Teaching the Civil War in central Virginia offers an interesting perspective on the continuing evolution of our collective memory of the war. My current course on the Civil War and historical memory includes students from the surrounding counties of Fluvanna and Greene as well as students who grew up in Charlottesville. Many of the students come from families that fit into this latter category come from other regions of the country. I spend a great deal of time listening to my students talk about their own perceptions of the war because it gives me a unique perspective on how future commemorations are likely to take shape.
What I learned today is worth sharing. As far as I can tell there is no discernible difference between the ways in which northern children are taught to understand the cause of secession and war from what can be found in southern schools. My students who are born and raised in the counties outside of Charlottesville – which we might suspect as being more traditional in focus – shared that they remember learning that slavery was the central issue driving secession. I had students who attended grade school in New England and Michigan, who remember learning that slavery was ancillary and that states rights was the central reason. The difference seems to be based on individual teachers rather than anything having to do with a sharp cultural divide between regions. That said, over the past few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my students begin their study of the Civil War on the high school level with an appreciation of the role that slavery played in the events leading up to and following Lincoln’s election.
I think this is important to keep in mind given the controversy surrounding the upcoming Secession Ball that has been planned for Charleston later this month as well as future events. If we listen too closely to the voices that populate our mainstream media we are likely to be bombarded by a language that divides rather than one that is more likely to reflect where we are in our understanding of these important historical issues. Tonight (5pm) Chris Matthews will interview the SCV’s commander-in-chief on the Secession Ball. I have no idea who he will be paired up with, but I can guarantee you that we will learn next to nothing about popular perception. Rather, we will be entertained by watching one side duke it out with another and we will be left with a facile reminder that Americans are still fighting this war. Well, that may be accurate to a certain extent, but I would suggest that it is less true than it was just a few decades ago. [Update: Looks like the interview was canceled.]
In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.
Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester. Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years. The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film. This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial. I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years. One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.
I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations. Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website. Let’s get to the important stuff. I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going. This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:
My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.
I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing. Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with. Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war. This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels. I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.
Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial. It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable. I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis. The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters. I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.
Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons. I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint. I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable. One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style. My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men. I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey. The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth. As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure. My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions. Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading “Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia”→
This is an incredibly helpful video that compiles all of Shelby Foote’s interviews from Ken Burns’s The Civil War. I use The Civil War extensively in my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War Memory. It is still in my mind the best Civil War documentary available.
I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory. While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers. Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic. Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project. Thanks everyone.
I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.
As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.
I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.