Category Archives: Slavery

Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right

It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school.  Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript.  As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.

This is not a formal presentation.  I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there.  So, here’s what I got.  In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln.  I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter.  I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory.  At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.

With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery.  We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.

Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses.  I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.”  In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races.  Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class.  What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties.  How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?

Please feel free to add your own ideas.  Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.

Civil War Memory: Final Projects

I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days.  But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date.  I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way.  For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas.  I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war.  In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum.  One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website.  Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester.  They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation.  A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place.  The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.

One student decided to do a couple of sculptures.  The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.”  Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose.  The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.”  Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:

The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side.  The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility.  Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward.  There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and  had to maneuver around such obstacles.  Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced.  The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.

The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:

In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed.  He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat.  I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War.  Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was.  General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument.  He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South.  His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865.  To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw.  This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war.  Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war.  Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.

I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year.  For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects.  My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory.  Now that’s pretty cool.

Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives – Just Not the Lives of Slaves

The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many.  Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line.  They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced.  As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once.  Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.

Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.

They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.

Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.  One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes.   During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas.  England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes.  England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices.  In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun.  Homespun was rough and not very fashionable.  Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them.  But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause.  Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.

Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher.  In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand.  It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton.  To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster.  The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day.  With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”

It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website.  On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history.  After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness.  Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.

Even the Kids Think Gods and Generals is a Little Strange

In this final week of my Civil War Memory course I am showing sections of some of my favorite and not so favorite CW movies.  Today we watched the first part of “Gods and Generals” up to First Manassas.  I was curious as to how they would respond given the course content.  Within about ten minutes they understood that much of it is straight-ahead Lost Cause.  Virginia is depicted as pretty much pro-secession and pro-Confederate and slaves are shown as obedient servants.  Given what they know about “Stonewall” Jackson they thought the movie did a pretty good job of capturing his religious zeal, but they couldn’t stop laughing at the overly-dramatic dialog and music.  It is pretty funny.  One of my students asked if the movie spends as much time on how white northerners viewed the war as it does on the white south.  Good question.  Another student noticed that the first time you even see a “Yankee” is on the Manassas battlefield, which reinforces the notion that they were invaders set to destroy Virginia rather than fighting to preserve the Union.

Here is one of the segments we viewed this morning.  I particularly love the parlor scene.  The ladies just happened to finish stitching the flag for the two boys just as the song is finished.  The mother’s address which follows is a bit too long-winded, but the doozy is the kiss goodbye from the house servant.  Mort Kunstler could paint any of the scenes in this movie.  Gotta love it.

Tomorrow I am going to show some scenes from the movie, “Ride With the Devil”, which does a much better job of capturing some of the complexity and confusion of war in Missouri.  We will also have a chance to talk about how race is dealt with in the movie.

Visualizing the Lost Cause

Check out the excellent video that Caitlin, from Vast Public Indifference, put together in response to one of my recent posts on Civil War art.  Caitlin’s commentary begins around 2:10.  The video is here, but I encourage you to read her full post, which includes another video.  Does anyone really believe that the images in this video reflect how white Virginians lived?  More to the point, do people who fall into the demographic of those who are attracted to this “maudlin crapfest” actually believe that this reflects how they would have lived in antebellum Virginia?  Even a cursory understanding of Virginia’s antebellum history demonstrates that many believed the commonwealth was headed in the wrong direction [click here and here].  Can we do no better than yearn for a return to a time when slavery was accepted?  Such nostalgic silliness is nothing less than a yearning to return to slavery.

I am going to show this to my Civil War Memory class tomorrow.  They are currently working on their final projects and a number of them are putting together videos from our trip to Richmond as well as collections of various images related to memory.  Well done, Caitlin.

Update: Check out the obligatory response from Richard Williams who can’t think of anything more interesting to say other than to accuse us of South bashing [blah, blah, blah].  Do you really find the history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South in these images?  Scary and just a little disturbing – no offense.