O.K. So It Was Slavery…But Where Does That Get You?

This week I started the Civil War with my AP classes.  I actually do not like teaching the Civil War to my AP classes because there is really no time to cover it thoroughly.  This brings me to a rant about the AP curriculum which I will put off for a later time. 

Today we looked at two primary sources that outline the respective goals of the United States and the Confederacy.  In reference to the former we read Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greely written in 1862 which emphasizes the goal of preserving the Union with slavery serving as a possible means to achieving that end.  I know there are other sources, but the letter is short and makes the point clearly.  Some of the students have difficulty moving beyond the overly simplistic picture of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" who set out from the beginning to end slavery. 

More interesting, however, is their reaction or should I say lack of reaction in coming to terms with what the Confederacy was fighting for.  We read through Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech" and I point out the changes made to the Confederate constitution that focus on slavery.  What is interesting to me is that my students have little difficulty connecting the Confederacy with slavery.  In fact, I had to point out the reasons why people continue to try to separate the Confederacy from slavery.  One student rightly pointed out that all of the events that the class covered since the Mexican-American War somehow revolved around the issue of slavery.  Once in awhile a student will note that most white Southerners did not own slaves or that their ancestor did not fight for slavery.  The proper reaction is to point out that individuals go off to war – if they are not drafted – for any number of reasons that may not correspond to why a country goes to war.  For example, I like to point out that plenty of Americans probably volunteered to go to Vietnam for reasons unrelated to the "Domino Theory."  This, of course does not imply that the United States did not go to war in Vietnam for just this reason. 

I sometimes have students who have picked up the traditional "Lost Cause" argument from a parent and I’ve learned to tread lightly here.  Push too hard and you run the risk of alienating the student.  On one occasion one of my students complained to his father that I was pushing a "Yankee" view of the war and the parent even called me to complain.  It was a very uncomfortable situation to say the least. Those incidents are an exception to the rule.  More often than not my students are entirely disinterested when it comes to this debate.  They study the material and the events that led to secession and war and see clearly the role that slavery played in all of it. 

That I don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing for the centrality of slavery at the beginning of the war makes it much easier to explain the war as a political and social revolution.  I want my students to appreciate the fact that even as late as 1860-61 it was not inevitable that slavery would be abolished.  The war did that and that it did raised important questions concerning the political and social order that emerged following its abolition and the end of the war.  It also helps me point out that Americans on both sides of the Potomac River were unprepared to deal with the questions that emerged as a result of slavery’s demise.  Revolutions rarely end without introducing new questions and challenges.   The Civil War was no exception to this rule.  This time around I am going to really challenge my students to see beyond that artificial distinction drawn between the chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I hope to bring them to a point where they can acknowledge that the steps African Americans took to secure their freedom along with the violence of Reconstruction and the political debates among northern Republicans and southern Redeemers was an outgrowth of the consequences of emancipation. 


Terrorist Lover, Who Me?

Hat-Tip to Ralph Luker at HNN

Here are the results of a quiz I took over at GoToQuiz that answers the question of whether you want the terrorists to win.  Unfortunately, it turns out that I do.  This is very surprising and just a bit disappointing.

Your ‘Do You Want the Terrorists to Win’ Score: 94%

You are a terrorist-loving, Bush-bashing, "blame America first"-crowd traitor. You are in league with evil-doers who hate our freedoms. By all counts you are a liberal, and as such cleary desire the terrorists to succeed and impose their harsh theocratic restrictions on us all. You are fit to be hung for treason! Luckily George Bush is tapping your internet connection and is now aware of your thought-crime. Have a nice day…. in Guantanamo!

Do You Want the Terrorists to Win?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

This is not a good way to start a Monday.

In all seriousness, however, the scary thing is that these are the terms of our national political dialogue.


James McPherson Set To Release New Edited Collection In January

I was browsing the History News Network and noticed that James McPherson is set to release a new edited collection in January titled, This Mighty Scourge of War: The American Illiad, 1861-1865.  Like his other collections, this one is published by Oxford University Press.  Here is a description from their website:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom and the New York Times bestseller Crossroads of Freedom , among many other award-winning books, James M. McPherson is America’s preeminent Civil War historian. Now, in this collection of provocative and illuminating essays, McPherson offers fresh insight into many of the most enduring questions about one of the defining moments in our nation’s history.  McPherson sheds light on topics large and small, from the average soldier’s avid love of newspapers to the postwar creation of the mystique of a Lost Cause in the South. Readers will find insightful pieces on such intriguing figures as Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Jesse James, and William Tecumseh Sherman, and on such vital issues such as Confederate military strategy, the failure of peace negotiations to end the war, and the realities and myths of the Confederacy. This Mighty Scourge includes several never-before-published essays–pieces on General Robert E. Lee’s goals in the Gettysburg campaign, on Lincoln and Grant in the Vicksburg campaign, and on Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. In that capacity, Lincoln invented the concept of presidential war powers that are again at the center of controversy today. All of the essays have been updated and revised to give the volume greater thematic coherence and continuity, so that it can be read in sequence as an interpretive history of the war and its meaning for America and the world. Combining the finest scholarship with luminous prose, and packed with new information and fresh ideas, this book brings together the most recent thinking by the nation’s leading authority on the Civil War. It will be must reading for everyone interested in the war and American history.

Perhaps we can all chip in and buy a copy for Dimitri.  Hey Dimitri it looks like McPherson has been upgraded from “dean of Civil War historians” to “master historian of the Civil War in our time” by Gabor Boritt. It must be a conspiracy.


My Women’s History Course

Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting together my second-semester elective which is called "19th and 20th Century Women’s History."  This is my first time teaching the course and I have to admit to being just a little nervous.  I am new to the material and with 14 girls and no boys registered I can’t help but think that I am in for a few uncomfortable moments.  In my best moments I tend to think that my feelings of uneasiness are a positive sign of a willingness to take chances.  Here is my course description:

This course focuses on the history of women in the United States during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The major historical events involving women during this period are analyzed: the Suffrage movement, Progressivism, World War II, the 1960’s, and the Feminist Movement. Specific themes include women at work, abortion, women and politics, and women in the military. The course also includes a unit on the debates surrounding the social and political construction of gender. The class seeks to uncover the factors that affected women’s lives as well as the major changes in women’s history and the cause of those changes.

The class is organized as a research seminar and roundtable discussion. Students spend a significant amount of class time exploring a topic of their choice with the goal of producing an essay that utilizes a wide range of primary sources. Research skills that are emphasized include formulating a research question and thesis, collecting and organizing material, and producing critical/analytical writing. In addition, students are expected to come to class prepared to engage in discussion with their peers. Each student is responsible for leading the class discussion at least once during the semester. Ultimately, the goal of this course is to develop an appreciation for the process of doing history in a cooperative, inquisitive, and intellectual environment.

I’ve ordered two texts, including Through Women’s Eyes: An American History With Documents edited by Ellen C. DuBois and Lynn Dumenil and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  The former book is a text with primary sources and I hope to integrate Friedan and other secondary sources into the class during the semester.  We are going to start in the period following the Civil War since I want to spend as much time on more recent trends as possible.  The big question that I need to figure out is whether I want to stick to a strictly chronological approach or organize by themes.  I like the idea of organizing the class around themes.  For example, I just finished reading a chapter on "Work" in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and thought that we could begin with it and then look at some of the history.  This might work well when we get to topics such as birth control and other issues related to sexual relations. 

I am also looking for quality movies that focus on gender and women’s history in the 20th century.  Overall this has been alot of fun organizing and I can’t wait to get started.


Civil War Sesquicentennial = Economic Opportunity?

Representatives from Georgia’s CW Sesquicentennial Commission are already thinking about how to remember and educate the public about the Civil War.  The only problem is that they seem to be motivated primarily by financial concerns and less on how to commemorate.  From the Catoosa County News:

Chairman John Culpepper of the Georgia Civil War Commission lead a forum about maximizing Civil War history assets from 2011 to 2015 when the country commemorates the anniversary of the Civil War. Culpepper sees the upcoming event as a boon for the economies of Northwest Georgia and other areas laden with history.

“(The anniversary) is going to be a monumental five years for the country and the South,” he said. “The Chickamauga Battlefield is the biggest economic engine in Northwest Georgia,” Culpepper added. “Nobody is going to move it to Mexico.”  State Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) said the region is just around the corner from greatness in preservation and presentation of historical resources.

Culpepper praised Mullis for being instrumental in his efforts in gaining the Civil War Commission funding from the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Before the move the group fell under the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

I suspect that concerns about economic development will be a factor for most states who hope to attract tourists and their dollars.  On the face of it there is nothing wrong with this.  Many of the events that took place during the Civil War Centennial celebrations were also organized with this in mind.  The problem in the case of the Centennial was that the Civil Rights Movement and the attention to racial inequality dampened enthusiasm for for it by 1963 owing to the emphasis on a white-only national narrative.  My point is that economic opportunity and a historically honest Sesquicentennial may not bring people to events in the way that a more traditional commemoration would.  On the other hand, an emphasis on more traditionally-styled events may lead to economic boycotts and other forms of protest that have become all too common in recent years.  Either way I look forward to seeing how we as a nation decide to remember our Civil War.