As a teacher I am a big fan of assigning short analytical reviews. At some point during the year my students must review websites, articles by historians, historical documentaries and Hollywood movies. Students in my AP and Civil War courses must write numerous reviews of short articles by a wide range of historians. I have them do this to better understand what goes into a scholarly historical interpretation as well as preparation for their own research projects. It goes without saying that our students must be instructed as to how to go about writing such a critique. My students have to learn to…
read the publication carefully.
take extensive notes.
be aware of the primary sources utilized and how those sources are interpreted.
explain the author’s argument to the best of their ability and in their own words.
explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the interpretation to the best of their ability based on their understanding of the evidence and the relevant secondary sources.
At no time are my students told to assess the authors themselves. As far as I am concerned it is irrelevant to the scope of the assignment. I can’t imagine one of my student doing so, but if they handed a review in that included references to “political correctness”, “revisionism”, or “liberal bias” I would immediately hand the paper back with a grade of Incomplete. It would get such a grade not because I agree or disagree, but because the student apparently does not understand what it means to evaluate a historical interpretation.
I share this in light of the comments that I’ve read on this site and so many others in response to PBS’s recent documentary about Robert E. Lee. I find it funny that folks actually believe that such references convey any real significance when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative as well as the commentary offered by the historians. It may come to a shock to some, but it is possible to disagree with one another when thinking about the past and doing history. There are legitimate disagreements that one can have over last night’s documentary. For example, one of the most common criticisms has to do with the postwar portrayal of Lee as well as the amount of attention given to Lee’s faith. That’s a legitimate criticism so make the point to the best of your ability.
So, go ahead and give it a try. You know who you are. Next time you feel tempted to resort to such references take a step back and regroup. Take the necessary time to elaborate and explain your main points. Reference specific primary and secondary sources and try to engage in a serious discussion. Who knows, you may end up advancing the understanding of all parties.
It’s nice to see that the latest installment [airs tonight at 9pm] of PBS’s American Experience on Robert E. Lee is getting its fair share of attention. A few months back PBS mailed me a preview copy of the documentary. In fact, I talked with producers of the show about three years ago and even suggested a number of the historians who were utilized as commentators. Of course, I have no idea whether I was influential in their final choice. I’ve read a number of very good newspaper and blog reviews and I tend to agree with the the overall positive consensus. No doubt, the usual suspects will cry foul by accusing the producers of revisionism and political correctness; however, in the end, it’s a solid documentary based on the best scholarship. I could quibble with some minor points, but that would miss the documentary’s target audience. With the official beginning of the sesquicentennial there will be an increased demand for entertaining and serious documentaries and this one sets a high standard.
What I value about this series by American Experience is their commitment to ensuring that their programs are based on the latest scholarship. Today I showed a bit more of the History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” which included commentary from Brian Williams, David Baldacci, and Al Sharpton among others. It was a complete joke. Tonight you will hear from Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and Emory Thomas. All are talented historians. I don’t have a direct line to the past. Just about everything I can claim to know about the Civil War is from reading the scholarship of others and, in the case of Lee, from reading these historians. In fact, apart from my own research interest, I don’t really know how to engage in historical discourse apart from scholarship that I’ve read.
So, if you have recently been bitten by that Civil War bug sit back and enjoy this documentary and the next time you are in your local bookstore or Online check out one of these titles:
Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes. We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede. This is not an easy task. While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult. Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.
Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed. In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia. In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861. What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee. The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery. As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation. In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it. And that brings us to the final problem: We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South. It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.
This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement. Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages. The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion. I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate. The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues. In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union. Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present. The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves. The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter. Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.
I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.
Here is another story for those of you who doubt that we are witnessing a radical shift in our popular perceptions of the Civil War and the history of slavery. Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner in Georgia, has ordered that a series of murals depicting slavery be removed from the building. The murals were painted in 1956 by George Beattie to show the evolution of agriculture in the state from Native Americans through the twentieth century. I do hope these murals find a new home so they can be appreciated and even interpreted for their historical value. According to the news story, Black is replacing a commissioner who occupied the position since 1969.
This shift in popular thinking about slavery is still, in my mind, best understood in terms of what it finds offensive or problematic. The Lost Cause view of slavery, with its emphasis on paternalism, has already been put to rest by scholars and we can begin to discern the consequences of this from the controversies surrounding Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation to the recent coverage of the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession. What is not clear is whether the next few years and a more rigorous engagement with the history and legacy of slavery will leave us with any lasting impressions.
On this day 148 years ago the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and yet as a nation we do nothing to mark the occasion. How strange in a nation that celebrates a narrative of the gradual embrace and expansion of freedom.