New Course: Civil War Memory

It’s that time of the year again when I have to decide what courses to teach next fall.  We are moving to a trimester schedule which will present a number of challenges relating to the amount of material which can be covered.  I thought about teaching the Lincoln course once again, but decided against it given the number of students who will have already read William Gienapp’s biography in the survey course.  I also played around with a course centered on the history of children, which would use Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.  In the end I decided on a survey course on the Civil War in the first trimester and a course on memory in the second.  Students will be encouraged to register for both classes and should prove to be quite an experience given the amount and range of material which can be covered between the two courses.  Keep in mind that this is a rough description and outline.  Feel free to offer suggestions and remember that this is an elective for high school students.

Course Description for Civil War Memory

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961.  Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans.   This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture.  We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory.  Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces.  We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square.  Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia.  Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.


Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, reprint, 1998).

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2004).

[Additional readings will be made available by the instructor.]

Outline [very rough]:

Week 1: Early commemorations and Reconstruction
Week 2: Competing Memories of the War
Week 3: The Soldiers’ Memory
Week 4: Americans Remember Lee, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant
Week 5: Black Americans Remember in the Jim Crow Era
Week 6: Reconciliation and Reunion at Gettysburg
Week 7: The Civil Rights Movement and Civil War Centennial
Week 8: The Civil War in Film
Week 9: The Civil War in Art and Reenacting
Week 10: Displaying the Confederate flag and other public controversies

Lincoln in the News

Allen Guelzo explores the relevance of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates to our political culture.  His latest book on the L-D Debates is now available.  I highly recommend Susan Mandel’s article on the proposal and construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and make sure you check out the photo gallery which includes some wonderful images of its construction.  Lev Grossman reviews some of the recent Lincoln literature of which there is a great deal. He has this to say:

At the time, Lincoln’s death was fused with Jesus’ in the popular
imagination—people needed Lincoln to be more than human in order to
give meaning to the slaughter over which he presided. We still seem to
need that, even while we know it’s not true. Maybe it’s that gap,
between Lincoln’s mortal and immortal natures, that we’re trying to
fill with all these words.

I don’t think that explains it at all.  Maybe Lincoln is just a fascinating study.

A Civil War Marketing Meme that Needs to Go

I was recently checking out some new titles on Amazon and came across Steve Woodworth’s forthcoming study of the western theater titled, Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West (Praeger, 2008).  I’ve read a few surveys of the war in the west, including Woodworth’s last book which I thoroughly enjoyed so I will probably skip this one.  Unfortunately, the jacket description includes the typical selling point:

The verdict is in: the Civil War was won in the “West”–that is, in the nation’s heartland, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Yet, a person who follows the literature on the war might still think that it was the conflict in Virginia that ultimately decided the outcome. Each year sees the appearance of new books aimed at the popular market that simply assume that it was in the East, often at Gettysburg, that the decisive clashes of war the took place.

Actually, anyone who has followed the “literature on the war” over the past few years cannot help but notice the sharp increase in studies that cover every aspect of the war in the west.  How many books need to be published before we can dispense with this little marketing ploy?

2008 Virginia Forum

The third annual Virginia Forum will be held on April 11-12 at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The Virginia Forum brings together historians, teachers, writers,
archivists, museum curators, historic site interpreters, librarians,
and others engaged in the study and interpretation of Virginia history
to share their knowledge, research, and experiences. The first Virginia
Forum took place in April 2006 at Shenandoah University in Winchester,
and the second in April 2007 at the Library of Virginia. The Forum is
an annual event and will be hosted by different universities and
historical organizations around the state in future years.

Registration is now open and the schedule is also available.  Congratulations to Jeff McClurken for pulling it all together.