Where Should the New Chancellorsville Vistor Center Be Located?

Note: It looks like I did a poor job of reading Eric’s post.  For some reason I was under the impression that there were plans to build a new VC.  That said, I have heard talk about the possibility of a new location so let’s proceed with that in mind.

The new group blog, Mysteries and Conundrums, authored by NPS historians at Fredericksburg has quickly become my favorite Civil War site.  John Hennessy and the gang have done a fantastic job of sharing the challenges associated with interpreting and preserving some of our most important Civil War ground.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hennessy’s last post in which he asks readers to consider a name change to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.  Many of the responses reflect deeply held views, but I commend Hennessy for his continued commitment to asking the tough questions.

Eric Mink’s latest post provides some interesting background information on the Chancellorsville Visitor Center; it looks like his next post will let us in on the decision-making process that went into the decision on the location of a new visitor center.  [Update: Just as this was published Eric Mink posted his second installment.]  I’ve brought students to Chancellorsville for the past 8 years and since I am pretty familiar with the battlefield I thought I would take a shot at suggesting a new location.  The best place for a new visitor center would be on ground that covers the fighting that took place on May 3, 1863.

I’ve been bringing students to Chancellorsville for the past eight years and so I am fairly familiar with the ground and have thought quite a bit about how to approach a battlefield tour.  We spend about 5-6 hours touring various sites, beginning at the present VC and proceeding to the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the final meeting spot between Lee and Jackson.  From there we walk a bit of the original road that Jackson used for his flank march and discuss tactics and the difficulties associated with fighting in the Wilderness.  We stop at the Flank March spot to discuss ethnicity and the Union 11th Corps along with the effects of Jackson’s attack.  From there we drive back where I do a play-by-play of the events that led to Jackson’s wounding; it’s a narrative that closely follows Bob Krick’s brilliant analysis of this important moment in the battle.  Finally, we make our way over the Fairview where we eat our lunch and discuss the events of May 3.  While there we discuss Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which helps us to get at issues related to soldier life.

Continue reading “Where Should the New Chancellorsville Vistor Center Be Located?”

Watch Out For This Kid

Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher.  Over the course of this past year I’ve been working on an independent study that focuses on how the Civil War has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville, Virginia with Joseph Wolf, who is one of my students.  We met on a weekly basis to discuss various secondary sources that included books by David Blight, Kirk Savage, Thomas Brown, David Goldfield, John Neff, and Gary Gallagher, to name just a few.  In addition, Joseph and I explored the roles of the local chapters of the SCV and UDC and read through a number of their publications.  Joseph’s main focus was to analyze the equestrian statues at Lee and Jackson parks along with our two soldier monuments, located at the courthouse and Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.

As part of his project Joseph presented his research today during lunchtime to a packed classroom of teachers and students.  He did a fabulous job of explaining the role of Charlottesville during the Civil War, the evolution of the Lost Cause, and the conditions that led to the four monuments.  Best of all, Joseph did an outstanding job of analyzing the monuments for the audience as well as fielding their questions.  It’s been an absolute pleasure working with this student.  As a sophomore Joseph took my elective on Lincoln and as a junior he took my survey course in American history along with my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War memory.

I have to say, however, that as much as I enjoyed sharing my passion for the Civil War with this student the subject matter is secondary compared with the interpretive skills that were learned and the seriousness that comes with an appreciation of the complexity of the past.  It was a pleasure to be able to sit their with everyone else and watch Joseph as he educated the audience.  He was in command.

Joseph has decided to continue his education at the University of South Carolina where he will major in history.  Luckily for Joseph, Thomas Brown teaches in the History Department.  It’s safe to say that Joseph will graduate high school with an understanding of the Civil War that rivals, if not surpasses, students who are about to graduate from college.  I wish Joseph all the best in his future endeavors.  Keep an eye out for this kid.

[Image: Unveiling of Jackson Statue at Jackson Park in Charlottesville, Virginia]

Reading List on the Aftermath of Battle

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work one-on-one with seniors who are interested in doing independent work in history.  I am finishing up a project with one of my students on how the Civil War was commemorated here in Charlottesville between 1880 and 1920 and beginning the process of working with a student to formulate a project for next year.  This student wants to explore how Civil War soldiers responded to the horrors of war witnessed in the aftermath of battle.  We still need to nail a few things down, including the question of whether to look at this question over time or in response to one particular battle.

Luckily this student is excited to get started and even broached the idea of doing some reading over the summer.  I’ve decided to assign Drew Faust’s recent book on death and the Civil War, which should provide a helpful context in which to understand the cultural parameters of death in the nineteenth century.  Other studies that I am thinking about include Eric T. Dean’s Shook Over Hell, the section on Fredericksburg’s wounded by George Rable, and Joe Glatthaar’s chapter, “To Slaughter One Another Like Brutes” in General Lee’s Army.

My student is going to spent significant time collecting archival material at UVA, but I want him to do a good amount of reading in the relevant secondary sources.  Obviously, there is plenty of material out there that can be utilized for such a project; however, I am looking for secondary sources (battle/campaign studies, unit histories, biographies) where the historian goes beyond the descriptive and provides some kind of analysis.   If you have something in mind please share it with me even if it is a single book title, journal or magazine essay.  Thanks.

Why Political History is Really, Really Important

My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Occupation Safety & Health Administration
  • National Transportation & Safety Board
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children
  • Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation

I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies.  No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal.  When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own.  What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda.  Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism.  No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.

At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican.  Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.

I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources.  Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory.  Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.

The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter.  On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party.  Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well.  History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.

The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context.  We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades.  When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties.  Perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Just a thought.

Even More Liberal Lies About America

Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course.  It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s.  Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at.  According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students.  I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)

As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism.  The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988.  Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,”  “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.”  The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick.  Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others.  The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)

Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:

The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition.  It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so.  Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.

Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century.  Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom.  Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?”  Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment.  The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty.  The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)

That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history.  It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.

On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:

The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base.  Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished.  Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality.  They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion.  (p. 1050)

As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.

Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history?  Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author.  Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians.  I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.

Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology. 😀