Teaching Virginia’s “Reluctant Decision”

Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes.  We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede.  This is not an easy task.  While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult.  Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.

Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.  In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia.  In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861.  What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee.  The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery.  As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation.  In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it.  And that brings us to the final problem:  We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South.  It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.

This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.  For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement.  Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages.  The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion.  I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.  The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues.  In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union.  Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present.  The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves.  The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter.  Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.

I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.

Ngram Tracks Black Confederates and black Confederates

Google’s Ngram program, which allows you to search the frequency of a word or phrase within its Books archive, has received a great deal of attention since its recent release.  The teacher and researcher in me sees a great deal of potential [and here] in how this tool can be utilized, but Ngram has also been received with a great deal of skepticism [and here].  For now let’s have a little fun with this wonderful new tool.

Not too long ago I suggested that references to black Confederates is relatively new and I even pinpointed its usage to the period following the release of the movie, Glory, in 1n 1989.  Well, depending on how you read these results, I wasn’t too far off the mark in terms of a date, but my interpretation concerning the role of Hollywood is still up in the air.  Of course, this doesn’t tell us the full story; rather, it simply gives us a reading of the frequency of this particular reference.  [The results are case sensitive.]  Perhaps black Confederate soldiers were referred to differently in years past, but this would have to be demonstrated by close textual analysis – something that is rarely done in these circles.  For example, while many advocates of this narrative have referred to the Confederate monument in Arlington Cemetery as evidence of these men, Andy Hall has convincingly argued [and here] that the organizers of the monument, as well as speakers during the dedication cemetery, did not utilize this reference.  They viewed the images around the monument as faithful slaves and not as soldiers.

C-SPAN Visits Monument Avenue

This is a wonderful overview of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.  It’s one of my favorite places to bring my students to discuss the intersection between historical memory, race, and politics, and the monuments themselves allow for a wide range of interpretation.  I also highly recommend Sarah S. Driggs’s book, Richmond’s Monument Avenue (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

States Rights v. Slavery: No Discernible Difference

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.

Teaching the Civil War

The History Teacher - November 2010

My most recent publication is now available in the new issue of the November 2010 issue of the journal, The History Teacher.  The essay focuses on how I use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in class and is based on a talk I gave back in 2007 at the first biennial meeting of the Society For Civil War Historians.  [Click here to read the essay (pdf file)]

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years is the opportunity to work with fellow history teachers on how we can better teach our subject.  As much as I enjoy sharing what has worked for me with others I have to say that I’ve learned just as much from my colleagues.  This coming year will be incredibly busy in this regard.  In January I will be leading a TAH workshop with W. Fitzhugh Brundage on the Civil War and historical memory and in April I will take part in another workshop here in Virginia that was organized in response to the recent 4th grade history textbook controversy.  I am also involved in an ongoing effort to secure an NEH Grant for a workshop that will take place next summer.  Finally, I am very excited to report that I recently accepted an offer from the New York Times to write an essay on the challenges of teaching the Civil War during the sesquicentennial.

Let’s always remember to teach our children well.