Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right

It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school.  Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript.  As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.

This is not a formal presentation.  I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there.  So, here’s what I got.  In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln.  I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter.  I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory.  At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.

With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery.  We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.

Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses.  I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.”  In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races.  Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class.  What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties.  How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?

Please feel free to add your own ideas.  Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.

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So Who Should Lincoln Have Chosen in 1864?

Brian Dirck just finished a series of posts on Abraham Lincoln’s greatest “flubs.”  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Brian singled out Lincoln’s choice of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate as his greatest flub.  Seems reasonable given what transpired following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s opposition to the Radical Republican’s preferred vision of Reconstruction.  Of course, Lincoln could not have know that he would fall victim to an assassins bullet leaving the White House in the hands of a Unionist who proved to be hostile to the idea of black civil rights.  The whole question, however, hinges on the assumption that another choice would have led to a different outcome.  Well, of course it would [Imagine that somehow Thadeus Stevens got the nod and that somehow Lincoln managed to win.], but as Elektratig [click here for his blog] noted in the comments, what if we stay within the political parameters that governed the choice:

So who, then, should Lincoln have chosen? I’m assuming we keep to the same parameters: a Democrat or very “conservative” Republican, from a border state or (if no other choice) the “lower” north.

What a wonderful question and one that I’ve never really considered.  The commenter is forcing us to keep in mind the political considerations that would have shaped the choice of Lincoln (to whatever extent he was actually involved) and the Republican Party.

I’m not a big fan of counterfactuals, but this one is certainly intriguing.  In what way would the short-term effects have been different given the choice?  And in light of my recent post on Marc Egnal’s new book, how might the long-term consequences have been different?  Finally, does careful reflection about this counterfactual force us to shift our popular memory of Andrew Johnson in any way?

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Challenges of Teaching the Civil War

n1572390066_30165665_223Next week I will be heading down to Richmond to take part in the American Civil War Museum’s 3-day conference, “Lincoln and the South.” at the University of Richmond.  It’s an all-star line-up of Civil War scholars, including William J. Cooper, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck – you get the picture.  I will be leading a discussion on Saturday morning for teachers on the challenges of teaching the Civil War and Lincoln in the classroom.  The teachers will range from kindergarten through the college level.

I am working on a set of questions for the participants to consider concerning some of the most challenging aspects of teaching the subject.   What are the most difficult aspects of the Civil War to teach and why?  What are some of the most common assumptions that students bring to the classroom regarding the war and what are some effective ways to challenge those assumptions?  Finally, what biases/assumptions do we as teachers bring to the classroom and to what extent does our own discomfort with some of the more divisive issues shape the way we teach?  Finally, I hope to introduce some strategies for teachers to employ to address some of these issues.

What do you think?

[photo of me teaching on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia]

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Diet Mountain Dew Abe Lincoln

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Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.

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Schmutz’s Crater

So, it looks like I am reviewing John F. Schmutz’s new book on the Crater for H-Net.  I should apologize for the cheap shot I took the other week when I suggested that he probably took up the project after watching Cold Mountain.  It turns out he has some relatives who fought in the battle.  Schmutz has written a thick book, and apparently he did a pretty good job of surveying the primary and secondary sources.  It’s also nice to see some of my own published work on the Crater in recent bibliographies, including his.  Still, I am a bit concerned after reading the preface.  The author describes the political scene in the 1860s with the phrase, “political correctness run amok.”  Hell, I don’t even know what the phrase means most of the time when it is used to describe current politics, let alone the political culture 140 years ago.  Anyway, I will let you know what I think once I’ve crawled out of this thing.

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Civil War Memory: Final Projects

I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days.  But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date.  I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way.  For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas.  I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war.  In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum.  One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website.  Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester.  They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation.  A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place.  The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.

One student decided to do a couple of sculptures.  The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.”  Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose.  The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.”  Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:

The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side.  The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility.  Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward.  There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and  had to maneuver around such obstacles.  Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced.  The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.

The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:

In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed.  He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat.  I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War.  Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was.  General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument.  He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South.  His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865.  To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw.  This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war.  Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war.  Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.

I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year.  For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects.  My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory.  Now that’s pretty cool.

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CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh…and I stole the image from K’s Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte, kcox@uncc.edu

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