There is Nothing Traditional About the Traditional Research Project (Part 2)

[Part 1 and Part 3]

Few will deny that the expansion of web technologies has drastically transformed our classrooms.  It has allowed me to do things in the classroom that I could only dream about just a few short years ago.  That said, in the end my usage of this technology has enhanced and improved my ability to achieve certain goals rather than transform the goals themselves.  Let me explain.  I love primary sources.  My courses are built around a belief that the best way for students to understand the past is for them to engage the available primary sources.  I want them to learn to analyze sources, appreciate perspective and develop interpretations that form the foundation for classroom discussions and debates as well as various written assignments.  Yes, I give my students every opportunity to display their understanding in various ways, but at the end of the day I want my students to develop their critical writing skills.

They even write a substantial research paper over the course of two months.  I hope you are not too surprised to hear this, but unfortunately, more and more history teachers are ditching the traditional paper.  That is unfortunate because there is nothing traditional about writing formal papers given the online tools now available.  If you are my age you probably remember writing research papers that were almost, if not entirely, based on secondary sources.  The teacher took the class to the library and we spent our time reading encyclopedias, books, and maybe a few magazines.  The goal was to synthesize what other had written on the subject.  In the case of my library most of the books were old, which I now understand was a significant problem.  Such a project left very little room for original thought because there was no access to the relevant primary sources.

Because there is now a wealth of primary source material available online I can teach the kind of essay that allows students (echoing the words of Carl Becker) to be their own historian.  A two month process allows students to experience the entire research process from gathering materials, formulating a thesis, outlines, and rough drafts.  So, the most important websites for me are those that function as online repositories such as the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Valley of the Shadow, and Library of Congress.  While secondary sources aid my students in understanding the outline of their subject their essays are built from the ground up with online primary sources.  They gather their online sources using social bookmarking sites like Delicious that allow them to tag and organize their sources.  What I like about Delicious is that it allows users to network with others with similar interests.  The more sophisticated may find Zotero to be helpful in organizing sources.   Every stage of the writing process is done on Google Docs.  First, it makes it much easier to follow and comment as the teacher, but it also allows other students to read and comment on their peers’ work.  I think this helps to foster community as well as an appreciation for the communal aspect of research.  Students can also take advantage of programs such as Noodle Tools for the proper citation form of their sources.

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Teachers, Technology, and Gettysburg (Part 1)

[Part 2 and Part 3]

Tomorrow I head out for the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 Teacher Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland.  The conference doesn’t begin until Friday, but since the good people at the CWPT put me up in the hotel beginning on Thursday I decided to make a day of it in Gettysburg.  I’m looking forward to the conference, which includes a number of interesting workshops as well as keynote talks by Bud Robertson, Peter Carmichael (filling in for Gary Gallagher) and Jeff Shaara.  My responsibilities are minimal.  On Saturday evening I am taking part in a roundtable discussion on the role of technology/web2.0 in the classroom.  I am joining Jim Beeghley and Eric Miller with Robert Shenk moderating.  I have five minutes to share some thoughts before the audience has an opportunity to question all of the panel members.  In preparation for the session I thought it might be helpful to write up a few thoughts.

What is the role and place of technology in our history classrooms?  This may seem like an obvious question, but unfortunately, not enough people in our field are exploring it with the level of importance it deserves.  I am constantly being asked if I use this or that in my classroom as if we are dealing with a continual wave of fads that come and go.  My response is always the same: Why should I be using a specific program?  To answer that question we need to first understand our goals as history teachers.  I teach a specific subject and there are various methods and tools that can be used in that process; technology is but one of them.  The teaching of history involves both a content and skills component.  My overall goal is to teach students how to think critically about the past as well as their place within that broader narrative.  This involves both the analysis of primary and secondary sources as well as the development of their own understanding of the past through some type of presentation.  So, there is both an emphasis on how students process information as well as how it is shared with a broader community.  Every piece of web technology that I use in my classroom somehow fits into this overall goal.

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Douglas Southall Freeman Visits the Crater

I have culled a number of helpful sources from Google Books.  Today I am sharing a wonderful image of Douglas Southall Freeman that was taken from a Life magazine article published in May 1940.  The article takes the reader to various places from the Petersburg Campaign, including the Crater and follows Freeman as he attempts to make sense of the growing conflict in Europe and its likely outcome based on his understanding of the Civil War.  It’s an interesting piece and the photographs are wonderful.  The article begins with that famous photograph of Freeman saluting the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

I believe that the photograph of the remains of the Crater was taken facing north.  The modern day trail follows the far side to the left and behind the Confederate position.  If you look closely you can see the South Carolina marker in the rear and to the right behind the tree.  I should mention that Freeman’s fascination with the Civil War began at the Crater.  In 1903 he attended the famous Crater reenactment with his father, who served in the 41st Virginia Infantry.  After watching the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade march by the young Freeman pledged to his father that he would tell their story.  Another great find.

“[H]e Had a Great Reverence for the Constituiton”

Every once in a while I tune into the Glenn Beck Show.  In a media world where conversations/interviews are much too short, Beck at least tries to dig into specific topics during his hour-long show.  I especially enjoy his Friday show, which in recent weeks has been devoted to historical topics.  History for Beck is part of his broader political-cultural world view that sees fascism, communism, atheism and every other -ism at America’s doorstep.  I am actually fascinated by his ability to weave a complex web that makes perfect sense if you accept just a few of his assumptions.  In the end, Beck is doing exactly what Father Charles Coughlin would do if he had access to the same media.  According to Beck America has been on this road since the Progressive Era.  I don’t claim to understand his particular historical outlook, but as far as I can tell every American president in the twentieth century, including Eisenhower and Nixon have contributed to this dastardly turn.  Well, whatever…enough with that.

This past Friday, Beck focused on the Progressive Period once again with particular attention on the racism of Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger and a reappraisal of the “Robber Barons.”  Beck was joined by Burton Folsom Jr. and Larry Schweikart.  Neither is a serious historian and Schweikart is a complete hack.  You may remember a recent post of mine which critiqued a FOX interview with Schweikart, who made some ridiculous claims about the state of history textbooks.  [See here, here, and here]  At one point during the interview the subject of Abraham Lincoln came up along with the subject of slavery and the Confederacy:

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Ebony Magazine Remembers USCTs

One of the richest sources for a black counter-memory of the Civil War is Ebony magazine.  Throughout the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and beyond the magazine published articles that addressed the crucial role that African Americans played in Union victory.   No topic received more attention than USCTs.  You can view old issues through Google Books and it has proven to be incredibly helpful as I write about how black Americans remembered the battle of the Crater during this period.

One particular article written by Lerone Bennett Jr., (October 1975) about the battle of Chaffin’s Farm caught my attention.  In addition to Bennett’s text there are five sketches by Orville A. Hurt that add quite a bit of depth to the essay. You can find Hurt’s illustrations in multiple issues of the magazine.

Hurt’s illustrations emphasize the bravery and manliness of USCTs as well as the sacrifice made on the battlefield.  The image above is by far the most powerful.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a stark image of a black soldier plunging his bayonet through a Confederate officer before the movie Glory.

Sharing the Crater With Loved Ones

A friend of mine is currently working in an archive in South Carolina and came across a reference to the Crater from a soldier who served in the 18th South Carolina Infantry:

The Negro troops were slaughtered without mercy, we not allowing them to surrender, they huddled together in the pit formed by the explosion and our men deliberately capped down on them and beat out their brains and bayoneted them until worn out with exhaustion.  We took the other prisoners, a number however were shot or hung after brought to the rear- this may seem cruel and heartless to those at home but let them come to  VA and see the sights we have seen and they will no longer say so.  Kill, kill every negro soldier is my motto.

I have files and files of Confederate accounts that reflect this mindset, but what I find so interesting about this particular account is the explicit reference to the home front.  It is tempting to speculate as to the “sights” that this particular soldier is referring to, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was specifically the presence of black men with guns that so impressed him.  It must have been a challenge for soldiers to depict the sight of large numbers of black men with guns to loved ones back home, especially in South Carolina.

A Few More Black Confederate References

Unfortunately, I had to postpone my documentary interview on black Confederates until mid-August.  In lieu of that I thought I might pass on a few more little gems in this department.  I know some of you are probably sick of hearing about this, but keep in mind that I am collecting various sources for the upcoming book project as I bring my Crater manuscript to a close.

The first example comes from a recent Confederate Day celebration in Dixie County, Florida, which was hosted by the SCV Dixie Defender Camp 2086.  The speaker is Al Mccray, who hosts a radio/talk show in the Tampa Bay area.  This is a wonderful example of why the black Confederate argument has proven to be attractive to a certain number of African Americans.  Listen to Mccray’s understanding of Lincoln’s emancipation policy.  Behind the vague references to his position on colonization and his famous response to Horace Greeley in the spring of 1862 there is disillusionment with the mythology attached to the mythology/narrative of the “Great Emancipator.”  It’s that same narrative that drove Lerone Bennett to write his famous essay for Ebony magazine and later, Forced Into Glory.  The problem, of course, is that Mccray substitutes an incredibly vague account for this mythology.

More interesting, however, is the way in which this argument morphs into commentary about what Mccray and the SCV perceive as our present political situation.  Mccray bounces back between history and politics with ease.  In referring to slavery, Mccray suggests that “pretty soon we all will be slaves to the Washington administration” and later notes that the “Army of the Potomac is still around.”  Finally, Mccray argues that we are losing more and more rights at the hands of a corrupt government.  I suspect that both H.K. Edgerton and the economist, Walter Williams, also fit into this camp.  All of them operate on the flawed assumption that while the Civil War led to a larger and more intrusive government in Washington, D.C. the Confederate government preserved a stricter state sovereignty and states rights.  This is simply not true.  In fact, most slaveowners viewed the continued attempt by the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves for military purposes as a violation of their sovereignty.

From Florida we travel to of all places, “30 Rock.”  That’s right, thanks to one of my readers I learned that there is a reference to black Confederates in the episode “Fireworks” [season 1, episode 18].  The plot, involving Tracy Morgan, runs as follows:

“Tracy is served with paternity papers and insists that the child is not his. After the DNA test, Tracy learns that the child is not his but that he is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The news angers Tracy and he talks to Toofer and Frank about it. Toofer learns that he is a direct descendant of Tobias Spurlock, a black Confederate soldier. Tracy and Toofer are upset about the news until Tracy has a dream in which Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Jack Donaghy) appears to him on The Maury Povich Show. In the dream, Jefferson takes credit for “inventing” America and tells Tracy to forget his past. Tracy decides that he wants Toofer to write a movie about their experiences and Thomas Jefferson’s life. Tracy intends to play all of the parts in the movie, except he intends for the film to be a drama.”

Toofer is terribly distraught to learn that his ancestor Tobias Spurlock was a Black Confederate officer who is known by Civil War scholars as the “Confederate Monster”, who harbored the fugitive John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of Lincoln, and who personally knew Robert E. Lee, rather than a Union officer who knew Ulysses S. Grant as Toofer had always believed.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip of this particular segment.  This is the first reference to black Confederates that I’ve seen in mainstream culture.

The Richmond Howitzers Were Integrated (well, not quite)

A few days ago I referenced another essay by an individual masquerading as a legitimate authority on Civil War history and “black Confederates.”  In the essay, Bernhard Thuersam, who is the executive director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, makes the ridiculous assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “an integrated artillery unit.”  Since no references were provided we are forced to guess as to the origin of the claim.  More than likely it stems from a story about the slave, Aleck Kean, who accompanied John Henry Vest into the Confederate army at the beginning of the war.  Vest was killed in 1863, but for reasons unknown Kean decided to stay with the unit through to the end of the war.

In 1913 the Richmond Howitzers erected a stone to Aleck Kean that read: “In Testimony of this Admiration and Respect for a man who did his duty in war and peace. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'”  [Unfortunately, I can’t locate an image of the stone.]  I did locate a short piece by Judge George L. Christian about Kean that appeared in the pages of Confederate Veteran in 1912:

…I affirm that he was the most faithful and efficient man in the performance of every duty pertaining to his sphere that I have ever known.  His whole mind and soul seemed bent on trying to get and prepare something for his mess to eat; and if there was anything to be gotten honestly, Aleck always got the share which was coming to his mess, and he always had that share prepared in the shortest time possible and the most delicious way in which it could have been prepared in camp.  The comfort of having such a man as Aleck around us in those trying times can scarcely be described and certainly cannot be exaggerated.

There is nothing unusual about the content of Christian’s personal memory or the broader collective memory of white southerners at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In short, slaves became loyal servants worthy of remembrance.  However, only an individual lacking the most basic knowledge of the Confederacy and slavery could make the assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “integrated.”