Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction

My AP classes are now focusing on the entrance of the United States onto the world stage at the turn of the twentieth century.  At the same time we are talking about the emergence of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of lynchings throughout the South.  It’s interesting how our tendency to carve up the past into neat little chapters often obscures the extent to which earlier events continue to inform or shape later events.  I had one of those moments last week as I was preparing a presentation on the rise of Jim Crow.  It hit me that in an important way we were still talking about the Civil War.  I began the class by asking: “Who won the American Civil War?”  Of course the students looked at me with an odd grin, but I decided to go with it and let the silence take hold in hopes of making for an uncomfortable moment.  I eventually followed up by asking my students to think about the war and Reconstruction as beginning in 1861 and ending around 1900.  A few of the students understood exactly what I was asking and we ended up having a very interesting discussion.

My goal with the question was to have my students think seriously about the way in which the Civil War challenged basic assumptions about citizenship and race in the United States.  As a military order the Emancipation Proclamation raised questions that few people were prepared to debate seriously just a few years earlier.  By the end of the war a significant number of black Americans had fought and sacrificed in the Union armies and the institution of slavery was dead.  Emancipation alone, however, did not necessarily imply a certain set of positive civil rights such as the suffrage or equal protection under the law.  Whenever I teach Reconstruction I have my class think about the term from different perspectives.  There were a number of ideas about Reconstruction depending on whether you were a newly freed slave, a Republican in Congress or a white Southerner.  Different ideas of Reconstruction competed with one another during the thirty years following the war and they all hinge on the radical changes that the Civil War wrought.  Military defeat may have ended the war and slavery, but the form in which freedom would take for 4 million newly freed slaves had not been decided.

From this perspective it can be argued – as does Brooks Simpson – that the Civil War did not really end in 1865.  The issues of race and emancipation continued to be fought over within a political context and often through extra-legal means such as the Klan and other terrorist groups.  The Radical Republicans sought to protect the civil rights of black Southerners while many white Southerners hoped to regain control of their state governments and reconstruct them along lines that followed the racial hierarchy of the antebellum period.  This can be seen in the institution of black codes shortly after the war as a means to limit their political and social mobility.   By the mid-1870′s it became increasingly clear that northern Republicans were losing interest in military Reconstruction as western expansion and the challenges of increased industrial development took hold.  In addition, members of the old-guard such as Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were gone while younger Republicans entered Congress never having experienced the political turmoil of the 1850′s.  Even Horace Greely had lost patience with Reconstruction as well as other Liberal Republicans.  While 1877 did not signal the end of black political participation in the South it can be seen as the beginning of a gradual loss of civil rights for black Americans that culminated in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Furgeson and the rise of the Jim Crow South.

This broader perspective makes it possible for teachers to ask questions that challenge our standard outline.  If we acknowledge that the Confederate government was fighting to preserve not just slavery, but a society based on a strictly defined racial hierarchy than we can make sense of the process by which black Southerners gradually lost the basic civil rights that they had worked so hard for during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Reconstruction is one of my favorite time periods to teach since it forces students to deal with the fact that the future of the country was not predetermined.  The subsequent racial story could have gone any number of ways.  The presidential election of 1876 did not close the door on black political action in the South.  The reconstruction vision of black Americans continued to compete with the reconstruction vision of the white South, and while their outlooks were largely mutually exclusive individuals like William Mahone and Ben Tillman continued to offer alternatives that involved bi-racial cooperation.  The rise of Lynchings along with the emergence of Redeemer governments connect directly to the way in the which both the Civil War and Reconstruction evolved.  The war over whether the United States was going to define citizenship along the color line continued as the nation pushed into the twentieth century.  Of course we could argue, as one of my students did, that the issues of race and emancipation continued well into the twentieth century.  This student suggested that we are still fighting the Civil War.  In a sense we are, but it seems to me that we can use the Spanish-American War and the move on the part of the southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in a way that disfranchised the largest number of southern blacks as an end point.  [By 1940 only 3% of southern blacks were registered to vote.]  Consider the above tableau that depicts national reconciliation just as the country geared up for war with Spain.  Perhaps the strong feelings of nationalism and the sweet taste of victory against a nation that posed not threat to this country can be interpreted as the end of the Civil War.

So who won the Civil War?

Women’s History Course: A Brief Assessment

Snow Day!!!!

I am three weeks into my women’s history course and enjoying it a great deal.  I have 11 female students, all but two are seniors.  While the course is grounded in history I am trying to mix up the readings a bit to include both gender and feminist studies.  Since this is my first time teaching the course I am learning as I go.  More importantly I am learning a great deal from my students.  Teaching on the high school level leaves you with the impression that girls as a group are more mature than boys.  This class has already given me a clearer sense of just how true this is.  High School girls are able to talk more openly about certain issues and they listen more intently to one another.  What I am most pleased about is that a good number of my students are taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and research issues that are already on their mind.  It’s as if the content of the course is teasing out ideas and thoughts that are already there.

We started the first week by reading a short introduction on the language of gender and the reasoning behind a class on women’s history.  We talked about the importance of understanding how women fit into American history and what it means that for so long they were ignored.  The class explored the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and wrote a concise overview of “the problem that has no name.”  Last week we started working with the textbook, which is well written, thorough, and organized around an excellent collection of different types of primary sources.  We started with the post-Civil War period and the split of the women’s movement into the NWSA and AWSA over the 15th Amendment as well as the entrance of women into the work force by the end of the twentieth century.  I have two black students in the class so I want to make sure to address issues that touch on the roles of black women in American history.  Luckily our textbook does an excellent job of covering issues that are specific to black women. I consider myself fairly well educated in the field of American history.  I teach the AP classes and I have a pretty solid grasp of the important secondary texts.  That said, I had no idea just how much I was missing before starting this class.  Interesting people are emerging as well as important Supreme Court Cases, and the way I understand what I already know is being enriched.  What more could I ask for?

This week we started our first project.  My class is exploring the concept of masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of images of Theodore Roosevelt.  I handed out a packet of images of Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War as well as images of him in connection with the Panama Canal and his role as Trust-Buster.  As we move through Roosevelt images that highlight the importance of the “strenuous life” or extreme masculinity the students can draw comparisons with how women are depicted in the outdoors.  I found some very interesting images of  bicycle advertisements that include women as well as images of women playing tennis and other sports.  The images attempt to strike a balance between play and maintaining accepted feminine qualities.  Students are required to write a 3-page essay based on their own interpretations of the sources.  As most of them are seniors I want to give them as much latitude as possible in developing their own thesis statements.   Next week we will jump to the suffrage movement and explore the steps that led to the 19th Amendment.  I plan to show the movie Iron Jawed Angels and have the students explore other primary sources from both well known and more obscure women who took part in the movement.  I would love to hear other suggestions for movies that would be appropriate for this class.

While I have a general outline of what I want to cover in this course specific topics along with the relevant primary and secondary readings are still up in the air.  As we into the twentieth century I hope to introduce the class to a combination of historical as well as feminist studies.  Over the summer I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth along with a wonderful collection of essays by Gloria Steinem titled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.  It includes the classic essay “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”  While I’ve enjoyed these books I am having a hell of a time making my way through Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.  She offers a scathing argument against the “infertility epidemic” said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing; Faludi concludes that this is largely a media invention.  I also want to introduce the class to essays written by women that challenge the agenda of the feminist movement.

I am already thinking about what electives I might offer next year. While I am thoroughly enjoying the focus on women’s history I will probably be expected to teach the Civil War course once again.  One possibility may be to offer a Civil War course that focuses specifically on women’s experiences; the focus would be on the antebellum, war, and postwar periods.  I’ve also been playing around with a more creative approach that involves locating a diary or set of letters from a woman/sisters who lived here in Charlottesville/central Virginia during the war years.  I would focus the class on local history and have them help me prepare the archival material for publication.  Students would have their names connected to the final publication.  I know that John M. Priest utilized this approach on the high school level some years ago.  His students contributed to the editing of a unit history authored by Sergeant William H. Reylea.  It’s an interesting idea and would make for a truly unique high school experience.  For now it is enough that I am enjoying this experience and learning a great deal.

Black History Month

Most of you know that February is Black History Month.  My school is organizing a couple of activities to acknowlege the event.  We’ve set up a book discussion group that includes both teachers and students as well as a few outside speakers who will talk with small groups of students about various topics.  In addition, students and teachers have been asked to share their thoughts about issues that connect with black history during our school meetings.  I’ve been asked to get things started by sharing a few thoughts about the idea of Black History Month.  Feel free to comment.

I was asked to say a few words about Black History Month which will be observed through the month of February.  The setting aside of a month in recognition of the contributions of black Americans started in 1926  as "Negro History Week" under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  I have to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable talking about black history.  As a historian I like to think of myself as someone interested in American history and more specifically the stories that reflect what all of us value about the history of this country.  We admire the people in our past who overcome great obstacles or defy the odds and those that stand firm for the values of freedom and equality.  The images that stand out in my own mind include black men fighting with George Washington’s army during the Revolution, the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner during the Civil War, the dignity of Frederick Douglass, the words of W.E.B. Dubois, the strength of King in a jail cell in Birmingham writing a justification for his civil disobedience on scraps of paper, and the courage of students your own age sitting defiantly at lunch counters across the South.  I find solace and hope in these and other images not because they are black, but because they reflect what makes this country what it is. 

At the same time I am all too aware that our historical memory is always selective and who determines that selection often depends on who controls the means through which our collective stories are shared.  When Negro History Week started little was known about the contributions of black Americans in large part because few people studied the subject, but more importantly because images of black Americans fighting in the American Revolution, Civil War, and even World War I did not fit into the history of a country that had decided by the 1920′s to legally segregate schools, buses, railroads, movie theaters and other public places along racial lines.  As a historian and as a citizen I consider myself lucky that I live at a time where I can read about those contributions as part of our American story.  Perhaps, as some have argued, a month set aside for black history is unnecessary.  I think the question is worth debating.  In the end, however, the recognition of Black History Month serves to remind us of our collective past and in turn hopefully strengthens our collective will as a nation to continue to push towards greater inclusiveness and equality for all.

Reenactors As Educators

Over at Civil War Power Tour Joshua Blair
recently commented on the "late unpleasantness" involving a reenactors
attempt at educating a group of students about the Civil War.  The
incident took place at historic Crossroads Village
in Mt. Morris, Michigan.  Apparently the reenactor handed out
enlistment papers to the students until he approached a black student
and commented that he would probably have been a slave.  I recall
commenting on this when the story broke.

I agree with Blair in his overall assessment of the situation:

They [reenactors] are not trained professionals or teachers. Therefore, the people that should be held responsible are the school’s
administrators. Did the administrators
not know that re-enactors are not professionals? If so, why did they believe a re-enactment
would be the most appropriate place for firsthand examination of American
history? There are many other places,
such as museums, that would have been more suitable for a field trip. The administrators should have evaluated the
sources of the presentation before deeming it appropriate for school children.

My only question is whether there is someone in the school
administration who would have been able to pick out any potential
problems with the presentation.  I am skeptical.  Reenactors can be a
useful source of information for a history class.  It is, however,
going to be difficult for the uninformed to be able to acknowledge who
the experts are in their craft and who simply has sufficient funds and
enough of an imagination to want to dress-up as a Civil War soldier.
I’ve run into many more of the latter, but I have to say that it is
quite impressive to watch and listen to someone who really does know
the history. 

When I say "know the history" I mean someone who is familiar with scholarly works
on the subject.  And there is no area more significant in this regard
than our understanding of the history of slavery.  To give you a sense
of how ill-informed this reenactor apparently was just think about the
fact that he could have given this student enlistment papers for a
U.S.C.T.  If he didn’t think this was appropriate, how about giving him
the role of a farmer.  Don’t most people know that there were free blacks in
the North before the war.  How about giving him the role of a fugitive
slave?  Even if there were relatively few in Michigan wouldn’t this have been more appropriate given the setting?  How many black students were in the group and would singling one student out have made for an unpleasant situation?  I don’t know. 

My guess is that this guy did not mean any harm and I agree that the outrage expressed after the incident was probably a bit over the top. 

Carl Schurz’s South

Today is the last day before the winter break and I definitely need it.  We start up again on January 8, which should give me enough time to get a few things done.   I have to write a short talk for the roundtable discussion at the AHA as well as complete the Crater manuscript.  In addition, I am preparing a chapter from the manuscript for possible inclusion in a very popular edited collection on Civil War campaigns.  The most important thing on my list is to spend time with my wife and family. 

Schurz Yesterday my AP classes examined Carl Schurz’s report on Savannah, Georgia that was originally written for Andrew Johnson and eventually published in the Boston Advertiser.  Schurz served in the Union army and was connected with the radical wing of the Republican Party.  In the months following the end of the war Schurz was asked by Johnson to report on conditions in the South.  While it can be argued that Schurz was predisposed to see the worst in the South, Johnson was also not ready to acknowledge conditions that would challenge his lenient stance on Reconstruction. 

Before reading the document the class talks about Schurz’s personal background, including immigration to America and his political stance both during and following the war.  The document is ideal for the classroom as it is clearly written and raises some of the important questions that the Federal government wrestled with as they debated how best to protect and advance civil rights for the newly freed slaves.  The most interesting section of the document is a short reference to the "veil question":

It is remarkable upon what trifling material this female wrath is feeding and growing fat.  In a certain district in South Carolina, the ladies were some time ago, and perhaps are now, dreadfully exercised about the veil question.  You  may ask me what the veil question is.  Formerly, under the old order of things, Negro women were not permitted to wear veils.  Now, under the new order of things, a great many are wearing veils.  This is an outrage which cannot be submitted to; the white ladies of the neighborhood agree in being indignant beyond measure.  Some of them declare whenever they meet a colored woman wearing a veil they will tear the veil from her face.  Others, mindful of the consequences which such an act of violence might draw after it, under this same new order of things, declare their resolve never to wear veils themselves as long as colored women wear veils.  This is the veil question, and this is the way it stands at present. [my emphasis]

This is an excellent example of gender intersecting with race.  As the class was reading through this section one of my male students asked if wearing a veil was a "sign of wealth and beauty."  I smiled and urged him to read on.  It was nice to see one of my male student pick up on this so quickly.  What did the Thirteenth Amendment mean to slaves and how did they express "this new order of things" during the postwar years?  Schurz also references a July 4 parade in the streets of Savannah that was organized by the city’s black population.  What I like about the veil issue is that it is subtle and yet so very important to the women who were able to express themselves through clothing.  This is something that my students take for granted.    Next time you teach Reconstruction give Carl Schurz a shot.