Wikipedia page.  And if it is something as simple as collecting images on Flickr make sure that students understand how cataloging works through tags.

Once you become comfortable with a few specific programs you can think about using them collectively for a more detailed project.  One that I have been working on involves the development of a website that serves as a guide for tourists and those interested in the many Civil War related sites here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Another idea is the creation of an elective that would allow students to formulate their own conspiracy theory of a historical event that would involve the dissemination of online information.  All of these uses involve different ways to present history to the general public and different tools force students to think critically about the organization and presentation of information.  Most importantly, it gives students a sense of ownership of what they are studying in a way that goes far beyond a standardized test.

The Importance of Failure

I recently gave a talk to our graduating class and one of the things I wished for them was a certain amount of failure.  Give yourself plenty of room to experiment and fail.  It didn’t take me long to realize that there really is no set plan on how to use these tools in our classrooms.  The sky is the limit.  I’ve had my share of success and probably more failures and even experiences that I am still having difficulty assessing.  For example, a few years ago I had students in a class I taught on Abraham Lincoln set up Facebook pages for the various people within his private and public circle. All of the profile information had to comply with the historical record.  Once the individual pages were set up students could interact with one another by posting messages and links.  The most hilarious aspect of the exercise were the decisions made as to who to “friend” and under what conditions someone might get un-friended.  You can also use Twitter to role play historical figures.  Monticello has their own Jefferson profile up on Twitter as does Mount Vernon.  I don’t know whether I will ever do this again, but I am glad I gave it a shot.

In closing I think it is important to point out once again that we are not teaching social media.  These tools can be explored in just about any type of academic setting.  The question that we need to keep in mind is how it helps us to teach this subject called history.

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