The Future of Petersburg National Battlefield

As I make my way through my manuscript on historical memory one last time before sending it in, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way we remember and commemorate the battle of the Crater.  Much of that change has taken place over the past forty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.  Before 1970 you would be hard pressed to find references to the story of USCTs in both written accounts and in the way the battlefield itself was interpreted.  My manuscript ends with a few reflections about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but when I peer into the future it is this image that I see.  This is a photograph of Emmanuel Dabney, who works as a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield.  He is a native of Dinwiddie County and has fully embraced its rich history.  Emmanuel has a degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and recently completed an advanced degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  If Emmanuel has his way he will spend his career educating the public at PNB.

In many ways, Emmanuel is a big part of the story that I tell about the Crater.  On the one hand, the fact that he is African American situates him at a crucial moment in the overall life of the battlefield and our broader understanding of the Civil War.  At the same time Emmanuel has been a huge help to me throughout the research and writing process.  Even this past weekend he helped to track down information about one of the Crater’s wayside markers.  One of the joys of working on this project has been the opportunity to meet people, like Emmanuel, who share my passion for history and education.

[Photograph from Petersburg Progress-Index]

Black Confederates For Kids

I don’t have much sympathy for adults who buy into the black Confederate meme.  In the end, it is simply a reflection of their gullibility, lack of basic historical knowledge relating to the Civil War and an inability to properly interpret primary sources.  On the other hand and as a teacher, I am disgusted when children are brought into the picture.  They become the victims of the stupidity of others.  Consider this little gem of a book, titled, Entangled in Freedom: A Civil War Novel, which is slated for release in January 2011.  The book is authored by Kevin M. Weeks, who is known for The Street Life Series.  Here is a short description:

Entangled in Freedom, the first novel in this young adult fiction book series, takes a closer look at the life experiences of African-Americans in the Deep South during the War Between the States. Young adult readers follow main character Isaac Green through the dirt roads of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to Cumberland Gap where Isaac serves with the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers C.S.A. Historical accounts are derived from 19th century official government records as well as real life family narratives of co-author, Ann DeWitt.

These two names should ring a bell.  Not too long ago I shared a new website on black Confederates that was created by Ann DeWitt.  It’s unfortunate that Ms. DeWitt did not take proper care of her family’s narrative.  Sometimes simply repeating family stories does not honor the memory of one’s ancestors, especially if those stories are inaccurate.

Oh That Gettysburg

Thanks to the folks at the Civil War Preservation Trust for putting on a first-rate conference.  I had a great experience and I look forward to the opportunity to help out again next year in Franklin, Tennessee.  My panel discussion last night was successful.  The audience asked some very thoughtful questions about the role and use of technology in the classroom and this was after a long day of walking the Gettysburg battlefield.  I can’t say how impressed I am with this organization.  Nicole Osier did a great job organizing the conference and it was a pleasure meeting the rest of the staff, including Robert Shenk and Gary Adelman.  The CWPT understands that saving battlefields is about educating the general public, especially our students, who will one day be responsible for taking on leadership positions in this good fight.  I can think of no better way of showing my support than by joining the CWPT and I encourage you to do so as well.

I especially enjoyed my time at Gettysburg.  This was my first trip to the battlefield with a group and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  For one thing I can’t tell you how many times I overheard references to the movie, Gettysburg.  Workshop presenters referenced the movie as did participants in casual conversations, and it was even mentioned on the tour.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I have to wonder whether folks are able to distinguish between a Hollywood interpretation and the history of the actual site.  It’s as if people view the battle and its participants through the lens of the movie.  Luckily, I didn’t hear any references to Buster Kilrain.  Even though the movie was released back in the early 1990s it shows no sign of letting up.  The actors remain popular attractions and even Mort Kunstler’s paintings look more like the movie’s actors than the actual historical figures.  The strangest and, in my mind, the most disturbing aspect of this phenomena is the bench dedicated to Michael Shaara that was recently placed in Hollywood Cemetery next to the grave of George Pickett.  How this was allowed to happen is beyond me, but I encourage you to take photographs of yourself doing something disrespectful on it having some fun with it.

Continue reading “Oh That Gettysburg”

Bud Robertson and the Legacy of Union

I am having a great time here in Hagerstown at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s annual Teachers Conference.  Today was the first day.  I had a chance to chat with Bud Robertson at lunch and I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.  It’s a talk that I’ve heard before, but it is always nice to listen to a man who has dedicated his life to scholarship and education.  The organization was sad to learn that this will be his final appearance.  It looks like Professor Robertson is going to retire this year.

Robertson spoke on the many legacies of the Civil War, but he was the most eloquent when it came to the importance of Union.  According to Robertson, this nation did not have a history until the Civil War.  Robertson quoted Lincoln and rammed home his belief that the Civil War was nothing less than a test of whether the work of the Founding Fathers could be preserved.  There is nothing surprising about such a view, but I bet some people are taken back by the fact that it is Robertson’s view.  After all, Robertson is best known for biographies of Confederate leaders and he is to a certain extent the academic darling of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Unfortunately, there was no time for questions.  I really wanted to ask him how he views the uptick in rhetoric of secession that is coming from both the grass roots level as well as our elected leaders.  To what extent should we view this as a legacy of the Civil War?  I wanted to know, given his comments about the value of Union, whether we should encourage this rhetoric and whether he believes it ought to be viewed as patriotic.  Tonight we will get together for dinner and a talk by Peter Carmichael and tomorrow we are off to Gettysburg.

[photo of t-shirt at Gettysburg Visitor Center]

Sifting Through the Social Media Hype (Part 3)

[Part 1 and Part 2]

I want to close out this 3-part series with a few words about social media in the classroom.  This can be both a positive experience for some as well as a walk on the slippery rocks for others.  For me it has been a little of both.  When I first dove in I felt intimidated by the possibilities and pressured to try everything.  Even worse were feelings of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough with it.   It helps to remember the following:

  • Very few so-called social media experts are history teachers.
  • Social media is about the sharing of information and not about building community.
  • You can’t do everything.  Become comfortable with a few tools and explore their full range and potential.  Less is more.
  • Allow yourself to fail.

Social Media Experts?

Let’s face it, social media is the hip thing to be doing in our classrooms.  There is a great deal of pressure from within our school administrations and the broader teaching community.  Even a quick perusal of this universe reveals a multitude of social media folks with the latest tool that will somehow change the way we teach.  My advice is to always remember to stick with your fundamental goals.  What skills that are specific to the study of history are you trying to impart to your students?  Remember that the majority of these people are not history teachers and may know very little about the kinds of skills that are specific to our discipline.  You are the authority.  One way to sift through talk is to find fellow history teachers who are engaged in the same projects.  I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource.  It’s easy to find people with similar interests and it’s a great way of sharing information and ideas.

Information v. Community

Quite often you will hear talk about the importance of connecting your students to a larger community beyond the confines of your classroom and school.  While I am open to differences of opinion here, it is my view that the only community worth worrying about is the one that you interact with on a daily basis.  While social media can play an important role in the strengthening of ties among students in your classroom, its pedagogical benefit is in the sharing of information.  Sharing information does not, in and of itself, bring about community.  Many of these tools offer students a way to make connections beyond the confines of the classroom, which can be incredibly fruitful.  A Skype interview with an expert or radio interview offer new avenues for the gathering and sharing of information.

Less Is More

Take the time to explore the limits of specific web tools.  Make sure you and especially your students understand why they are using a specific social media program.  I can’t tell you how many horrifically awful YouTube videos I’ve seen.  Most of them are done by students who have been given very little guidance by their teachers.  Let’s face it, it is easy to say go make a video.  Video production, however, is a wonderful way of getting students to think about the presentation of history to the general public.  It is worth discussing how various filmic elements such as narrative, sound, and images come together to form a coherent interpretation.  Try analyzing a segment of Ken Burns’s The Civil War as a part of their preparation.  If you want your students to blog make sure they understand the format.  Talk about what goes into an effective blog post and if the site is open to comments than discuss what kind of personal profile it is appropriate to present to the general public.  Discuss the importance of collaboration when creating a wiki page or the inevitability and challenges that come with revisions to a Wikipedia page.  And if it is something as simple as collecting images on Flickr make sure that students understand how cataloging works through tags.

Once you become comfortable with a few specific programs you can think about using them collectively for a more detailed project.  One that I have been working on involves the development of a website that serves as a guide for tourists and those interested in the many Civil War related sites here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Another idea is the creation of an elective that would allow students to formulate their own conspiracy theory of a historical event that would involve the dissemination of online information.  All of these uses involve different ways to present history to the general public and different tools force students to think critically about the organization and presentation of information.  Most importantly, it gives students a sense of ownership of what they are studying in a way that goes far beyond a standardized test.

The Importance of Failure

I recently gave a talk to our graduating class and one of the things I wished for them was a certain amount of failure.  Give yourself plenty of room to experiment and fail.  It didn’t take me long to realize that there really is no set plan on how to use these tools in our classrooms.  The sky is the limit.  I’ve had my share of success and probably more failures and even experiences that I am still having difficulty assessing.  For example, a few years ago I had students in a class I taught on Abraham Lincoln set up Facebook pages for the various people within his private and public circle. All of the profile information had to comply with the historical record.  Once the individual pages were set up students could interact with one another by posting messages and links.  The most hilarious aspect of the exercise were the decisions made as to who to “friend” and under what conditions someone might get un-friended.  You can also use Twitter to role play historical figures.  Monticello has their own Jefferson profile up on Twitter as does Mount Vernon.  I don’t know whether I will ever do this again, but I am glad I gave it a shot.

In closing I think it is important to point out once again that we are not teaching social media.  These tools can be explored in just about any type of academic setting.  The question that we need to keep in mind is how it helps us to teach this subject called history.