Category Archives: Teaching

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.

High School Students Bring The Crater and Loyal Slaves to Life

Samuel LowryLooks like students at South Pointe High School are bringing to life the diary of Lt. Samuel “Catawba” Lowry, who served in the 17th South Carolina Infantry.  Lowry’s diary is well worth reading.  He provides a great deal of detail about camp life, battle, as well as his experiences with his servants.  His final diary entry comes just days before the battle of the Crater in which he was killed.  Lowry’s servant, Henry Avery recovered the body and escorted it home to Yorkville for burial.  On the one hand, I love projects like this.  Unfortunately, it looks like both teacher and students might be taking a bit too much license with the diary.

It is a story about Lowry’s home and his family – a story about his beloved Southland. Most of all, is a story about relationships and bonds of brotherhood.  It is also a story that some of the South Pointe cast members hope will challenge the stereotypes of the Civil War and slavery. Three of the essential voices in the play are Lowry family slaves: Horace, Jesse and Henry. They accompanied young Samuel to war. The diary never uses the word slave. Lowry refers to them as servants or boy.  It was Henry who descended into the crater, recovering Lowry’s body. Henry then found Lowry’s possessions – including the diary – and then brought Lowry home to Yorkville for burial.  South Pointe teacher James Chrismon and students such as junior Nicholas Arsenal turned the diary into a stage play. The play is not literal – some theatrical licenses were taken – but it stays true to Lowry’s beliefs and to his prose….

Anthony McCullough, one of two black students in the play, said the production “makes me realize that black people have come a long way.”  Arsenal said he hopes the play changes some perspective on slavery. “It wasn’t right, but not everyone was treated so badly.  “This play is about equality,” Arsenal continued. “Race doesn’t matter. Anyone can be your family,” he said.

Of course, it would be a mistake to blame students for characterizing the relationship between master and slave as one of equality.  Responsibility for this falls squarely on their teacher. This might be a good time to recommend one of Gilder-Lehrman’s summer Teacher Seminars.

Searching for Real Black Confederates in The Civil War Monitor

Civil War MonitorWell, that is at least the working title of an essay that will appear in the next issue of The Civil War Monitor. I just finished with the final edits and I am really happy with the final version.  As far as I know there is nothing out there in a popular publication that deals with this tough topic.  I do my best to bring some light to the relationship between slaveowners and their camp servants at war.  It’s an incredibly frustrating and challenging topic and I don’t claim to have provided the last word.  More than anything else, what I hope it does is raise questions and challenge assumptions on all sides – assumptions that almost always tell us more about the present as opposed to the past.

With that in mind, I hope my fellow high school history teachers will think about picking up a copy for their classrooms.  I think the essay will work well in getting students to think critically about the slave-master dynamic and related issues related to the war generally.

It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Terry Johnston and his editorial team.  They did a great job pushing back with questions that helped to improve both the narrative and analysis.  It clearly reflects their commitment to put out a first-rate magazine that is both a pleasure to read and thought provoking.

Do yourself a favor and get a subscription today.

Christian McWhirter on Taking Lincoln and Django Seriously

django-unchained-poster-e1357542813658.jpegI’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals.  I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor.  Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.

Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.

I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.

It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined.  Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact.  Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves.  It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds.  Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences.  We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all.  Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm.  It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time.  We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation.  The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines.  Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing.  What more could we ask for?

All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.

How Many Books Did You Sell This Year?

crater kentuckyI’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with sharing my experience in seeing a book manuscript through to publication.  Some of you have been with me since 2007, when I first announced that I might have the opportunity to publish what was then only a Master’s Thesis.  As I got closer to publication I wondered about sales.  I knew going in that the book would likely appeal to a fairly narrow audience.  The Crater is not the most popular Civil War battle and the study of historical memory is perhaps an acquired taste.  My decision to sign with one of the smaller academic presses also tempered my optimism, which is not to say that I in any way regret going with the University Press of Kentucky or that I am disappointed with their work thus far. Far from it.

On occasion, however, I did allow myself to speculate as to how a strong social media presence might translate into book sales.  Since I have no frame of reference it was always difficult to arrive at a number, but I thought that my ability to promote the book through my blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed might provide a model for other authors of academic titles who hope to reach a wider audience.  OK, so I thought that somewhere around 1,000 books sold by Jan. 1 was not out of the realm of possibility.

At this point, I am disappointed to admit that this apparently has not happened.  My publisher informed me that since the book was released in early July 2012 it has sold 621 copies.

Now, it could be the case that this is a pretty good showing for a book such as mine.  As I said, I have no frame of reference.  And I should note that overall I couldn’t be more pleased with how the book has been received by many of you as well as by both magazine and journal reviewers.  That I was able to contribute anything at all to a body of scholarship that has taught me much and provided me with countless of hours of enjoyment is sufficient.

The experience has left me with much to think about as I consider future projects.  I see the book format as one tool in my arsenal through which to share my love of history with the general public.  We will have to see whether I have another one in me.  I certainly hope so.  Working with an academic publisher forced me to respond to my peers, who assisted me in improving both the narrative and various interpretive elements.   It is an invaluable aspect of the writing process and having the stamp of approval from such a publisher hopefully gives me a certain legitimacy as I move further.

That said, I can’t help but wonder whether I might be able to take the experience of working with a traditional publisher and apply it to another approach that might result in greater reach – perhaps self-publishing?  I am willing to consider all options.  After all, I don’t need to publish for tenure or promotion.  As an author I want to produce a product that has integrity and see it in the hands of as many people as possible.  What’s the point of suffering through the process of researching and writing if no one is going to read it?

In the meantime, I recently got the go-ahead from the publisher to sell my book directly.  I’ve been buying books with my author’s discount to sell at speaking events.  I am still in the process of setting up a PayPal account, but once it’s you will be able to buy the book for $25 + shipping.

Thanks again to all of you who have bought the book.