Category Archives: Teaching

Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

This is my fourth year teaching the Civil War course and as all of you know I thoroughly enjoy it.  When I planned the first year I was very concerned about the balance between battle coverage and broader political, cultural, and social issues.  Basically, I was concerned that teaching a course on the Civil War in the heart of Virginia would bring young boys with a voracious appetite for the Lost Cause and the kind of battlefield coverage that I am not qualified or even comfortable teaching.  In yesterday’s post Hugo Schwyzer briefly touched on this tension in reference to his own Western Civilization course:

In my survey courses, I do very little military history.  In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example.  But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want.  Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae!  I’ve noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.

What is interesting to me is that most of my students in this class over the past four years have not pushed or questioned the amount of straight-forward military history in the class.  I’ve never had a student come to my office and complain that I didn’t do justice to Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville or Meade’s defense at Gettysburg.  Since this course is structured thematically we tend to touch on broader issues over time rather than a strict chronological approach.  For example, last week we talked about the broader issue of emancipation and the Federal government’s steps towards the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Seven Days’ Battles and the battle of Antietam were discussed in this context, but were not covered in any serious detail apart from their connection to the transition from "Limited" to "Hard War," emancipation, and foreign recognition.  Even our trip to the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is fast approaching and will be focused heavily on the realities of battle, will also be used to address a whole host of issues beyond the battlefield. 

To be honest, I don’t think my students really care about the kinds of things that drive most Civil War enthusiasts.  The "Lee To The Rear" accounts simply fail to stir.  I remember once during that first year where I gave a fairly detailed lecture about the actual battle of Antietam.  Now, I should say that I am a pretty good lecturer, especially when I am discussing something that I care about.  By the middle of the class at least 75% of the students had lost focus or had that look of complete despair.  This doesn’t mean that military history is ignored – far from it.  What it does mean, however, is that at least in my class the battles and campaigns must be connected to the bigger issues of the war.  So, I tend to agree with Hugo’s bold comment in reference to the balance between religion, gender, social history (I should also add politics) and battle tactics.  And I also make no apologies for it.

This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond.  The museum’s debut was last weekend and the reviews thus far have been generally positive.  I spent about three hours and had a chance to take everything in, including all three movies that define three distinct spaces: the cause of the war, the war on the home front, and the war’s legacy.  Throughout the exhibit area the visitor is introduced to three interpretations which follow how the war was interpreted by the Union, Confederacy, and African-Americans. 

Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretation of the Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting.  The list of historical advisers clearly exercised a great deal of influence over the content of the films as well as the narrative that accompanies each artifact and other technical exhibits.  What we have is an interpretation that anyone familiar with recent trends in Civil War historiography will easily recognize.  This makes for an exhibit that is challenging as visitors are forced to draw certain distinctions and perspectives that are not readily familiar.  The first section of the exhibit which focuses on the history of the nations from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Lincoln’s election includes an excellent video which explores the role of slavery.  At the beginning viewers are asked to vote on the cause of the war by pressing one of four buttons on the seat’s armrest.  The choices are: (1) Federal v. States Rights, (2) Economic/Cultural Differences, (3)  Westward Expansion, or (4) Slavery.  Surprisingly slavery came out ahead of the other three.  With the help of three narrators the video explores the first three options by examining how each revolved around slavery.  By the end slavery can be seen in all of its complexity and stands out as the most important issue on the national scene by the mid-1850′s. 

The second section takes you through the first shots and begins the process of exploring the complex relationship between the battlefield, home front, and slavery.  A second video does a fantastic job of explaining the conditions on the ground between the lack of success for Union armies in the East and especially the actions of fugitive slaves as factors that explain Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Slaves are considered as full actors and the Proclamation is explained as a document that was responsible for nothing less than the "transformation of American society."  Again, the interpretation here fits perfectly into recent studies of the war in 1862-63 and Lincoln’s own journey to this important decision.  The narrative tends towards realism and makes it a point to keep the viewer focused on the military necessity behind Lincoln’s decision and the initiative taken by the slaves themselves.  The video also introduces the viewer to the introduction to U.S.C.T.’s who "seized the opportunity to fight" and began the long process of "making America One National for All."

The one film that I had trouble understanding was called, "The War Comes Home: 1863" which attempts to explain – as best one can – the emotional and material price of the war on the home front.  The video is narrated by a generic character who never identifies himself as Northern or Southern, but does a fairly good job imparting an "everyman" image.   The video focuses specifically on 1863 and begins with a brief history of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Vicksburg before connecting these events to the Richmond Bread Riots and the New York City Draft Riots.  These are important events, but the narration and images fail in its attempt to bring the connection to light.  The video ends with coverage of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner, which only complicated things for me further.  If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion: I would have concentrated on one battle or campaign such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg and explored how large-scale conflicts that took place in populated areas impacted the local economy and the population.  In the case of Gettysburg the additional themes of the Army of Northern Virginia’s steps to capture escaped slaves could have been added to the mix.  The jumping from Richmond to New York to Charleston left no time to do justice to this important interpretive strand of the exhibit. 

Overall, the artifacts are clearly explained and also bare the mark of recent scholarship.  One of the best examples of this is the order authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into Confederate armies in March 1865.  There is no reference to the presence of large numbers of black soldiers; the narrative is limited strictly to the events surrounding the document.  Included are three passages from white Southerners who were clearly troubled by the prospects of black recruitment.  No reputable historian has demonstrated the presence of significant numbers of black Confederates so there is no place for it in this exhibit.  There is a wonderful little space for children which includes some hands on activities that are quite thoughtful.  One activity asks children to think and write about how we communicate with loved ones away at war today and another activity involves deciding what kinds of things should be sent in a basket to soldiers at the front.

The final section of the exhibit concentrates on the legacy of the Civil War.  There is a video that explores elements of the Lost Cause and the gradual displacement of the "emancipationist" interpretation of the war for one that achieved wide exposure and a general consensus.  While Reconstruction is referenced as a time of hope the harsh realities of Jim Crow are not lost on the audience.  However, between a reference to the long march between the "Civil War and Civil Rights" and a wall that is covered with images from the twentieth century, the viewer is left with a sense of optimism that our founding ideals are alive and a more complete appreciation still within reach.  The narrator suggests that to think about the legacy of the war is not just to think about "forts and reenactments, but a better understanding of what the war means."

With so much to praise, however, I do have a few concerns.  First, I found it difficult to follow the military history of the war.  Large maps that track each year of the war were clear reference points, but there was a lack of focus on major battles apart from their connection to the exhibit’s other interpretive strands.  I am especially concerned that this is going to be a problem for visitors who are expecting a heavy dose of battlefield interpretation.  Unfortunately, there are relatively few artifacts to view.  Perhaps this will change, but it does reinforce my earlier point that this is an intellectually demanding museum.  I’ve said it on this blog countless times, most Civil War enthusiasts are not interested in the complex issues related to race, slavery or the home front.  I wonder whether the museum runs the risk of alienating those groups.  Time will tell and I am willing to admit that these concerns may be entirely misplaced. 

On a more serious note I will not be surprised to read that certain groups, especially heritage groups, are not satisfied with the heavy emphasis on race.  At almost every turn the visitor is confronted with videos about race and their volume guarantees that while walking talk of fugitive slaves, emancipation, and U.S.C.T.’s will remain constant companions.  Again, time will tell, but the ongoing opposition to the NPS’s interpretive revisions is a sufficient reason in and of itself to be concerned.  I am pleased to see such a strong emphasis on education and outreach at Tredegar; this should be their focus as young Americans provide the most important vehicle for sharing a broader and more meaningful interpretation of the Civil War.  [I was pleased to learn that my friend Jim Alperston has been awarded the museum's first annual Samuel L. Gravely award for excellence in teaching the Civil War. Jim is an energetic teacher who includes multiple battlefield and museum visits in his Civil War curriculum.]

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner, I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall quality of the ACW Museum at Tredegar.  The location of the exhibit inside one of the Tredegar buildings is ideal and its proximity to the James River, Belle Isle, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the rest of downtown Richmond makes a trip all the more worthwhile.  I encourage all of you to visit and/or support in any way possible.  Oh….and did I mention that I bought a Lincoln bobblehead in the museum store?

White Guilt In The Classroom

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration.  When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white.  He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race.  I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do.  We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.

As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment.  Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass.  For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it.  I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another. 

Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear.  I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history.  Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community.  Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history.  In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign". 

The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story.  While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable.  As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable.  A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted.  And all of this took place in a slave society.  I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it.  Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery.  You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga. 

There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students.  They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms.  I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year.  As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off.  I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt.  The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past.  If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom. 

Gay-Straight Alliance on Campus

Not too long ago I commented on homophobia on high school campuses and my own thoughts about how to approach the issue on my own campus.  Well, I am pleased to report that this morning I attended the second meeting of the St. Anne’s – Belfield chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance.  We had ten students and four faculty members in attendance.  The group has already crafted a mission statement and even better, we are working on two programs.   The group is organizing sessions for Middle School students about the language of homophobia and the consequences of its use on campus.  In the Upper School we are planning to use one of our school forums (which take place on Thursdays to discuss issues related to school and world news) to discuss homophobia and the purpose of this new student-led group.

I felt energized sitting there with the students and teachers listening to their concerns and plans for the group.  I view homophobia as on par with the same kind of ignorance and hatred that define racism and working with these young people gives me hope that change is possible. 

One Of Those Nice Surprises

One of the benefits of living and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia is the contact with people who have a family connection to the Civil War.  Here at my school we have direct descendants of both Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.  Although Rodes is notorious owing to the burning of his letters by his wife, I was able to spend a few weeks looking through a large scrapbook that was compiled by his sister during and after the war. 

A couple of days ago one of my students in the Civil War class commented that her family had an ancestor who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, and would I like to see what they have.  I think it’s safe to say that every serious Civil War historian lives to hear those few words.  It conjures up images of untapped primary source material and the possibility that something truly important may be revealed.  Well, yesterday she brought the material in and while it is not going to shake-up the Civil War community it is a nice find nonetheless.  The packet included the muster and parole papers for Private John Y. Reily of Company K, 16th Mississippi Regiment, Harris’s Brigade.  He was wounded three times during the war at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Drewry’s Bluff before being taken prisoner on April 2, 1865. 

In the 1880′s Reily wrote a wonderful account of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg outside of Petersburg.  The language is vintage Lost Cause:

Of the 250 men of all arms in the fort, less than fifty lined up as prisoners, and only five of those men unwounded.  Talk of Sebastopol, Thermopylae, and Gettysburg, while all were glorious and sublime, yet their luster is paled when compared with the inconceivable courage displayed in the last bloody defense of Fort Gregg.  The proudest heritage that I can hope to leave to my posterity is that I am a Confederate Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immortal Robert E. Lee, and that I was one of the few defenders of Fort Gregg.

In addition to his memoir and papers, Reily left a very short autobiographical account written one year before his death in 1925 and there is a lengthy obituary from a Louisiana newspaper.  I also have a 20-page account of Fort Gregg that Reily’s grandson researched.  All in all a nice find and a worthwhile addition to my own growing collection of primary sources.