What Did You Read This Past Year?

I plan on sharing my favoite Civil War titles before the end of the year.  [Fellow blogger and NPS historian John Hoptak has already published his “best of” list for 2008.] In the meantime I am interested to know what you found worthwhile from this year’s offerings.  I don’t mind at all if you want to cite something published in 2007 that you only got around to reading this year.


Commemorating What? (continued)

I love those little bursts of creativity that I occasionally have in the classroom. With my commemoration talk scheduled for Sunday in Fredericksburg and my Civil War Memory classes focused on the analysis of soldier monuments, their inscriptions, as well as dedication talks, I decided to place them in the position of speaker and come up with their own presentation. Actually, they had to focus on the individual themes that they would include in the speech rather than write it out. Without telling them that I am the one scheduled to give the talk I described the setting beginning with a brief description of the battle, the Kirkland Memorial, and cemetery as well as the schedule for the ceremony. I referenced the wreath-laying, which will be carried out by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Sons of Union Veterans, and Daughters of the Confederacy and described the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The goal was a class discussion and it turned out to be one of the more engaging of the semester thus far. In both sections students suggested beginning with the Kirkland Memorial as a way of emphasizing the theme of brotherhood, reunion, and bravery. We talked a bit about the importance of honoring the fallen and why we find a need to do so.

What I found interesting, however, was the level of disagreement surrounding the referencing of themes that go beyond the battlefield. For instance, in both sections it didn’t take long for a student to suggest the importance of emancipation and the end of slavery as important factors for a commemoration talk. Students took very strong positions on this distinction. For those who agreed it was a matter of acknowledging what the war accomplished while those who disagreed saw little but division. From one perspective it came down to a disagreement over the proper time frame for the talk: Should it cover 1861-1865 and stick to the battlefield specifically or should it reach beyond not only the battlefield, but the war years itself? At least one student in each class suggested referencing the recent election of our nation’s first black president, while others thought that this would also prove to be problematic. It turned out to be problematic on two levels; on the one hand it threatens the bonds of affection and heroic traits found in the broader theme of reunion as well as the setting [Kirkland Memorial] for the ceremony.

The discussion moved to the question of who the commemoration is for. Is it for the Civil War generation, the living, or both? There seemed to be little agreement on this question. A number of students kept coming back to the distinction between Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 speech on the 50th anniversary of the battle. They were drawn to the way Lincoln connected the meaning of the battle to the founding ideals in Declaration of Independence as well as the way he reminded his audience and future generations of their obligations to ensure that “these men shall not have died in vain.” Others appreciated Wilson’s focus on the veterans in attendance in 1913 and understood the overall theme of “the quarrel forgotten” even though they acknowledged the racial backdrop of Jim Crow.

A few of the students kept pressing me to share my own ideas. It was not until the end of the course when I decided to reveal that I am the one giving the commemoration talk. I promised to allow them the opportunity to critique it on Monday.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to turn this little exercise into a formal lesson plan. I do think, however, that this can be done in any history class. It forces students to think about what is worth remembering/commemorating and why. Next time, I will definitely ask students to write a formal address as well as deliver it to the rest of the class. One of the things that a classroom address would allow for are images that the student could use to provide a visual setting for the subject of the presentation. In February I will be working with a group of high school teachers on how to teach the Civil War and memory through a TAH Grant. My goal is to introduce a lesson plan based on writing commemorative speeches for this session.


Commemorating What?

It’s a strange feeling to have to write a commemoration talk when the very thing that deserves to be remembered and reinforced has almost entirely been forgotten. Even I failed to acknowledge that December 6 was the anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery forever. Few Americans would have conceived of this as a possibility in 1861. The battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, is part of this story of a “new birth of freedom” and deserves to be acknowledged in a nation that professes to believe in freedom and equality for all.

I believe the commemoration ceremony this coming Sunday is being held next to the Kirkland Statue. It’s a fitting place to hold the ceremony. We all know the story of Sergeant Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina who gave aid and comfort to wounded Union soldiers at the base of Marye’s Heights. That said, I would much rather be in sight of the soldier’s graves. They force us to ask the difficult questions of what the war means to us as well as what is worth remembering and commemorating. Kirkland’s story is one that all Americans can identify with, and rightly so, but when are we as a nation going to get to a point when emancipation and the end of slavery can be acknowledged as a fitting price for so much death and suffering?


“Robert E. Lee”


Understanding Civil War Statuary

This week my Civil War Memory students will be analyzing early commemorations and memory of the soldiers. We will read an article on the subject by David Blight and analyze early monuments along with their inscriptions and accompanying dedication speeches. I want my students to understand the role that statues played in shaping the memory of the war. Students should understand that the significance and message of the monument depended, in part, on the identity of the sponsor. The power to install and dedicate implied the authority to shape public spaces and define the conduct that deserved to be commemorated. Along with this is the ability to shape and reinforce the meaning and legacy of the war, which worked to reinforce the preferred interpretation of those who organized and dedicated the monument. I put together a slide show presentation for tomorrow and thought you might be interested in two statues in particular.

Some of you may be familiar with the first monument, known affectionately as “Dutchy”, which was unveiled in Elberton County, Georgia on July 15, 1898. There were hundreds of Confederate veterans still living and they declared that the Confederate army never had anything that looked like him or the uniform he wore. It is 22 feet high and the statue is seven feet tall and made of Elbert County granite. The distaste for “Dutchy” grew and on August 14,1900 the people awoke to find that the granite soldier had taken a tumble and was lying on the ground in broken pieces. It is not known to this day who pulled the figure down.

The belief that the statue was “too German” and its eventual destruction suggest that sculptors were expected to portray Civil War soldiers along accepted ethnic lines.

The second monument pictured below, according to Thomas Brown, was the only one constructed in the South by 1920. It is located in West Point Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia.

This statue points to the gradual disappearance of the “emancipationist legacy” of the war and the service of black soldiers in saving the Union. The difficulty in placing a monument to black Union soldiers in the South had as much to do with limited financial means as it did with the reemergence of white supremacy through Jim Crow legislation.

In terms of my own reading on the subject I’ve relied heavily on Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (Princeton University Press, 1999).


“Clinging” to Jim Limber

The latest issue of North and South has a hilarious little story about Jim Limber and the Davis family written by Chuck Lyons. Check out some of these references

“Jim was soon treated as a part of the Davis family, a precious part.”

“Joe’ s death led the Davises’ to cling strongly to little Jim.”

Wonderful stuff Chuck – whoever you are.

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A History Lesson Gone Wrong

All good history teachers work to bring the past alive for their students. Yes, it wreaks of cliche, but there is a grain of truth in the attempt to broaden our students’ perspective, to help them to see themselves as part of a broader narrative. In working toward this end we introduce students to a wide range of experiences from traditional primary sources to the sights and smells of the past. Some of the most meaningful lessons are those that provide an opportunity for students to make a personal connection with the past and that connection is often couched in emotion. This is not easy to do, and I don’t mind admitting that I tend to steer clear of these types of lessons, not because of any skepticism regarding the value of emotional identification, but owing to its potential to become a distraction from the historical reference itself. At the same time I believe that the history classroom can be an ideal setting in which students can exercise their other-regarding emotions such as empathy and sympathy. Again, my concern is that it be done carefully and with an understanding that up to a certain age students are self-centered and self-conscious.

With this in mind consider the lesson plan of Haverstraw Middle School teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who, in an attempt to teach the horrors of the slave trade chose to bind the hands and feet of her students and have them crouch under their desks. Her goal was to impress upon them the cramped quarters of a slave ship. As you can imagine some of the parents were very upset with the teacher’s decision after their children came home visibly upset. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information to gauge how the teacher used this simulation in class. How did she hope to translate the emotion of the simulation where hands and feet are tied and turn it into a history lesson? What questions were the children being asked to consider?

Now I don’t teach middle school-aged kids, but it seems to me that given their emotional maturity it is going to be difficult for the teacher to redirect that emotion from self to other. In other words, how is it possible to get the student to look beyond his/her own feelings and anxiety to consider something historical or remote? Perhaps it is possible as in the famous case of the teacher who, in an attempt to demonstrate the hideousness of racism, divided her class to give the students a sense of what it is like to be discriminated against. However, even if the psychological leap is possible in such a situation, does this simulation have anything at all to do with the life of a slave? Does this in any way assist children in recreating in their minds the reality of the “Middle Passage”?

The teacher in question has apologized for causing any problems with her students, but refuses to apologize for using the simulation in class. I’m just waiting for the next story where the teacher asks her Jewish students to simulate “Sophie’s Choice” upon entering a mock Concentration Camp.


Fredericksburg’s Newest Museum Opens Tomorrow

Tonight my wife and I will be driving to Fredericksburg for a “Gala Reception” in celebration of the grand opening of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. The museum opens tomorrow and includes a a schedule of talks and other activities throughout the day. Our good friend Sara Poore, who is the director of education for the museum, has been working tirelessly over the past year to get the program up and running as well as the exhibits. We are looking forward to helping her and the rest of the staff celebrate this joyous occasion. The weather should be nice this weekend so if you live in the Fredericksburg area make sure you pay the museum a visit.

Click here for a news item in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

Note: Next week I will be back in Fredericksburg to deliver the keynote address for the NPS’s commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.