Last year we were forced to wade through the constant references to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War during the debate over President Bush’s ordering of the NSA to collect intelligence from U.S. citizens without a warrant. And this year we are engaged in a semantics debate over what to call the worst U.S. foreign policy decision of the last 100 years. Does it really matter whether we call it a “civil war”? And if we have to have this silly debate do we really have to reference the American Civil War?
With the recent brain surgery of South Dakota Democratic Senator Tim Johnson comparisons with Charles Sumner are already showing signs of life. As Charles Sumner Republican senator from Massachusetts, sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber in May of 1856, he was assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner’s “Crimes against Kansas” speech, in which Sumner had criticized Brooks’ uncle, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with his heavy cane. Sumner’s long absence from the Senate to recuperate from the attack served as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. Sumner later returned to the Senate, where he authored the nation’s first civil rights legislation. The senator was away from his desk for over three years after the incident and Massachusetts made no move to appoint someone in his place.
The Sumner case is relevant since questions will emerge in South Dakota over what to do given Johnson’s condition. Of course this is politically interesting given the governor’s power to appoint a Republican in Johnson’s place thus handing the Senate back to the Republican Party. The latest reports suggest that there is a chance that Johnson will recover sufficiently to maintain his seat.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released its report on the state of history/civics education in American colleges. The report titled "The Coming Crisis In Citizenship" presents a bleak picture of students attending a broad range of colleges and universities. The study was done by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and involved 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 60 different colleges and universities. The students were given 60 multiple choice questions which covered American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy. Overall findings include the following:
- Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
- If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors
would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional
- Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college
students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than
when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed
engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.
I was also interested to find that "prestige" makes no difference; students attending Ivy League school did just as poorly as those attending lower profile institutions. The report continues:
Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display
how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts
germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.
- Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4
percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony
was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as
the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even
thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
- College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer
than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line "We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of
Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly
identify the source of the idea of "a wall of separation" between church and
- More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights
explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United
- Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The
Federalist Papers—foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were
written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors
actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points,
illustrating negative learning while at college.
- More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose
of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western
- Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2
percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s
political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his
most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose
I won’t bore you with the report’s recommendations, but here they are if interested. So what are we to do about all of this? Well, the short answer is that I have no idea. Actually, we’ve heard it all before. Now before you work yourself into a frenzy keep in mind that there has never been a golden age – at least not in the 20th century – when it could be argued that America’s youth was historically literate. In 1917, 1,500 Texas teens performed just as poorly and tests conducted elsewhere in 1943, 1976, 1987, and 1994 resulted in similar scores. Part of the problem perhaps can be traced to the fact that 80% of history teachers currently in the classroom did not study the subject in college. I have no teacher training whatsoever and I am willing to admit that my skills as a teacher would be improved if I had more of a background in this area; however, I love the subject and I can get my students excited about studying the past. I don’t see how you can do that without loving the experience of doing history regardless of how many teacher education classes you have under your belt.
One more thought regarding this study. I once read that even professional historians do poorly on these tests. A group of historians from Stanford, Berkeley, and Harvard took a standardized and did worse than a group of AP History students. Perhaps this is the result of very narrow research interests. In the end I am not too concerned about these results. They are nothing new and if I am reading the results correctly somewhere around 50% of college students do know something about American history.
The latest issue of the journal Civil War History includes a few announcements that readers may find of interest. First, the Pennsylvania State University Libraries has completed a publicly accessible, full-text database of Pennsylvania Civil War Era newspapers. The site includes digital facsimiles of newspapers from 10 Pennsylvania communities, including Gettysburg, Chambersburg, and Philadelphia.
In the area of book prizes the Organization of American Historians has awarded Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) the Avery O. Craven Award. The Museum of the Confederacy also recently announced that While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War (LSU Press, 2005) by Charles W. Sander has been awarded the 2005 Jefferson Davis Award.
Congratulations to both authors. I have not had a chance to read the second book, but I highly recommend Rubin’s book. Rubin does not get bogged down with the question of whether Confederates managed to attain sufficient nationalism; rather, she examines the ways in which white southerners expressed their nationalism both through the war and into the immediate postwar years. Click here for Michael Perman’s H-Net Review of Rubin’s study.
I know they are both university press books, but you should be safe.
First let me apologize for the continual change to this blog’s appearance. For some reason I get bored with the look of it and find a need to explore other possibilities. I’m sure I was an interior decorator in a past life.
The other day I posted some concerns about so-called Christian studies of the Civil War. As many of you now know it led to an interesting dialog with a fellow blogger who challenged some of the assumptions that lay behind the post. I wish the focus would have been more on the specific points made, but that was not to be. Anyway, I thought I would offer a short reading list for those of you who are interested in historical studies that actually take religion seriously.
A great place to start is the edited collection by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles R. Wilson titled Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Mark Noll’s short, but thorough The Civil War As A Theological Crisis (UNC Press, 2006). Harry Stout’s Upon The Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) gives the reader a chance to think about the war as a moral crisis brought about in part by conflicting theological assumptions. I plan to use part of this book next year in my Civil War elective. Though it is hard going the new book by Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, titled The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides the most thorough analysis of the role of religion among wealthy white Southerners. Although I have not read it I’ve heard very good things about Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
On religion and Civil War soldiers there is no better place to start than Steven Woodworth’s While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2003). One of the best soldier diaries is Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2003.
There are numerous studies that I believe address the fundamental interpretive mistakes contained in many so-called Christian biographies/studies of the Civil War. The best place to start is Charles R. Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1981). Get through that and take a look at David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2004) and Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press, 2005). Finally there is Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005).
This list doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to offer any additional suggestions. I did not attempt to be inclusive; many of these studies offer broad interpretations of the Civil War and religion. The titles in the last section should give you some idea of why Americans continue to interpret Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as religious icons that almost appear to stand outside of history entirely. Happy reading!
As many of you know my Civil War elective has both a research and reading component. In reference to the latter my students read a series of articles that address many of the important interpretive debates of recent years. We’ve read articles by Gary Gallagher, James McPherson, Peter Carmichael, James Marten, David Blight, and Drew Faust. A few weeks ago one of my students asked if we could read one of my publications. I resisted at first, but a few of the other students chimed in in support of the request. So today the class came prepared to discuss "On That Day You Consummated the Full Measure of Your Fame": Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 1864-1903" which appeared in the 2004 issue of the journal Southern Historian (pp. 18-39).
I have to say that it felt just a little awkward at the beginning. As they pulled out the article I noticed that a number of students had highlighted and/or written notes in the margins. It was strange to see my own work dissected by my own students. I always start by asking the class to explain the author’s thesis in the clearest terms. As you can imagine it was a bit uncomfortable to ask, "What is Levin’s thesis?" The article gave the class a clear sense of the broader project that I am close to finishing. They asked about specific interpretations of evidence and clarification of other points. As we discussed the main themes I showed some images of the Crater, Mahone, and the 1937 reenactment. We had a nice discussion which revolved around the contrasting images of John Elder and Don Troiani and their depictions of black soldiers during the battle. I spent a good chunk of time discussing Mahone’s political career and its effect on his war record. I am willing to bet that the 11 students in this class will be the only students in the country to learn about the Readjusters. All in all it was a fun class.
The semester is coming to an end in a few days and the class is finishing up research projects. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the students in this section and will miss them come January.