Does Your Dentist Teach History?

A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course.  I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year.  I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience.  We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails.  The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling.  Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race.  I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references.  His response was interesting.  The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention.  In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh.  This last comment took me for a bit of a loop.  It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students.  I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.

In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages.  In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself.  I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book.  In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects.  As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted.  Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues.  I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer.  We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night.  We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up.  I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course.  That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.

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Engaging Students From Skidmore College

You can imagine my surprise when I returned from my trip to Shepherd University to find an email from Prof. Gregory Pfitzer of Skidmore College.  Prof. Pfitzer is currently teaching an American Studies course that focuses on Civil War Memory and has been using this blog as a resource.  Students are focusing specifically on a series of posts that I did on the Gary Casteel statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber that is currently located at Beauvoir. Prof. Pfitzer thought it might be a good idea for his students to engage me on one of the posts, which I was more than happy to do.  You can follow the discussion here.  I am quite impressed with their enthusiasm as well as their ideas.  Check it out.

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Descendents of Silas Chandler Respond

The story of Silas Chandler is one of the most popular black Confederate stories out there on the Web.  You can find it featured on the website of the 37th Texas, the Petersburg Express, on blogs, and you can even purchase a t-shirt of Silas and Andrew at Dixie Outfitters.  A few weeks ago the famous image of “the Chander Brothers” was featured on Antiques Roadshow and not surprising my post on it received a great deal of attention.  There is no evidence that Silas served in Confederate ranks, though that apparently did not prevent the United Daughters of the Confederacy from decorating his grave with an Iron Cross and Confederate battle flag.  Yesterday a descendant of Silas Chandler left the following comment on the blog:

I am the Great Granddaughter of Silas Chandler. The lies being told about Silas fighting in the confederate army keep growing. And that is what they are “LIES”. The majority of the decendents of Silas are also disgusted about all of the lies told about our ancester. Silas was a slave, and did what he had to do in order to survive. I am a Black Chandler who grew up in West Point, Mississippi where it was unheard of to even look at or even speak to a white Chandler. I have a letter signed by the majority of the decendents of Silas demanding the Iron Cross and Confederate flag be removed from Silas’ grave. Signing this letter is the Granddaughter of Silas who is 107 years old and still lives in Long Island, New York. I grew up with my Grandfather, who was the son of Silas. He told us all about Silas and how he saved his money and hid it in the barn and bought his freedom. He also bought the land where he built his house. That record is in the Clay County court house as of this day.

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A Glorious Day in Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown

Yesterday was a whirlwind of a day in Sharpsburg, Maryland and Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  The reason for my visit was a chance to spend time with the students in Prof. Mark Snell’s course on the Civil War and memory.  I spent a beautiful morning alone on the Antietam battlefield with my handy copy of Ethan Rafuse’s new guidebook, which I think is excellent.  Ethan knows the battlefield well and does an effective job of positioning the visitor in places that are ideal for understanding the ebb and flow of battle.  I walked and read my way through much of the Morning Phase of the battle and had no problem losing myself in the sun and history.

By the time I had worked up a healthy appetite it was time for lunch with everyone’s favorite NPS Ranger, Mannie Gentile.  I’ve only met Mannie once before and that was a very brief meeting.  That said, Mannie is one of those guys whose personality shines through on his blog and that translates into feeling like you’ve known him for some time.  I thoroughly enjoyed our lunch and especially the conversation.  It’s always nice to spend time with people who do what they love.  It shines through.  The NPS is lucky to have Mannie on board now as a full-time employee and I look forward to my next visit with him.  After lunch we stopped by to see Ted Alexander.  I haven’t seen Ted in a number of years, but he is the man who is responsible for introducing me to the war back in 1993.  I am forever grateful for Ted’s encouragement of my early research interests and for opening up the archives whenever I was in town.

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Publications in the Pipeline

I hope that all of you have had a chance to read my article on Confederate military executions in the current issue of Civil War Times.  It should be on the newsstands for a few more weeks, but you can also read it online.  I’ve been quite pleased with the response thus far.  I am also pleased to report that my essay on understanding the battle of the Crater as a slave rebellion will be published in a future issue of the magazine.  Working with Dana Shoaf and the rest of the staff was an absolute pleasure and I look forward to doing it again.  You may remember that this essay started as a blog post in June 2009, which received quite a bit of attention.  Civil War Times is a perfect place for this particular piece.  It’s an aspect of the battle that receives very little attention and I love the fact that it will be read by a popular audience.  I am really excited about this one.  Writing this essay has allowed me to think much more deeply about a number of issues related to the battle itself as well as the postwar process of remembrance and commemoration.  The essay now serves as the core of the first chapter of my Crater manuscript.

This year is proving to be very good for me in the area of publications.  I’ve got a few other projects that should be out this year in addition to the two Civil War Times articles.  The final volume of the Virginia at War series edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson (University of Kentucky Press) should be right around the corner.  Back in 2008 I wrote a chapter on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August my talk from the 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians, which explored how I use Ken Burns in my classroom will be published in the journal, The History Teacher.  Finally, I am hoping to hear more about the status of Gary Gallagher’s final volume in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series at UNC Press.  It looks like this final volume will cover the Petersburg Campaign through Appomattox and may end up being quite a large book.  Last I heard my essay on how Confederate soldiers remembered the battle of the Crater was to be included, but these things can change given the amount of time that has lapsed.

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