Teaching Confederate History Month

A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia.  Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted.  I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.

Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event.  I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:

Confederate History Month Proclamation

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk.   I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom.  A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary.  I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.

The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning.  More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:

  • What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past?  Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
  • What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
  • Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
  • Were the criticisms of the governor justified?  If so, why?  Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified?  If so, why?
  • Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
  • What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?

Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation.  In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation.  References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained.  Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation.  I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea.  Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory.  This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.

A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga.  I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book.  However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both.  I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way.  It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons.  I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans.  That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black.  Let me explain.

As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory.  Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race.  My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative.  As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups.  We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America.  Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country.  We should never forget what it took to bring this about.  And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading

Ann DeWitt Still Doesn’t Get It

Update: Check out Andy Hall’s thoughtful analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks book over at Dead Confederates.

I am a high school history teacher, who spends a great deal of time reviewing classroom materials for their historical merit.  For what it’s worth my judgments are based on a solid education and years of reading the best in historical scholarship on the history of slavery, the South, and the American Civil War.  I point this out given Ann DeWitt’s latest response [scroll down] to my continued postings on her flawed historical fiction for children, titled, Entangled in Freedom:

Imagine writing a novel for young adults which (1) espouses the sanctity of marriage, (2) does not contain profanity, (3) promotes earning ones way in America, (4) advocates true friendship, (5) demonstrates the positive progression of America  over the last 150 years, and (6) highlights the strength of the family unit; yet, the novel is dubbed “nonsense”  by a recognized Virginia Civil War journalist and historian.

The above six principles the family narratives of Ann DeWitt.  I have no 19th century written documentation of these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors. I do not secretly hide them but proudly share them with the world.   As parents and/or readers, would you ban such a book from the shelves of bookstores, civil war & history museums, and libraries across America?  Google key words:  entangled in freedom.  Witness a literary ban about the subject of Black Confederate Soldiers happening right before our eyes—in the open—on the internet.

Let’s be clear that no one is trying to “ban” Ms. Dewitt’s and Mr. Weeks’s book.  I am simply using this blog to point out the shortcomings of this children’s book.  Whatever the virtues of this book may be, it does not trump the fact that neither author has any understanding of the history of slavery, race relations, and the role of African Americans in the Confederate army.  The bibliography in this book clearly reflects a lack of serious research into their subject.  I would go as far as to suggest that this book is dangerous and irresponsible and if this blog can help in preventing impressionable young minds from being exposed to it, so be it.