Perhaps Lincoln Was Just Thin-Boned and Awkward Looking

The Washington Post actually gave this story an entire page.  Amazon should offer a package deal that includes the books by Sotos and C.A. Tripp.

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Black Confederates on the Internet

There are plenty of black Confederates to be found on the Internet; in fact, they seem to run rampant in the world of cyberspace.  The number of men in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fluctuates widely depending on the number of black Confederates believed to have served.  Sifting through the mire of shoddy websites is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks.  This is especially true in the world of the Civil War.  In a sense the Internet embodies the democratic principles that we hold dear and gives meaning to the notion that "everyman his own historian."  However, this democratic tendency comes with a price.  Historical truth or any related epistemological notion will mean very little if individual Internet sites cannot be properly evaluated.

Most of my students use search engines such as Google and click on one of the first five sites that appear without any understanding of why they make the top of the list.  Despite PageRank being the most important method Google uses to rank websites, it is not the only one. Other factors taken into account when calculating the Google rankings include: the contents of the title bar of the site; the page’s meta tags; how many times the keyword is in the content of the page and the text used in the links coming to the site (anchor text).  The point is that Google does not evaluate the content of the website directly.  In other words, the first five sites may be more unreliable than those sites listed on p. 10.

Uncovering the publisher of a website is one of the most important ways to evaluate its reliability.  I tend to steer my students away from websites that are published by individuals and organizations other than historical societies and institutions of higher learning. 

Let’s consider the issue of black Confederates as an example.  As I stated at the beginning of this post most of the so-called evidence for this can be found on Internet sites.  Consider the Petersburg Express site, which includes a page titled "Who Is Hiding This Southern History?."  The page includes a number of photographs of black men in Confederate uniforms along with a number of passages that include no interpretation whatsoever apart from the conclusion that they demonstrate that a certain aspect of history has been intentionally ignored.  Here is a very simple way of evaluating this site.  Go to www.easywhois.com and type the url www.petersburgexpress.com into the search bar that says "domain name".  The results will include the individual or organization that applied for the domain name.  You can now search the individual or organization and inquire into their credentials.  What qualifications, if any, in the field of history can be demonstrated that would validate the information provided on the website?  Who exactly is Ashleigh Moody and what are his credentials?  Do you have any reason at all to trust the content of the website based on the credentials uncovered?  You can also find out which sites are linked to Petersburg Express by going to Altavista.  In the search bar type "link:www.petersburgexpress.com" which will take you to the websites that are linked.  A great deal of information can be discerned based on the quality of websites linked. 

You can also do this for the 37th Texas Cavalry, which is another one of my favorite sites. This site contains a number of pages on so-called black Confederates and is even sponsoring a monument to honor their service, which is reminiscent of the move in the 1920s by the U.D.C. to construct a faithful slave memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Time is, indeed, running out for the chance to Remember and Honor the tens of thousands of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow Southerners and those of foreign birth who wore the gray and fought to defend their homes and families. There are those who are making concerted efforts to abolish or deny documented evidence of their service.

So, what are we to make of this site?  The easywhois search reveals one Michael Kelly and the altavista search for links shows roughly 90 sites.  I don’t know what qualifications this individual has or anything else about the reliability of his "research."  This is one place that you will continue to find the image of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards being used as evidence for large numbers of black Confederates.  This has been discredited by any number of scholars.  I completely steer clear of sites created by individuals and "organizations" that I cannot identify and I recommend demand that my students do the same. 

No doubt many of you are far ahead in ways to evaluate websites, but most people don’t know the first thing about vetting Internet sites.  Following these suggestions is a first step.

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Who Says You Can Never Go Home Again?

Thanksgiving_008Thanks to all of you who emailed me not too long ago to attend my 20th High School Reunion.  Michaela and I had a wonderful weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey visiting with my family for Thanksgiving in addition to the reunion.  My mother usually prefers to cook at home, but this year she sprained her foot while doing ballet so we decided to go out for dinner.  The reunion, which was on Saturday evening, was an absolute blast.  I was surprised by how little my friends have changed in the 20 years since graduation and how much I enjoyed sharing old stories.  It was just a little surreal.  On the one hand all of us have gone off in different directions and amassed the kinds of experiences that define adulthood.  At the same time it doesn’t take much time at all to peel back those layers to reveal the innocence and joy of youth. 

I posted a bunch of photos over at Flickr.

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What Is It About Being a Slave That You Don’t Understand?

I guess you can’t blame newsmen for these sloppy stories about so-called black Confederates.  After all they don’t know who to talk to or what questions to ask.  Such is the case in the present story about a slave from Mississippi by the name of Isaac Pringle:

Born in May, 1841, Isaac, or Ike as he was better known, was owned by the Pringle family that lived and owned land around Vimville. Ike took on the name of his owners and was forever called Ike Pringle.

At an early age he was given to the grandson of the family, Frank Pringle. Not that far apart in age, the two basically grew up together until the Civil War began. At that time, Frank Pringle joined the 24th Mississippi. Ike Pringle followed him into service. Some say Ike Pringle followed on his own accord and out of obligation to Frank Pringle.

What exactly does it mean to say that Isaac followed his master “on his own accord and out of obligation…”  This points to the fundamental problem with these types of stories which is an almost complete lack of serious analysis or understanding of the concept of slavery.  Unless you have some kind of documentation that demonstrates the ability on the part of Isaac to refuse an order without consequences than stay away from making such claims.  Consider the following passage:

Both men survived the war and were in Atlanta when the last cannons fell silent. From that moment on, Ike Pringle was a free man. Frank Pringle gave him his freedom there and moved to Pensacola, Fla., according to records. But Ike Pringle decided to return home to Vimville.

Again, another example of sloppy writing.  Was Frank really in a position at that point to decide the legal status of Isaac in the final days of the war or should we see the war itself as having something to do with Isaac becoming free?  Such claims are vacuous in the extreme.  Even more so are the comments regarding Isaac’s apparent participation in veterans events and his collection of a pension from the state of Mississippi in 1920.  The reporter admits that there is no evidence of wartime service beyond Isaac’s presence with his master while serving in the 24th Mississippi, but somehow we are to believe that these facts trump the dearth of official documentation.  Isaac Pringle was clearly involved in veterans events and this is indeed worthy of analysis by historians.  I’ve spent considerable time examining “Stonewall” Jackson’s personal servant’s participation in postwar events and it is clear that it has nothing to do with his “service” in the army.  There could be any number of reasons during the height of Jim Crow that blacks were accepted in one way or another into these organizations.  Unfortunately, here is how this reporter concludes his story:

Many of the details are still unknown at this time but whatever his role was, it was enough for the State of Mississippi to grant Ike Pringle a pension in 1920 for being a member of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

And the nonsense continues.

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Assessing the AP Course in American History: A Few Thoughts

This year I am serving on a committee that is assessing our school’s AP program.  Our responsibilities include surveying teachers in various subjects as to their experiences as well as completing a report based on our findings.  I decided to write-up my thoughts regarding the AP American History course. 

This is my fourth year teaching the AP course in American history and during that time I have thought quite a bit about the pros and cons of the curriculum.  This critique should not be interpreted as a more general analysis of the AP program since my experience is specific to the course in American history.  The curriculum emphasizes breadth of knowledge that covers the entire expanse of American history along with relevant knowledge in world history and analytical writing skills.  At the center of the curriculum is the Document-Based Essay (DBQ) which tests students’ ability to properly interpret a set of primary sources as part of an analytical essay.  Students who score a 4 or 5 on the exam [graded on a 1 to 5 scale] have demonstrated mastery of the content [80 multiple-choice questions] along with strong writing and interpretive skills.  The AP History curriculum has much to offer both teachers and students.  For teachers with little or no training as historians the AP curriculum offers a taste of the skills that define the historical process.  Students looking for a course that goes beyond the traditional survey course can expect to be challenged in the areas of content mastery and analytical writing and thinking.  The AP History curriculum arguably serves best those schools looking to offer an advanced course in history that do not have the resources necessary to offer viable alternatives. 

While I acknowledge that the AP History curriculum has much to recommend it it has prevented me from teaching the kind of course that I believe to be appropriate for advanced learners.  The fundamental problem is that the AP course leaves little room for divergence.  Teachers are forced to cover a wide breadth of material superficially, leaving little time for in-depth analysis; semesters feel like a race against time rather than a serious exploration of historic events.  This is exacerbated by a reliance on textbooks which force teachers to schedule the year around individual chapters.  Chapters typically receive the same amount of attention even if the instructor acknowledges a hierarchy of historic events.  In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction may receive the same amount of time as chapters that are not deemed to be as significant.  The adherence to a strict schedule is also frustrating for students as conversations and debates are often cut short.  Students also get bogged down memorizing facts that by any standard are not important.  I often find myself spending entire classes making sure that students understand the factual information.  I am the first person to admit that any serious history course must be driven by mastery of information, but that content should be tailored to the other skills to be included in an advanced course. 

I am confident that I have the skills and resources to develop a more creative and flexible curriculum that still demands rigor.  In fact it may even be more demanding and rewarding for students.  My advanced or honors course would look very different from my current AP course.  Perhaps the most significant change would be the a move away from the textbook as the core text for a short list of secondary sources.  A range of studies, including books and articles would be utilized to provide students with a more accurate understanding of how history is written and often rewritten.  Such an approach would immediately move the focus of the course away from history as memorization to interpretation.  Different approaches to the study of history could be introduced such as gender, social, racial and political history.  Topics could also be organized thematically rather than along strict chronological lines that define the textbook format.  In addition, textbooks almost always sacrifice interpretation for a narrative that is neutral and exhaustive in terms of content.  Class discussions would focus as much on factual content as on the decisions made by individual historians that enter into any analytical study.   

Primary sources and DBQ-type essays can easily be introduced.  More importantly, the narrowing of topics will leave more time for research-oriented projects that allow students to engage in serious research that utilizes online databases such as the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia.  It is only from doing research that students learn to think as historians.  Students in Charlottesville have access to one of the largest archives at the University of Virginia as well as local historical societies.  Any number of projects could be assigned that would provide hands-on experience handling primary documents.  I do not mean to suggest that various supplements to the textbook or additional assignments are not possible in an AP course, but that the schedule makes it very difficult.  Again, there is always a calendar hovering overhead that serves to remind the instructor and students that it is time to move on. 

Over the past two years I’ve felt held back by the AP curriculum.  I don’t feel as if my talents are being fully utilized in the classroom.  To do so would involve having the freedom to create a curriculum for advanced learners from the ground-up. 

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