Category Archives: Civil War Memory Class

Telling Stories at Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville-map-detail-1

It’s one of those days where I can’t help but miss central Virginia and the opportunity to bring my students to Chancellorsville for the 150th anniversary.  Chancellorsville was the first Civil War battle that I attempted to interpret for those students who took my Civil War class.  Interpreting a battlefield rarely involved the close analysis of maneuvers on a regimental level or trying to nail down the precise location of a unit.  While I love listening to guides who can do that sort of thing I don’t really have the patience to do the necessary heavy lifting and that was never my goal in bringing my students to a battlefield in the first place.  Chancellorsville always worked well because it allowed me to narrate from a number of different perspectives at places like the Zoan Church, the final meeting place of Jackson and Lee, along the flank march, and at the Chancellor House.  I could tell stories about the men in the ranks, civilians, and even slaves without losing the power of the unfolding drama.

My favorite stop on the tour was always lunch at Fairview.  I usually provided a brief overview of the events on May 3 before settling down to a relaxed discussion of excerpts from Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which the kids read beforehand.  It’s one of my favorite Civil War novels.  Private Fleming worked extremely well in connecting my students to the surrounding landscape.  Conversations touched on the topics of bravery and cowardice, the importance of comradeship, sacrifice and duty and typically blurred the distinction between present and past.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold.

“We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah–sure,” he said pompously to a group in the company street. “We’re goin’ ‘way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ‘em.”

To his attentive audience he drew a loud and elaborate plan of a very brilliant campaign. When he had finished, the blue-clothed men scattered into small arguing groups between the rows of squat brown huts. A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious encouragement of twoscore soldiers was deserted. He sat mournfully down. Smoke drifted lazily from a multitude of quaint chimneys.

“It’s a lie! that’s all it is–a thunderin’ lie!” said another private loudly. His smooth face was flushed, and his hands were thrust sulkily into his trouser’s pockets. He took the matter as an affront to him. “I don’t believe the derned old army’s ever going to move. We’re set. I’ve got ready to move eight times in the last two weeks, and we ain’t moved yet.”

Despite the available evidence, some have questioned whether the book is really about the battle of Chancellorsville since it is never mentioned by name.  Few, if any, soldiers would have identified the fighting so explicitly.  I suspect that Crane understood this, which is one of the reasons why the book works so well when discussed on the field.

p.s. I really wanted to use Frederick Chapman’s painting of the clearing around the Chancellor Inn for this post, but I can’t locate a high resolution pic online.  This is the painting that is used on the cover of Stephen Sears’s wonderful campaign study.

 

What Can Holocaust Memory Teach Us About Civil War Memory?

Next year I will be teaching a course that explores the Holocaust and historical memory as well as how our own Civil War has been remembered.  I am excited and horrified given what little I know about the Holocaust and WWII.  Perhaps I would feel this way about any historical subject next to my knowledge of the American Civil War.  The course comes with a whole new set of challenges that are definitely going to keep me on my toes. Continue reading

 

Interpreting Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Sphinx

Mount AuburnIt is one of the most unusual memorials on any Civil War commemorative landscape North or South.  I vividly recall my own loss for words during my first trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2011.  It is a stop at the top of my list for next year’s Civil War Memory class and thanks to Joy M. Giguere’s essay in the March 2013 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era I now have a bit more interpretive ammo under my belt.  Continue reading

 

Teaching Civil War Memory in Boston

Memorial Hall

It looks like next year I will once again be teaching my Civil War Memory course.  I’ve already begun to think about readings as well as class visits to Boston.  The class was very popular in Virginia and I especially enjoyed our tours of Richmond, including Monument Avenue, Hollywood Cemetery and Tredegar.  At this point I am hoping to organize two separate day trips.

Trip 1

Trip 2

We shall see whether it is possible to fit in two separate trips.  Either way, these are the places that I hope to have students think about in connection to the memory of emancipation and Union, the role of the citizen soldier in the war, and especially the remembrance of death and sacrifice.  Feel free to suggest additional sites.

 

Lincoln in the Movies

This first video is perfect for a course on Lincoln and/or Civil War memory.  It provides a nice overview of how Lincoln has been interpreted in Hollywood movies and television since 1915.  The only reference that I was unfamiliar with is the recent short animation, Robot Chicken: Jedi in Chief, in which George W. Bush faces off against Lincoln.  Enjoy.