Category Archives: Teaching

Finding a Usable Past at Gettysburg

Pete Carmichael at Gettysburg

With all that is being written in newspapers across the country about the Gettysburg 150th most of the editorials have been just plain fluff. The battle is framed as a tragedy that pitted Americans v. Americans or as a crucial moment in the broader struggle for civil rights. Today the New York Times published a short editorial by Civil War Institute Director Peter Carmichael. For those of you who have heard Pete at various events in recent months there is very little that is new, but for those of you who haven’t this is well worth your time.

Tucked away on a hillside, hidden from visitors who descend upon Gettysburg every year, are the outlines of a Civil War burial trench. One of the thousands of Southerners scattered in shallow graves across the battlefield was North Carolinian Charles Futch, shot in the head while fighting next to his sibling John, who never left his dying brother’s side. After burying him in an anonymous grave, a semi-literate John poured out his tortured feelings in a letter home. “Charly got kild and he suffered [a] gratdeal,” he wrote, “[and] I don’t want nothing to eat hardly for I am . . . sick all the time and half crazy. I never wanted to come home so bad in my life.”

In the story of the Futch brothers are timeless questions about what it means to be a nation at war today. How soldiers cope with the trauma of combat, how poverty shapes the military experience, and how acts of mourning influence political loyalties are inquiries that make history engaging and relevant. Unfortunately, the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War has largely missed an opportunity to make the past usable. Too many historians have been afraid to ask hard questions, much of the public is seduced by the heroic view of war, and Congress has defunded the National Park Service (NPS). Continue reading

Retreat From Gettysburg

Gettysburg Storm Damage

Earlier today I returned from five days in Gettysburg for the annual Civil War Institute. Like last year, I feel rejuvenated and utterly exhausted. I had an incredible experience interacting with the participants and catching up with many good friends. Thanks to Peter Carmichael and the rest of the CWI staff for all the hard work. I can’t imagine the logistical juggling that takes place beforehand, but they seem to do it so effortlessly and that they do it in the name of history education makes it that much sweeter.

I donned a couple of hats this year. On Sunday I spend 90 minutes with an incredible group of high school students to talk about Civil War memory. We compared and contrasted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with that of Wilson’s in 1913 with an eye on how memory evolves. That evening I hosted a small discussion over dinner about about the kidnapping of former slaves and free blacks by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign. We used two chapters from Margaret Creigton’s The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle to help frame our discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion and I want to thank Al Mackey and Mike Rodgers for taking part. Finally, I took part in the final evening’s panel on the war in 1863. The panel also included Scott Hartwig, Robert Sandow, Judkin Browning, Jaime Martinez, Chris Stowe, and Peter Carmichael. It will be broadcast on CSPAN at a later date. Continue reading

You Are Not a Real Historian

CivilWarDiary

Today we have a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman. This is a topic that comes up practically every time we run into one another and one that Garry promised to write up as a guest post. Later this week I will spend some time with Garry on the Gettysburg battlefield, where I will show him the location of the “Harvest of Death” photograph. He is going to be very surprised.

For the second time, I find myself on my friend Kevin Levin’s blog but this time to deliver some bad news to his historian readers: You are not a real historian. Do you want to know why? Because you don’t keep a diary or a journal.

This is your duty.  Create that thing that historians crave—real, firsthand accounts.  What if people in antebellum or Civil War America decided that newspaper accounts and other forms of public media were a sufficient representation of the past? Where would we be then? Continue reading

It Is Well That War Is So Terrible (Water Balloon Style)

Water Balloon Fight

I do my best on this blog to highlight the innovative work being done day in and day out by history teachers across the country, but there is absolutely no excuse for this activity. Hey, I have no problem if you want to end the year with a water balloon fight, but why anyone would frame it as a Civil War battlefield simulation is beyond me.  Welcome to what Parkside history teacher Robert Riedel thinks is a serious exercise that is intended to give students a sense of what a Civil War battle (in this case, the battle of Fredericksburg) was like.

Students were split into Confederates and Union members. About 20 students who were part of the Confederate group were behind a fence, blocking the assault of the Union members. The remaining students were split into four groups of Union soldiers and led into the field by Riedel and fellow eighth-grade teachers Sharon Schneider and Courtney Forner.

Riedel said he has hosted this activity for the past nine years because he feels it is a unique way for students to think about the fears and confusion soldiers experience during war.

“It’s intimidating when you get out there and there are 40 balloons flying at your head,” Riedel said. “(The activity) helps students realize how hard and intimidating it was for Union soldiers to take hits.”

Each Union group took several turns throwing water balloons at the Confederate side – getting progressively wetter as the hour progressed. The Confederate side was armed with the majority of the 3,000 balloons, which were filled by the students on their own time.

The students learned about the Civil War in class in March, and Riedel said he believes events like this help illustrate battles that are ancient in the minds of eighth-graders. While many students can learn material through reading and lecture, Riedel said most students are “multilevel learners” and learn best by physically acting.

“When you do it, you learn the most,” he said.

It isn’t simply that the activity itself is useless as a historical exercise.  What I find troubling is just how disrespectful it is to the men on both sides who experienced the horrors of battle and to those who died as a result. This is a nation that has been at war for over ten years.  We would do well to try to impart to our students what that means for the men and women who experience battle, the challenges they face afterwards and the sacrifices made by their families.  This does nothing more than trivialize violence.

Dear Mr. Reidel, next time try bringing in a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan War to talk to your students about the “fears and confusions soldiers experience during war.” My guess is that it will leave them with a more meaningful experience even if it doesn’t involve so much fun.

Four Score and Seven Years Ago

What do you think of this song and video? Is it an effective teaching tool for a certain age range or does it simply promote an overly simplistic narrative of American history that borders on propaganda?

The song “Four Score and Seven Years Ago” sings the opening of the Gettysburg Address and tells of Lincoln, the Civil War and equality in an uplifting American anthem that can be sung by all ages. Designed to be a teaching and performing tool for teachers and choral directors. Documentary versions, one with an instrumental track to be used for performance to video will be released…