Category Archives: Public History

Students Preserve a Piece of Milwaukee’s Civil War Heritage

I’ve met some incredible history teachers over the years through this blog.  A few of them have taught me as much as I hope this blog has helped their own classroom practices – none more so than Chris Lese, who teaches history at Marquette University High School.    Chris is a passionate and talented teacher.  Like me, he has the luxury of teaching a course on the Civil War.  In fact, earlier this year I Skyped with his class.  Later this morning we are going to connect online once again.

This year Chris’s class is hoping to do a little Civil War preservation in their local community.  The class will create a tin plated QR Code memorial to be placed next to a forgotten bronze plaque in the woods of a Milwaukee public park. The memorial is dedicated to to Col. Jerome A. Watrous, who served in the Iron Brigade.

The first phase of the project is to focus on the memory of Civil War both during the early 20th century (this bronze plaque was dedicated in 1939) and today.  Here are a few of the questions the students sent along.

  • What are some reasons people in the early 20th century dedicated monuments, plaques and memorials to Civil War soldiers?
  • What sort of issues were veterans facing during the early 20th century?
  • Did Civil War soldiers experience wide spread support across society? Who put up these memorials?
  • Why do you think it is important for younger generations to know about/remember Civil War history?
  • In this techno-crazy society that looks to get more and more digital, will memorials have to be digital
    to persuade future people to care? Will stone and bronze monuments still have a major place remembering history?
  • What role does technology have in historical memory?

The next phase includes researching the life of Watrous and the monument itself and attempt to determine why it was apparently forgotten. The class is also consulting with local Iron Brigade historian Lance Herdegen and the Kenosha Civil War Museum.  Herdegen just published a new book on the Iron brigade titled, THE IRON BRIGADE IN CIVIL WAR AND MEMORY: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter.

This is a great way to get kids not only interested in history, but in historical memory, and historical preservation.  It warms my heart. :-)

 

Contemplating a Different Trail

I moved to Boston in July 2011 and I’ve loved every minute of it.  It’s a beautiful city and for a history buff it really does feel like I am a kid in a candy store.  That said, I’ve lived two lives since arriving here and I am now wondering if it is time to give in and embrace this thing called the American Revolution.  Over the past year I’ve halfheartedly explored a few potential Civil War research projects that are centered here in Boston.  They include a regimental history of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and a Civil War biography of Governor John Andrew.  Both are projects that would, no doubt, be interesting to explore and I have no doubt they would be embraced by both scholarly and popular audiences.

The problem is that beyond a few trips to the archives I can’t seem to maintain my excitement level.  I walk to the archives or wander through the city and I am distracted by a very different history.  Downtown Boston is defined by the sights/sites and sounds of the American Revolution.  There is no escaping this and since I have always viewed history as a way to connect to my surroundings I want to know more.  This includes not only the physical landscape, but the community of people who are involved in its interpretation and maintenance.  Continue reading

 

Looking Beyond the High Ground

Much of my research and commentary on the evolution of battlefield interpretation within the National Park Service has referenced the 2000 Rally on the High Ground Conference as a watershed moment.  Without being too overly simplistic the working assumption has been that the most significant changes to NPS interpretation has been in reaction to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s. legislation and accompanying symposium which brought together NPS staff and academic historians in Washington D.C. The conference examined ways in which the NPS could implement Jackson’s legislation which called for the broadening of battlefield interpretation to include the cause of the war, the role of slavery during the war, as well as other topics.  This push for a broader interpretive context as well as Jackson’s involvement has been met with suspicion by segments of the general public who tend to view his involvement as political which in turn has colored the NPS’s subsequent actions as overtly political.

Continue reading

 

September 22, 1862 – 2012

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free;  and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will  recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. – Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

[Image: President Obama views Emancipation Proclamation in Oval Office]

 

Looking Beyond Glory With Hari Jones

I like the idea behind this short film.  Young African-American woman gets an A on an essay she wrote about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after having viewed the movie, Glory.  Her adviser suggests that she visit the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. to talk with curator Hari Jones.  The two walk through the exhibit to address some of the inaccuracies in the movie.

So why does this movie, and Hari Jones specifically, feel a need to lash out against Gary Gallagher?  Gallagher offers extensive commentary of the movie’s historical basis in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.  I suspect that Jones knows this, which makes his comment all the more bizarre.  Jones strikes me as a knowledgeable and passionate historian.  Perhaps this script was written by someone else.  I fear that the result, including the embracing of the self-emancipation thesis without any reference to the Union army and other factors, is as much a distortion as Glory.

The other thing that struck me as awkward was the pointing out that you will not find any quotes from historians on the exhibit panels.  According to Jones, if you weren’t there than your words will not appear.   Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that their exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.