This article appeared in the May 2005 issue of the Magazine of History which is published by the Organization of American Historians.
On our first day of class, we enter a small cemetery that borders the picturesque campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In the center of the cemetery stands a gray granite pedestal twelve feet high supporting an eight foot bronze statue of a Confederate soldier. The cemetery contains the remains of approximately 1,100 Confederate soldiers, all of whom died in Charlottesville hospitals between 1861 and 1865. Scattered around the memorial are a handful of gravestones. After giving the students some background information on the cemetery I ask them to examine the few individual gravestones. After about twenty minutes we re-gather at a particular lone gravestone that sits under a tree off in the far corner of the cemetery (1).
Within a few moments the students realize why we are in this particular spot. “He was so young,” asserts one female student. A few seconds later, another student comes to the realization that he is two years older than this grave’s occupant. I inquire what questions my students would want to ask this young boy, if they magically could. The entire spectrum of questions pours out. They want to know where he was wounded; was it a painful death; did he have family with him when he died? A few students inquire about his reasons for joining the army and whether he was from a slave owning family. Questions concerning motivation and economic background, however, are rare. Questions usually come back to the personal: “Did he have a girlfriend?” In that moment a connection is made between the present and the past and, in large part, my job for the remainder of the semester is to build on this basic experience.
Teaching in a small private high school in central Virginia presents numerous avenues of inquiry in a course devoted entirely to the Civil War. Many major battlefields of the Eastern theatre are within easy driving distance, and the proximity of Richmond opens up additional activities. Still, the central action takes place in the classroom. Choosing the most effective reading material is the toughest challenge. Unfortunately, many high school students read the standard textbook—heavy, long, and written as if intended to alienate as many students as possible from serious study of the past. As I was planning this course for the first time in the summer of 2000, I swore that I would not subject my students to another year of textbook history.
Fortunately, Civil War classrooms have a wide range of available resources, ranging from tens of thousands of published historical studies, letters, diaries, and other written testimony to state-of-the-art Web sites, including the Center for Digital History’s Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia. In addition to emphasizing the perspective of the participants themselves, I want my students to see history as a process. They should understand that history is not simply the collecting of facts followed by memorization, but an ongoing discussion built on interpretation, critical analysis, and revision. As we approach the Civil War’s sesquicentennial there continue to be disagreements over such questions as the cause of the Civil War, the role of slavery, and the reasons for Confederate defeat.
In seeking to achieve these pedagogical goals, I have discovered a tremendous resource for engaging my students’ interest: North & South magazine(2). The articles in North & South (hereafter cited as N&S) are ideal, first, because they are the appropriate length for a night’s assignment. They are typically written by experts, including some of
the most respected Civil War historians working in universities, museums, and the National Park Service. Most importantly, the articles are that rarity in the world of popular history magazines: analytically rigorous. In some cases, articles provide an overview of upcoming or recently released book-length studies, many published by university presses. As a result, my students often get to read the latest interpretations in the field, which reinforces the point that historical interpretations evolve.
The following is an overview of how N&S functions in my classroom. This overview is in no way intended to single out specific articles for special praise or to suggest that they provide the final word, but only to indicate ways to use the magazine as a classroom source. Along with N&S and other handouts, my students read Brook Simpson’s short but thorough America’s Civil War (1996) as a background source. During a normal week students read one or two articles from the magazine and write two- to three-page summaries of the main theses in each. The summaries help students focus on the historian’s assumptions and supporting evidence. The written component also aids in developing clarity and precision in the students’ own writing.
The class jumps right in by examining the events of and reasons for secession. Professional Civil War historians by and large have agreed that slavery played a vital role in causing the seven Deep South states to secede following Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860. The class examines three articles in N&S that provide different perspectives on the role of slavery throughout the secession winter. We start with James M. McPherson’s “What Caused the Civil War?” (4, no. 1 : 12-22), which provides an overview of the major events during the last few decades of the antebellum period. McPherson challenges previous schools of interpretation before introducing his own analysis of the role of slavery. His article provides a clear example of how historians construct their own explanations based on earlier interpretations, collect evidence, and draw conclusions based on that evidence. We then move on to Charles Dew’s “Apostles of Secession” (4, no. 4 : 24-38). Dew narrows the focus by examining the speeches of a select group of Southern commissioners sent by the already seceded Deep South states to the Upper South to convince their brethren that immediate secession was absolutely necessary to protect the institution of slavery and the established racial hierarchy. William Freehling’s “Virginia’s Reluctant Secession” (5, no. 4 : 80-89) rounds out the list. Freehling concentrates the focus, analyzing the heated debates within Virginia over whether Lincoln’s election constituted an immediate threat. The analysis of Virginia’s “reluctant” decision to secede only after Lincoln called troops to put down the rebellion in April 1861 reminds readers that such decisions are rarely straightforward but multi-dimensional.
Classroom discussions focus on the relative merits and limitations of each approach. Students question and debate whether McPherson’s long-term view of the national events leading to secession is as revealing as Freehling’s short-term focus on one state. They also question whether Dew’s secessionist commissioners represented the views of the Deep South. Our discussions focus as much on the actual events of the period as on historical method. Historical inquiry thus becomes an ongoing discussion rather than a static memorization of facts.
For our discussion of soldier life, including questions of motivation and the experience of battle, students read numerous wartime letters and diaries, plus three essays on the soldier’s experience. Two of the three essays are from N&S: Reid Mitchell’s “The
Infantryman in Combat” (4, no. 6 : 12-21) and Stephen Berry’s “‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’: Confederate Soldiers and Their Womenfolk” (6, no. 2 : 58-67). The third is a chapter from James McPherson’s book What They Fought For (1994). Students examine the different ways in which these accounts illuminate the day-to-day life of the soldier, his emotional connections to loved ones back home and comrades in arms, plus his ideological convictions. We analyze what motivated soldiers to join the ranks and what sustained them in battle. Where Mitchell emphasizes fear and unit cohesion, Berry assumes the importance of emotional factors such as love, ambition, honor, and sensitivity, and McPherson stresses the role of ideology and commitment to fellow soldiers. Students are asked to decide which interpretation, if any, best explains why men fought.
No Civil War class taught in Virginia can escape serious study of Robert E. Lee. I usually begin by showing segments from Ken Burns’s television documentary, The Civil War (1989), which presents a very traditional interpretation of Lee’s views on slavery and secession. The class then compares Lee’s own writings on these questions to Burns’s analysis. Next we focus on Lee as a military leader. A special N&S issue on Lee (3, no. 5 ) brings together a small sample of recent interpretations. On one occasion we welcomed Gary Gallagher to the class to discuss his lead article in the issue, “The Generalship of Robert E. Lee.” Students had the rare opportunity to ask an author how he structured his article and why he constructed his interpretation. They also asked more personal questions about the steps one takes to becoming a Civil War historian.
More recently, I divided the class into four groups of three, with each group assigned one article. One threesome read Professor Gallagher’s essay; others read Alan Nolan’s highly critical “Demolishing the Myth,” Peter Carmichael’s “Lee’s Quest for the Battle of Annihilation,” or Joseph Harsh’s “‘As Stupid a Fellow as I Am’” on Lee’s military genius. Gallagher’s and Harsh’s essays both offer positive assessments of Lee’s penchant for an offensive strategy, which they argue had the best chance of bringing about independence by maintaining broad Southern support throughout much of the war. On the other hand, Nolan concludes that Lee’s obsession with offensive operations bled the Confederacy and directly resulted in its defeat. Carmichael presents a more nuanced critique by noting that although an offensive strategy was justified up until Gettysburg, Lee failed to adjust to changing conditions in the Army of Northern Virginia as well as the Confederacy as a whole. Each group of students worked together to pick out the background assumptions of the author, the main points of argument, and the various kinds of evidence presented in their particular article; they eventually shared all of this information with the entire class by writing it on the board. Eventually we all had four columns to compare and contrast. On the final day, students debated the merits of each essay and combined what they took to be the best features of each essay into their own estimation of Lee’s generalship.
In addition to our work in class, students are required to accompany me on one field trip to the Chancellorsville National Battlefield. We begin our tour at the Visitor’s Center for an introduction to the campaign and then stop at the Zoan Church, Chancellor Inn, and along “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank march. Along the way we discuss broader issues, such as politics, slavery, and the home front. Following the Visitor Center’s account of Jackson’s evening reconnaissance on May 2, 1863, we head over to Hazel Grove for a discussion of the heavy fighting that took place there the following day. At
our lunch at Fairview, which served as a Union defensive position for much of the battle, the class settles into a relaxed discussion of James Marten’s article, “Let Me Edge Into Your Bright Fire” (1, no. 7 : 46-56). Marten stresses that soldiers who fought in these horrific battles had a great deal on their minds in addition to concerns related to military life. Soldiers struggled to remain connected to loved ones back home, especially their children. The evidence reflects desperation on the part of soldiers to stay connected with the family. Indeed, Marten’s analysis reminds us that in some important respects troops on the battlefield never left the home front.
I have used a number of articles over the past few years to help students understand the complexity of emancipation and the controversy surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s role and motivation. N&S recently published two articles by respected Lincoln scholars. William C. Harris’s “After the Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln’s Role in the Ending of Slavery” (5, no. 1 : 42-53) provides a solid overview of Lincoln’s role in emancipation followed by a discussion of the continued pressures to abandon the plan once it went into effect. More recently, I have used Allen Guelzo’s “‘Not One Word . . . Will I Ever Recall’: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation” (7, no. 2 : 74-82). Guelzo’s Lincoln was consistent on slavery and emancipation from the beginning and notes that he “was ready to turn the wheels . . . within seven months of becoming president.” My spring 2004 class was lucky enough to be joined by another respected historian, William Freehling. Professor Freehling steered the class through the finer points of the article and asked students to evaluate Guelzo’s thesis by analyzing Lincoln’s own speeches from the time and by challenging the assumption that the president was consistent on his views concerning slaves and their emancipation.
No semester is complete without a viewing of the movie Glory (1989)—in my mind still the best Civil War movie. Since its publication in 2003, David Blight’s article, “Race and Reunion: Soldiers and the Problem of the Civil War in American Memory” (6, no. 3 : 26-38), provides a way to understand this movie in the context of recent studies of how Americans chose to remember the Civil War throughout the postwar years. Blight provides a fascinating analysis of postwar conditions—including the desire for sectional reconciliation, concentration in printed accounts on the valor of soldiers on both sides, and the growing push towards racial segregation—as factors that explain why the black experience in the Union army and emancipation were stories all but ignored by the turn of the century. The article meshes almost perfectly with the movie’s final scene, as the 54th Massachusetts prepares to assault Battery Wagner. The scene involves Col. Robert G. Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, and “Trip,” an African American soldier in the regiment played by Denzel Washington. Trip is asked by his commander to carry the regimental colors in the upcoming assault, but he is unimpressed even after being told that it is an honor. As the scene unfolds, Trip shares his thoughts with Shaw concerning the future and what will happen to the nation’s black population once the war ends: “What about us? What do we get?” With these words fresh in their minds, students finish the movie with the regiment’s unsuccessful though heroic attack; the juxtaposition of this scene involving Trip and Shaw with Blight’s article highlights the wide gulf between the critical role that African Americans played in the Union war effort and the extent to which that contribution was intentionally forgotten by the turn of the century.
David Blight’s article leads to a discussion of competing meanings of the war that resonate to this day. To further the discussion of how the war has been remembered and
its place in popular culture, the class reads John Coski’s article, “The Battle Flag: A Brief History of America’s Most Controversial Symbol” (4, no. 7 : 48-63). Many students come to my class with preconceived notions about what the Confederate battle flag means and how it should be displayed. Coski’s survey provides a focused class discussion by emphasizing how the flag has been used and how it has been interpreted by various groups. With multiple perspectives in their heads, students are much more sympathetic with competing claims. They learn that no one group monopolizes cultural symbols.
On specific battles, campaigns, and commanders, I tend to pick articles that challenge long-standing assumptions or provide a new perspective. Ted Alexander’s “‘A Regular Slave Hunt’: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign” (4, no. 7 : 82-9) forces students to step outside of the traditional narrative of the Gettysburg campaign and acknowledge the role that slavery played as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia made its way into Maryland and Pennsylvania in June and July 1863. According to Alexander, Lee’s army seized hundreds of free blacks and contrabands, including men, women, and children. So too, students compare the traditional account of Grant as presented in Burns’s documentary with Gordon Rhea’s article, “‘Butcher’ Grant and the Overland Campaign” (4, no. 1 : 44-55). Rhea argues that Grant was no “butcher,” that he was a talented military strategist, and that he did not win the war simply by utilizing overwhelming numbers.
Since we do not have time to explore Reconstruction in detail, the semester typically ends with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. I have used, with great success, William G. Marvel’s “A Question of Rhetoric: Joshua Chamberlain and the Surrender at Appomattox” (2, no. 5 : 80-85), an examination of the stories surrounding the famous tribute between Chamberlain and John B. Gordon. The article also challenges long-standing beliefs that the surrender represented the beginning of sectional reconciliation. A comparison of Marvel’s account with Ken Burns’s is particularly helpful.
In all this, I learn much from my students, who challenge my assumptions about the past. Their energy, curiosity, and diversity of opinions serve as a reminder that the past is fluid, open to interpretation, and a useful tool for self discovery. I hope the students walk away with a richer understanding of the Civil War and a deeper appreciation of how their own identities are shaped by the past. At the end of a recent semester one of my students admitted a sense of frustration with the course, writing: “While I am confident that I have a more complete understanding of the Civil War, I have so many unanswered questions.” What more could a history teacher ask for?
1. Thanks to William W. Freehling for encouraging me to write this article and for taking the time to comment on an earlier draft.
2. North & South was first published in 1997 and is available in most bookstores.