Category Archives: Teaching

Distinctions That Matter

This past week my AP classes focused on the Mexican-American War and the first half of the 1850′s.  Our discussions have centered on trying to better understand how the issue of slavery and the territories emerged as the most important question on the national stage.  It’s hard to draw a connection with an issue today which approaches the extent to which slavery had evolved to divide the nation.  After all, while Americans today debate stem cells, same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq none of these issues divides the nation along strict geographical lines.

Just about every year that I’ve taught the survey course in American history I’ve eventually had the discussion that tears down their neat distinction between the virtuous North and evil South.  I assume that these students were taught at some point in middle school or perhaps earlier to think along these lines.  No surprise given that history must be watered down at an early age owing to the student’s cognitive capacity.  By the time they get to their junior year in high school, however, it’s time to expand those boundaries. 

The specific challenge is in getting my students to a point where they can distinguish between race and slavery in reference to white Northerners.  Most of my students start off with the assumption that what it meant to be anti-slavery meant that you subscribed to the "radical" position of William L. Garrison.  We talk in great detail about the American Colonization Society’s plan to remove black Americans and why they believed this to be necessary.  As I understand it, the ACS did not believe that the races could co-exist and northerners specifically worried about the influx of former slaves into northern territory following the abolition of slavery.  I ask students to keep this in mind as they follow race relations into the twentieth century.

The Free-Soil Party and Republican Party argued against slavery and the spread of slavery into the western territories as a means to protect the future of free labor for white Americans.  Keep in mind that Know-Nothings (nativism) migrated into the new Republican Party.  Republicans maintained that part of the problem with slavery in the South was that it denied opportunity to poorer whites.  More importantly, keeping slavery out of the territories would benefit white Americans and the opportunity to engage in free labor.  Luckily, Eric Foner does a great job of highlighting this distinction:

The defining quality of northern society, Republicans declared, was the opportunity it offered each laborer to move up to  the status of landowning farmer of independent craftsmen, thus achieving the economic independence essential to freedom.  Slavery, by contrast, spawned a social order consisting of degraded slaves, poor whites with no hope of advancement, and idle aristocrats.  The struggle over the territories was a contest about which of two antagonistic labor systems would dominate the West and, by implication, the nation’s future.  If slavery were to spread into the West, northern free laborers would be barred, and their chances for social advancement severely diminished.  Slavery, Republicans insisted, must be kept out of the territories so that free labor could flourish. (p. 421, Give Me Liberty)

In saying all of this I am not denying that some Republicans did indeed focus on the issue of black civil rights as did Charles Sumner and others.  However, concentration on that group does not reflect the opinions of the general public. Without an appreciation of this important distinction between slavery and race it is impossible to understand wartime debates over emancipation, questions surrounding the federal government’s responsibilities during Reconstruction, and finally, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges related to black migration North and school integration in such cities as Boston following the Brown decision. 

Stepping Out

I’ve spent the past few weeks looking into other ways that I might be able to share my passion for teaching, serious scholarship, and critical thinking with a broader audience.  It’s not that I am losing interest in the classroom, but a matter of wanting a new challenge.  If I had it all to do over again I would work towards a degree in public history and try to land a job in a museum, archive, historical society or other historical site and do educational outreach.  Going back to school is not really an option for me.  At this point I have both an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Maryland at College Park (1995) and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond (2005).  How many more degrees do I need? 

Luckily for me working at a well-known and well-respected private school in Charlottesville has put me in touch with a number of people who work in various institutions.  I’ve made a few phone calls and have met with a few of these people to pick their brains as to how I might proceed.  Yesterday I met with a curator up at Monticello and before I knew it I was asked to join in on setting up an exhibit for their new Visitors Center.  I couldn’t be more excited about this exciting opportunity.  Perhaps hands-on experience will begin to open some doors.  The exhibit will be interactive and will allow visitors to explore the broad range of Jefferson’s ideas through his own words, images, and legacy. 

This is just what the doctor ordered.

“Unwinding” Racism

Every Wednesday our school holds what we call "Community Forum."  It lasts for about 20 minutes and allows students to share their thoughts about issues related to school and beyond.  Students are asked to stand when they speak and identify themselves to the rest of the Upper School.  Faculty are also encouraged to take part.  Most of the issues are raised by a small committee of students.  Last week they decided to tackle the issue of race.  We decided to show scenes from the move Crash and to break up into smaller groups to discuss it.  We showed the movie last Wednesday and today broke up into small groups this morning for a 25-minute discussion. 

I was with a group of about 15 students.  It will come as no surprise when I say that these discussions are difficult to get off the ground.  Many students feel defensive or uncomfortable while others struggle for the right language.  We are a small private school that is predominantly white and upper middle to upper class. 

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussion.  While we did not spend much time talking about the movie we did talk about the way race shapes our individual perceptions and its manifestations in the Charlottesville area.  Not everyone talked, but enough students shared their ideas.  One student in particular, who was a student in my AP American History course last year, made some very interesting points.  She admitted to being aware of the ways race has shaped American history and her local community, but wondered how we might begin to "unwind race."  For some reason this has stuck with me the entire day.  It’s perfect.  Most people in the group were willing to admit that we learn to see our world through the lens of race and this lends itself to the idea of being wound-up in it

I guess the main reason I like it so much is that it helps explain why I am so interested in the history of race in this country.  I grew up just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  As some of you may know Atlantic City is on an island along with the smaller towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport.  I grew up in Ventnor.  While Atlantic City was predominantly black my town along with the two others was white.  What I still find hard to believe is that up until I attended high school I never really interacted with black people.  My parents took me and my brother to the boardwalk and the amusement piers, but I don’t remember that many black families.  And all of this took place on an island in southern New Jersey.

My own critical approach to the study of how race has shaped American history has in large part been part of a personal process of trying to "unwind" race from my own personal history.   In the end it comes back to a kind of childhood curiosity or sense of wonder about the racial dynamics of my own home and how I was wound without even knowing it at an early age.   

“…and the rest of us are fortunate to get to tag along.”

Thanks to fellow bloggers John Moye and Sally over at Greenespace for their very kind words in recognition of my 1-year blogiversary:

Congratulations to high school history teacher Kevin Levin, whose Civil War Memory site celebrated its first blogiversary yesterday. How lucky his students are to have a teacher who’s so engaged with the complex contemporary understandings, academic and popular, of the Civil War era. For example, he recently asked his students to take the WPA slave narratives and compare two interviews with the same person conducted by different interviewers. Today before breakfast he has already weighed in on the Confederate flag as fashion statement. Levin is teaching history as critical thinking, and the rest of us are fortunate to get to tag along.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the implications of that last line.  As I mentioned the other day, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my blogging experience has been the interaction with a fairly large group of readers–many of them teachers, professional historians, and a broad group of Civil War enthusiasts.  I’ve been teaching in some capacity since 1994.  I love the classroom dynamic and the chance to excite and broaden the intellectual scope of my students, not to mention my own.  Most importantly, teaching is meaningful work; what happens in the classroom, when done right, has a value in and of itself.  Those of you out there who teach know what I am talking about. 

Blogging has worked as a natural extension of my teaching; in short, the classroom has become much larger.  That people have been so supportive of my on-line efforts has naturally led to the question of how I might adjust my career in a way that would put me in contact with a wider and larger group of people.  I am thinking broadly here.  Perhaps work in a historical society or museum doing educational outreach would prove interesting or working with teachers on various interpretive skills that would make them better historians.  It is all very exciting and just a little nerve racking. 

Of course, I will keep you informed as I think through the issues involved.  And I welcome the advice of my readers.

Glory In The Classroom

This week my Civil War class has been watching Glory, which I believe to be the most thought-provoking movie of the period.  I allowed the students to watch it through apart from a few interruptions when I thought it necessary to point out places where the script veered from the history.  Here is a short overview of the movie written by Professor Robert Kenzer of the University of Richmond for his Civil War film course.


The following information comes from one of the best studies of Colonel Shaw and the 54 Massachusetts, Russell Duncan’s Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune:  The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw.  This book contains a 67-page biography of Shaw as well as 300 additional pages featuring the various letters Shaw wrote to family members, some of which are read in the movie.

By far the most significant fact about Shaw not mentioned in the movie was that he was married to Annie Kneeland Haggerty.  Indeed, the omission of his marriage raises two questions about the movie. One, did the movie leave out this fact on purpose because it may complicate Shaw’s relationship with his troops? In other words, could a man who was married seem to place as much importance on his troops as Shaw did in the movie? Would the meaning of his death appear to be the same if the viewer knew he left a widow? Two, it is important to note that Shaw wed Annie while the 54th was training at Camp Meigs in Reidville, Masssachusetts in early 1863. Indeed, Shaw left the camp for a considerable time to make the arrangements for his wedding as well as for the wedding itself and the honeymoon. Further, as Duncan notes, Shaw’s mother, who was especially committed to his service as commander of the 54th, was worried that “Annie distracted her son from his obligations to the regiments.” (p. 37) For example, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase visited the camp to meet Shaw the Colonel was on his honeymoon. Again, would Shaw’s dedication to his troops have seemed diminished if the viewer knew this aspect of Shaw’s personal life?Finally, it should be added that because the movie did not reveal Shaw’s wife, it could not include his many letters to her. Instead, the movie largely focused on his letters to his mother. There is no question that when Shaw wrote his mother that he did so in a manner to bolster her strong abolitionist and pro-black sentiments. Likewise, his letters to his wife Annie indicate much more ambiguity and personal doubts about his men and his leadership abilities.

Shaw’s tendency to be influenced by his mother is best seen when Governor John Andrew offered him command of the 54th. Of course, in reality this was not done at a party in Boston but was tendered by a letter to Shaw carried by his father while Shaw was in winter camp at Stafford Court House, Virginia. Shaw initially refused the offer, writing to his father, “I would take it, if I thought myself equal to the responsibility of such a position.” However, as Duncan observes, Shaw’s motives for refusing were far more complex: Shaw had been through a lot with his regiment [as you saw in the opening scenes at Antietam], and seen many of his friends die near him. He was loyal to their memory and to the men who remained to fight on future fields.” When he discussed the offer with his close friend and tentmate Charles Morse, Shaw, according to Duncan, wondered whether the position might be ridiculed, doubted that blacks would enlist, and questioned the fighting ability of black troops.” (p. 23) Clearly Shaw’s decision to change his mind and accept the offer was influenced by his mother who, after learning of his initial refusal, wrote her son: “Well! I feel as if God had called you up to a Holy work. You helped him at a crisis when the most important question is to be solved that has been asked since the world began. I know the task is arduous…but it is God’s work.” (p. 24) Could this more complicated story have been portrayed in the movie?

The next comparison concerns the training of the 54th Reidville, Massachusetts. While it is a minor issue, the 54th was not in camp over Christmas. Indeed, Camp Meigs did not open for training for the 54th until February 21, 1863. There are a number of aspects of the recruiting and training of the 54th that need to be contrasted with the movie’s portrayal. First, while the majority of black soldiers were former slaves (as shown in the movie), this simply was not the case with the 54th. To raise this unit a massive and expensive effort was conducted to attract northern free blacks. While most of these free blacks were not as well educated as Shaw’s boyhood friend Thomas, they surely were not runaways. Second, the 54th was one of the best-equipped northern units from its very foundation. Duncan reveals, “Shaw did what he could to insure the comfort of his men.” (p. 32). In contrast to the movie, Shaw ensured that the regimental quartermaster, Lt. John Ritchie, met the needs of the troops. After all, as Governor Andrew’s “model” regiment, their every need was considered and met. Indeed, they did not sleep four to a tent as in the movie but occupied ten wooden barracks. Third, if the unit suffered under cruel training, if was not inflicted on them by an Irish drill sergeant, but Shaw himself. Duncan describes how in “an effort to prevent ridicule and instill discipline,” that Shaw went too far. For a minor disturbance Shaw put the offenders in the guard house, in chains, and worse. When men quarreled with officers, Shaw threatened them with death. He forced some men to stand on barrels for hours. Others were gagged and had their hands and feet bound with their arms stretched around heavy sticks.” Indeed, even the camp commandant called this punishment “contrary” to what the army permitted, thought they never included flogging as shown in the movie. Significantly, the commandant “ordered Shaw to stop all ‘severe and unusual punishment not laid down by regulations.’” A fourth difference with the movie was that while Shaw made sure his mother never heard him use racist speech, clearly to his close friends his tone was much different as he referred to his recruits at this time as “niggers” and darkeys.” (p. 35) Still, it should be noted that there is no question that as the training of the 54th passed that, as Duncan notes, “Shaw became attached to his men and defended them strongly against outside abuse.” He had been forced by their actions to question, then conquer, his own misconceptions.” Duncan adds, “As Shaw changed, he won the respect of his men…. Shaw still wondered what they might do when they reached the battlefield, but he finally stopped calling them niggers.” (p. 35)

The next critical comparison between the movie and the reality of the 54th concerns the Darien Raid. In some ways this story took place just as the movie showed, with important differences. There is no doubt that Shaw was not happy when Colonel James Montgomery ordered the 54th to join his unit and burn Darien. According to Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44). Shaw surely was concerned about the negative publicity that might emerge from the event that, in fact, was reported in northern and southern newspapers. What is not brought out in the movie is that Montgomery was acting on orders from General David Hunter. Indeed, it was not Shaw’s threat to expose Hunter’s personal expropriation of southern property that got Shaw and the 54th released from Hunter’s command. In fact, President Lincoln at this time replaced Hunter—not because he was acting in an illegal fashion to feather himself financially, but because of his intense vindictiveness toward the South. It should also be noted that while Shaw clearly spoke out against what happened at Darien that in his accommodations in the Sea Islands he, according to Duncan, “added its furnishings with accent pieces from Darien. (p. 46)This ambiguity about Darien extended into Shaw’s feelings about Montgomery. For example, when writing to his wife Annie on June 12, 1863, just after the Darien raid, Shaw declared, “Montgomery from what I have seen of him, is a conscientious man, and really believes what he says,–‘that he is doing his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability.’” Two weeks later Shaw described Montgomery to his mother as “being a very simple-minded man—and seems to be pleased at any little attention—perhaps because he has been so much abused. You will see that he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a fancy to him.” Besides showing Shaw’s fuller relationship to Montgomery, the movie ignores the fact that Montgomery also later participated in the assault on Fort Wagner. Of course, this is because the movie falsely suggests that Montgomery was linked to Hunter’s supposed financial misdeeds. Thus, Montgomery cannot also be united with Shaw in some more noble effort as the attack on Fort Wagner is portrayed.

As far as the assault on Wagner, the movie is pretty accurate. Yes, it incorrectly has the assault coming from the wrong direction, but that really is not essential. Further, it is true that because the 54th had fought so effectively at James Island days before that it won the admiration of the white Federal troops to the extent that it did march through thirteen white Federal regiments, many of whom cheered. Yes, Shaw gave some letters to Edward Pierce the newspaper correspondent before the assault. And yes, Shaw led the assault and was killed largely as shown in the movie. However, unlike in the movie, not all of the 600 men of the 54th were killed—though 272 killed, wounded or captured is surely a significant share for a single engagement. It should be noted that another 1,200 Federal white troops were also killed, wounded or captured at Wagner. Finally, it is true that the Confederate commander at Wagner ordered Shaw’s body to be thrown into a ditch with his dead black comrades as an insult. When Shaw’s parents learned of this act his father wrote Edward Pierce that they could hope for “no holier place” for their son’s body. Indeed, one month later after Wagner fell, they told the Union commander not to move Shaw’s body.


Following the movie the class began a discussion of memory and the process by which this story was forgotten in place of a narrative that emphasized reconciliation and reunion.  I ask the students to pay careful attention to the scene that takes place right before the assault on Wagner between Trip and Shaw.  Shaw asks Trip to carry the regimental colors in the upcoming fight which he refuses to do.  At one point in the exchange Trip asks his commander what the men of the regiment stand to gain from this war.  The second scene takes place right before the final attack when Shaw approaches the Harpers reporter and says, "Remember what you see here."  It is a perfect line to set us up for a discussion that involves the gradual removal of African Americans from the national narrative as well as the beginning of Jim Crow.  We used an article by David Blight which appeared in North and South Magazine back in April 2003 to get the discussion off the ground.