Falling in Love With Abraham Lincoln

07In today’s New York Times Opinion Page, Maira Kalman brings her artistic gifts [love her New Yorker covers] to bear on her relationship with Abraham Lincoln.  I’m still trying to figure it out, but I love the way Kalman balances what appears to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of Lincoln’s life and legacy with the innocence of the illustrations and child-like penmanship.  At one point Kalman imagines bringing Lincoln into “my world,” which includes meeting Frida Kahlo, viewing an exhibit of Fred Sandback’s sculptures, and a baked potato.  What do you think?

Teaching Teachers

This has been an extremely busy week for me.  We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week.  Luckily, the following week is spring break.  My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past.  I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues.  One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.

On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week.  Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history.  This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous.  In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops.  First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing.  It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history.  Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels.  That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject.  It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.

In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject.  They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor.  One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me.  I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence.  They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell.  One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school.  I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question.  He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile.  The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached.  Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.

Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers.  I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students.  The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year.  We don’t live in a society that values its teachers.  If we did a great deal would be different.

I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education.  The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.

Live Blogging From Norfolk State University (TAH Seminar)

Please keep in mind that this is a very rough post.  I didn’t take the time to review it for grammar since I wanted to post this as part of the day’s proceedings.  Perhaps later I will follow-up with a short post on my session as well as my thoughts concerning Prof. Glymph’s presentation.

We are about five minutes from the start of today’s Teaching American History grant session on major turning points between 1850 and 1877.  The sessions that I am helping out with are being organized by Andy Mink, who is in charge of educational outreach for the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. There are 18 teachers and 2 administrators who are participating in a series of talks on the teaching of history.  The morning session will be run by Duke University historian, Thavolia Glymph, and I am taking care of the afternoon session.

My plan is to use the battle of Antietam as a case study of a classic turning point of the Civil War.  I am using it, in part, because most of us think it is a crucial moment in the course of the Civil War.  My goal, however, is to look at the battle and its aftermath by looking at a range of primary sources that give us a richer sense of how people – at the time – viewed events.  As teachers we ask our students to think about important events or turning points as a way to understand change over time.  The SOLs single specific events out as more important than others and it is up to us to explain why they are important and worth remembering.  It’s a way of organizing material and making sense of a past that is incredibly complex.  The concept works well when trying to cover a great deal of material in a short period of time and it works effectively to help us distinguish between degrees of importance in the past.  In doing so, however, we often reduce the past to a point where we are unable to appreciate the perspectives of those who lived through momentous times.  In our need to organize the facts we sometimes fail to appreciate the sense of contingency that defined the lives of historic actors.  Finally, we overlook the many perspectives that colored those on the ground.  As a teacher I strive to achieve a balance between high-order understanding of the sweep of major events such as the Civil War without overlooking those whose lives were inextricably shaped in ways that they could barely comprehend.

Now to Professor Glymph’s presentation: “The Crisis of the Union”

Focus of the talk is on the Emancipation Proclamation and she chose it because it is not considered a traditional turning point as compared to battles/campaigns.  Overall focus on how the EP introduced or forced the question and problem of black citizenship.  We must understand the extent to which the United States emphasized that the war was not about emancipation.  In 1861 Federal commanders arrived with orders from Washington which prevented them from taking the property of slaveholders.  The movement of men and ships, however, placed them in direct contact with fugitive slaves who reminded commanders of the First Confiscation Act.  How do slaves know?  They hear their masters as well as other whites who discuss the issue in the open.  Other important decisions leading to September 1862 include the Article of War (March 1862), the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act (July 1862).  Each step worked to secure the sense among fugitive slaves that their owners could not reclaim them.  Glymph emphasizes the Second Confiscation Act since in its emphasis on treason as a sufficient reason for the emancipation of their slaves.  It also authorized the president to employ people of African descent; this represents an important transformation for the Federal government.  In addition, if the nation continues to move to a point where large numbers of slaves are emancipated a solution must be found as to what to do with them –  colonization/”anywhere tropical” according to the 2nd Confiscation Act.  The Militia Act stated that if African American men sign up their families will also be freed.  So, then why is the Emancipation Proclamation so important?

In what ways was it a revolutionary and conservative document?  One of the reasons Glymph believes is important has to do with the emancipation of slaves in Washington, D.C.  Slavery had for a long time been considered an embarasment given its symbol and visitors from outside the country.  The government focuses on it since it is not a state and comes under its authority.  Emancipation was compensated in the capital in April 1862; the government appropriated  $1 million dollars for the project.  It helps to understand the importance of the EP since it did not involve compensation.  It minimizes its importance as a moral decision given that the government is purchasing private property rather than simply declaring them free.  If you were a slave in D.C. your freedom was purchased for you; F. Douglass had a serious problem with this decision – slaveholders don’t lose and the plan is to colonize the freed population.

Throughout this period the slaves continued to impose themselves on local Federal commanders and setting up contraband camps.  Some black regiments were organized in South Carolina and Kansas in 1862.  The EP is critical because it makes it possible for blacks to be recruited as solders and take up arms.  On the surface, according to Glymph, this is significant and many Union soldiers acknowledged that it was time to use them in battle, though the government continued to move slowly.

The EP has been criticized for what it didn’t do and Lincoln has been called a racist by some historians.  Lincoln was explict in the EP and stated that the EP is a war measure and nothing more.  He was not trying to do anything but win the war; the EP, then, must be understood as part of the original intention of Lincoln to save the Union.  [Students read the EP]  Glymph argues that this is not a document that can be used to say anything about Lincoln’s view on race.  Lincoln acted as commander-in-chief and that is how this documen must be read.  The document was designed to accomplish one thing and this is why he draws distinctions between where the proclamation will apply and where it will not apply.

Importance of the document must be understood in terms of its refusal to offer compensation.  For Glymph’s important not for what if says but for what it makes African Americans feel.  It legitimizes what African Americans already knew.  Glymph believes that it is important for students to understand the courage it took for thousands of slaves to leave their homes and leave, not knowing where they would end up – think of refugee camps.  They were also no longer working for the Confederate nation.  Every body removed was potentially a body for the United States.  The proclamation fuels this process and because it does, because fugitive slaves are not leaving for foreign land, the federal government must deal with them.  The Federal government creates the American Freedmena Inquiry Commission (AFIC)-precursor to Freedmen’s Bureau.

AFIC spent time in various parts of the South to try to figure out what to do following emancipation.  They approached the question with typical northern prejudices when interviewing slaves.  Asked slaves what they would do with their freedom.  Their report led Congress to form the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865.  The EP allows former slaves to think about forming families and their place in the civic culture.  These are questions that must be understood independently from what we think of Lincoln on race.  Freedom would mean the right to an education, the right to marry legally, etc.

When Glymph teaches a turning point she emphasizes what the decision does or how people responded.  Group analyzes a set of documents to begin to answer that important question.  Doc. 1 is a letter from J. Boston to his wife who is still enslaved.  Boson lets her know that he is safe, but also begs his former master to be kind to his family.  In another letter from Hannah Johnson to A. Lincoln she informs the president that her son is serving in the 54th Massachusetts and encourages him to continue the policy of the recruitment of black Americans and to ensure that “he [Jefferson Davis] will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves.”  Johnson is writing to remind Lincoln what freedom means and his responsibility in protecting the lives of black men in the ranks.  The letters demonstrate how blacks interpreted the Emancipation Proclamation.  One of the things that black Americans interpreted the EP as heralding is a claim to citizenship and respect as men for those who served in the army.  [All too often we interpret the document’s importance w/o looking at how black Americans viewed the situation.]  Finally, Corporal James H. Gooding wrote from Morris Island, S.C. pleading with the president to allow them to fight as soldiers rather than digging ditches: We “have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag.”

Finally, freed slaves fought to ensure that they would not be reenslaved.  The fact that Lincoln did not revoke the EP is, perhaps, the most significant reason to single this decision/event as a turning point in the Civil War and American history.

Family Fun With Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

abraham-lincoln-shooting[Hat-Tip to Steve West]

How would you like to attend a reenactment of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. On March 7 the Sovereign Majestic Theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania will be transformed into Ford’s Theater. Booth will be played by Charles Sacavage, a retired Pottsville Area School District history teacher who now teaches history part-time at Alvernia University, Reading. He started reenacting Booth as a way to get his students interested in the subject:

We were on the Civil War. They weren’t impressed. I was inspired somehow. We were on the death of Lincoln. (Portraying Booth) I got up on top of my desk and glared at them, and all of a sudden I got their attention. Then I jumped off my desk and yelled ‘Sic semper tyrannus.’ That became almost required in my course. Every kid in Pottsville expected to see me jump off my desk.

Well, whatever works. There is something a little disturbing about reenacting the murder of a president. Given the reference to John F. Kennedy how would we feel about a reenactment of his murder? In that case they could also reenact the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby – 2 for 1. The news article noted that children under 12 get in free. In all seriousness, would you bring children under 12 to see the reenactment of a murder? Am I missing something here?

Politically Correct Fourth Graders

It looks like good ole’ white Southern/Confederate values are being assaulted on all sides by the politically correct.  This time the culprits are fourth graders from Glen Burnie, Maryland who were put off by the lyrics in their state’s song, “Maryland, My Maryland”.  They took action like any responsible citizen and wrote their state representative and while it is impossible to know from this short article, the state legislature is now considering a bill to alter the lyrics.  Feel free to sing along:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland, My Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Virginia should not call in vain!
Maryland, My Maryland!
She meets her sisters on the plain-
“Sic semper!” ’tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Maryland! My Maryland!

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
Maryland, My Maryland!
The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,
Maryland, My Maryland!
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she’ll come! she’ll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!

In response, Jane Durden, the president general of the Daughters of the Confederacy, said, “I hate it when parts of our history are pushed aside for political correctness.”  Exactly whose history is Ms. Durden referring to here?  Where is Mildred Rutherfod when you need her?  Damn kids!

Even the Kids Think Gods and Generals is a Little Strange

In this final week of my Civil War Memory course I am showing sections of some of my favorite and not so favorite CW movies.  Today we watched the first part of “Gods and Generals” up to First Manassas.  I was curious as to how they would respond given the course content.  Within about ten minutes they understood that much of it is straight-ahead Lost Cause.  Virginia is depicted as pretty much pro-secession and pro-Confederate and slaves are shown as obedient servants.  Given what they know about “Stonewall” Jackson they thought the movie did a pretty good job of capturing his religious zeal, but they couldn’t stop laughing at the overly-dramatic dialog and music.  It is pretty funny.  One of my students asked if the movie spends as much time on how white northerners viewed the war as it does on the white south.  Good question.  Another student noticed that the first time you even see a “Yankee” is on the Manassas battlefield, which reinforces the notion that they were invaders set to destroy Virginia rather than fighting to preserve the Union.

Here is one of the segments we viewed this morning.  I particularly love the parlor scene.  The ladies just happened to finish stitching the flag for the two boys just as the song is finished.  The mother’s address which follows is a bit too long-winded, but the doozy is the kiss goodbye from the house servant.  Mort Kunstler could paint any of the scenes in this movie.  Gotta love it.

Tomorrow I am going to show some scenes from the movie, “Ride With the Devil”, which does a much better job of capturing some of the complexity and confusion of war in Missouri.  We will also have a chance to talk about how race is dealt with in the movie.

Learn About the Crater for $75

McFarland Publishers is set to release John F. Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History in May.  At that price it better be a complete history of the battle plus the rest of human history.  I’ve never heard of Schmutz before.  Apparently he is a corporate attorney and Civil War enthusiast who lives in San Antonio.  Good for him.  My guess is he saw Cold Mountain and decided to write a book about the battle.  A quick look at the table of contents suggest that this is a straight-forward military history that probably will not go much further than Cavanaugh and Marvel’s 1989 study (H.E. Howard Series) or the recent publication of The Horrid Pit by Alan Axelrod, which I reviewed for the Journal of Southern History.  In other words, we are likely to see little or no analysis of the role race played in this battle.

My advice, wait for the publication of Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, which is slated for release this summer from Random House.  I’ve been looking forward to the publication of this book for some time.  Also, keep your eye out for a future Crater study by Earl Hess.

p.s. Please don’t ask me about my Crater and historical memory manuscript.  It’s coming along.