Category Archives: Teaching

Civil War Memory in the College Classroom

It has been a real pleasure learning of a number of college level courses that use Civil War Memory in some capacity.  In a few weeks I head up to Shepherd University to talk with students in Professor Mark Snell’s seminar, “The American Civil War in Memory and Remembrance”.  It turns out that students are assigned my blog as regular reading so it should be quite an experience to learn about what they think of some of the issues that I write about as well as the role of blogging as a form of remembrance.

The other day I came across a link to an online syllabus for a course on Public HistoryCivil War Memory can be found under Week 6, which focuses on slavery and public history.  I’m not exactly sure where this course is being taught, but it looks to be quite interesting and I would love to know how the blog is being used.  What kinds of questions are being discussed in class and what do students think of blogs as a public history tool?  I highly recommend spending some time with the links on the syllabus, which include some dynamite history blogs and other assorted websites.

I have no way of knowing for how long I will continue blogging, but at some point I will have to give some serious thought to its preservation.  My own view is that Civil War Memory can be understood from a number of different perspectives that connect to broader issues of historical memory and public history.  On the one hand this site represents my own ongoing dialog about how I understand history as well as historical memory.  Take one step back and the blog itself can be viewed as an expression of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Confederate Soldiers Described as “Scavengers”

My Civil War Memory class has finally finished watching Shenandoah and students are now working on comparative reviews that incorporate their understanding of Gone With the WindShenandoah represents a sharp transition in popular memory of the war in the roughly twenty-five years since the premier of GWTW.  I want to wrap up this series of posts [see here and here] with just a few more thoughts that connect to the movie’s conscious attempt to steer clear of as much regional controversy as possible.  Apart from the battle scenes there is nothing that might alienate any one demographic.  As I noted in the first post, the movie ignores the issue of slavery apart from an early scene where Charlie Anderson declares it to be immoral.  The slave boy who befriends the youngest Anderson boy is freed by a black Union soldier, but he is encouraged to embrace his freedom by one of the Anderson daughters.  Toward the end of the movie a black woman, who is never identified as a slave, cares for Charlie Anderson’s granddaughter.

Most interesting, however, is that the only threats and violence that visit the Anderson family come from fellow white Southerners.  The Union army may have mistakenly taken the young boy prisoner, but there is a very understanding colonel who offers to help Anderson in his quest to find his son.  Agents of the Confederate government in Richmond attempt to confiscate the family’s animals while a Confederate colonel pushes Charlie Anderson to acknowledge his responsibility in the war by giving up his children to the army.  Late in the movie the eldest Anderson boy is accidentally shot by a 16-yr. old Confederate soldier.

But the most shocking scene is the murder of son Jacob and wife Ann who stayed on the family farm while the rest looked for the youngest Anderson boy.  The scene takes the audience by surprise and while Jacob’s brutal murder is captured by the camera, the death of his wife is left to the imagination.  Once the party returns to the home they are greeted by the doctor, who informs them of the murders.  Interestingly, the doctor refers to these men as “scavengers” even though they are clearly Confederate deserters.  Without intending to this scene, along with much of the rest of the movie challenges the Lost Cause assumption of a united Confederate populace.  It also touches on an aspect of the Civil War that we rarely discuss and that is the violence that was perpetrated between white Virginians, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, which was used by large numbers of Confederate soldiers who had deserted from the army.  It would be interesting to know whether moviegoers, especially in the Southern states, understood these men to be Confederate soldiers.

I know that my students thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have to say that it has moved up in my list of favorite Civil War movies.

Shenandoah (1965)

Students in my Civil War Memory course finally finished watching Gone With the Wind.  With all of the discussion and analysis it took us two weeks to get through it.  It was well worth it and for the most part they really enjoyed it.  We are now transitioning to the Civil War Centennial and the movie, Shenandoah.  As part of their preparation for this movie I had students research the centennial and analyze newspaper articles from the period.  Today we discussed how both the civil rights movement and the Cold War influenced how Americans remembered and commemorated the war in the 1960s.  Having been released in January 1965, just six months after Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shenandoah clearly reflects this broader cultural and racial shift.  In contrast with earlier films such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation this film does not glorify the plantation South.  This strong anti-Lost Cause theme emerges early in the film.  Consider the scene around the diner table.  Charlie Anderson is challenged by one of his sons who argues that the family can no longer ignore the war.  The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves.  He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him.  Would you help him fight to keep them.”  One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.”  The dinner table reflects the broader moral issues that Americans were struggling with at the time.  But even apart from the issue of civil rights the movie fits neatly into the ongoing ideological war with the Soviet Union.  There is a moral clarity that comes through in this scene that reinforced America’s sense of its own place as leader of the free world.

This anti-Lost Cause theme returns in the above scene when Charlie Anderson confronts a Confederate officer hoping to recruit the Anderson boys.  Somehow we are supposed to imagine that six strapping young Virginians were able to avoid conscription for two years.  Anderson defends the necessity of keeping his sons on the farm by insisting that his farm was built “without the sweat of one slave.”  The shift from GWTW is striking in Anderson’s refusal to make any sacrifice to slaveholding Virginia or the Confederacy.  This unwillingness to identify specifically with slavery removes it from the ongoing debate about civil rights.  I am confident that my students will enjoy this movie and I am looking forward to the class discussions.

New Guest Post Series: Civil War Classics

I am pleased to announce a new series of guest posts that will be authored by graduate students who are enrolled in Professor Peter Carmichael’s Readings Course at West VirginiaUniversity.  Professor Carmichael and I have been talking about doing this for some time now.  Students are required to write a 300-500 word review of a Civil War classic and then participate in any dialogue that may follow.  The only criteria for selecting a book is that the author needs to be dead.  A few of the students have already contacted me with information about their particular titles and I suspect that the first reviews will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.  Stay tuned.

I like this idea for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, it introduces young scholars to the possibilities associated with social media.  Many of Professor Carmichael’s students hope to enter the field of Public History, which has been particularly strong in taking advantage of social media tools such as blogging and, especially, Twitter.  Organizations such as the Museum of the Confederacy, Virginia Historical Society, and Lincoln Cottage are just a few that come immediately to mind.  From my vantage point, however, it looks like History Departments have been slow to acknowledge the possibilities associated with social media tools.  The exception has been in the area of digital history.  I thoroughly enjoyed following their commentary on the state of the field at the recent AHA through Twitter [use the hashtag #AHA2010].  It goes without saying that the growth of digital history and the culture that each generation brings to the field will lead to even more dramatic changes in how History Department’s evaluate social media.

p.s. I don’t think we are going to see a review of anything by Bruce Catton.  I just liked the photo.

A Quick Thought About the Coates-Smith Interview

I don’t know how I failed to comment on this, but the discussion early on in the interview is important.  It is unusual to hear two African-American men talk about the importance of the Civil War as one of the most important democratizing events in American history.  Of course, Coates is referring to the end of slavery and the service of black men in the United States army.  It’s not that he acknowledges the history as much as that he acknowledges its importance within the sweep of the nation’s history rather than simply within the context of African-American history.  Seems to me that this is an important mental step.  In a recent post I offered a bit of advice on the shared goal of making the Civil War Sesquicentennial attractive to African Americans.  I still maintain that this is going to be difficult given what I perceive to be a disconnect between the African-American community and the history of the Civil War or at least the suspicion among black Americans that the Lost Cause will continue to define public commemorations.  It would be interesting to hear what Coates and Smith have to say about this challenge.