Dalton School Apologizes For Screening Willmott’s C.S.A.

Willmott C.S.A.By now many of you have heard that an elite school in New York City has apologized for showing Kevin Wilmott’s satirical movie, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which imagines what the United States would be like had the Confederacy won the Civil War. It’s still unclear what specifically led to the apology by the Dalton School beyond some of the students expressing concern about the film.

Let’s be clear, however, this is a case of Dalton’s administration and History Department dropping the ball and not a matter of the inappropriateness of the film itself. First, the film was shown to sophomores, who are likely not mature enough and there is no evidence that the students were given sufficient historical context to understand both the content and goals of Kevin Willmott’s film. Continue reading

Are We Coming to the End of Civil War Memory?

When I learned that an essay on teaching would be included in the Common-place project I immediately thought of my friend, Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Chris and I met at an OAH conference a few years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. We’ve exchanged ideas and on a few occasions I joined his class discussion via Skype. Chris’s efforts to introduce his students to the subject of Civil War memory as well as his use of digital tools and social media sit at the forefront of classroom innovation and creativity.  Continue reading

Common-place Marks the Civil War 150 with Special Issue

I couldn’t be more excited to share Common-place’s latest issue on the Civil War sesquicentennial that I had the pleasure to edit with Megan Kate Nelson. We are confident that each of you will find something of interest in this issue. The essays cover a wide range of topics and will hopefully both enlighten and entertain. Special thanks to all the contributors to this issue. We had the pleasure to work with an incredibly talented group of historians and educators, who were both committed to producing their best work and patient with our suggestions and numerous emails. Thanks also to the wonderful editorial staff at Common-place, especially Paul Erickson and Trudy Powers. Continue reading

“A People’s Contest” and a Classroom Discussion

Yesterday I commented on my Facebook page about a pretty intense discussion in my Civil War class on what motivated northern men to volunteer for the army in the spring of 1861. We talked about about a collection of letters as well as a short selection from James McPherson’s book, What They Fought For 1861-1865.  I’ve commented on the challenges of teaching the importance that northerners attached to union, liberty and their close identification with the founding generation in contrast with Confederates. The latter’s claims to defending hearth, home, and a “way of life” tend to resonate more with my students. Continue reading

William Prince Ford & Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend

12-Years-a-SlaveIt is being reported that some of the descendants of slaveowner William Prince Ford are not happy with how he has been portrayed in 12 Years A Slave.

One was his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford,  who described the film as ‘too dark  and exaggerated’. He added: ‘By all accounts, my great-great-grandfather treated his slaves well and did his best for them. ‘He was born at a particular time in history when slavery was accepted throughout the South. ‘It wasn’t illegal. That doesn’t make it right or moral by today’s standards but back then it wasn’t an ethical issue. Northup saw him as a kindly person. He was a highly moral man.’ The film, says Mr Ford, ignores the fact that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly’. He said: ‘Good field-hands had worth. They were valued. A skilled craftsman like Northup would have been valued. There might have been a few bad apples, but I don’t think there was widespread brutality.’

The past few decades has witnessed an incredible outpouring of scholarship on the complexity of the master-slave relationship. The institution varied widely depending on both time, place and a host of other factors. No one should be surprised that as much as 12 Years A Slave has made room for meaningful discourse about the history of American slavery, it has also reinforced deeply entrenched positions and ideologies. For many a continued defensive stance is the only response. Continue reading