Category Archives: Teaching

That All Important Personal Connection To The Past

Many of you know that my Civil War elective is structured in part as a research seminar.  In addition to reading a wide range of secondary sources on important interpretive debates my students write research papers using the Valley of the Shadow.  We are just beginning the process of narrowing topics and formulating questions that will guide each student through the collection of primary sources.  One of my students lives in Augusta County and has the last name of Hanger.  I’ve come across the name before in the course of my own research on the Valley, and was pleased to learn that this student is connected to that larger family which traces their history back into the antebellum period.  Family members have been politically active at both the county and state levels throughout much of Virginia’s history.  When we started this student thought that she might research her family, but was unsure as to whether the amount of information on the family would be sufficient for a research essay.  Well, we did a few searches and the results are truly amazing.  Here is the census report and slave census report for 1860.  Here is just a small sample of the letters authored by Hangers plus a diary by Michael Reid Hanger. There are many more letters which mention various Hangers both during and after the war.  Finally, here are the soldier’s records for the Hanger family.

This student has decided to focus on James Edward Hanger who lost his leg in July at Phillipi and is reportedly the first amputation of the war.  Here is his service record and report in the Staunton Vindicator of his wounding.  Within three months he had invented the first artifical limb modeled on the human leg and hinged at the knee. Hanger constructed factories in Staunton and Richmond, and after WWI he built branches in France and England. On 15 June 1919 he died and was buried in Washington, D.C., his home since 1906.  Today Hanger Prosthetics continues the work begun by James Edward Hanger.

I guess you can sense that I am very excited about this student’s project.  We were both surprised by the amount of information we found; what is presented above is a small sample.  At one point I was tempted to ask the class if they would be interested in focusing on the Hanger family, but soon realized that this was more about my own interests rather than any concern for what they might be interested in researching.  Luckily this is a student who has a very serious interest in the Civil War and now in her own family’s role in that war.  I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Thinking About Eyes On The Prize

Some of you are no doubt watching the wonderful Civil Rights Documentary Eyes on the Prize which is airing this week on PBS.  I’ve watched it a number of times and have used segments in the classroom, but every time I view it I am transfixed by the images and especially the interviews.  Last night included segments on the Lunch Counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides [I highly recommend Ray Arsenault's new study of the Freedom Rides which was released last year by Oxford Press.]  New Kid on the Hallway offers a nice summation of my own thinking when it comes to understanding the Southern white perspective:

Total non sequitur, naive white liberal guilt variety: I’m watching Eyes on the Prize, and it just kills me to watch a bunch of smug white people – which, in general, is a group to which I belong – cheerfully defending their resistance to civil rights as if such resistance is absolutely natural and right. The scary thing is that to them, it was. They’re so cheery about it because they’re so secure in this belief that they can’t even take the contrary seriously. It always scares me to think, if I had grown up in the south during the period of Jim Crow – would I have supported segregation? I mean, if I’d been taught from childhood that it was “right” and “natural” that people of different races should live separately, how much would it have taken to convince me otherwise? Because there were plenty of evil, evil people who supported segregation. But I’m sure there were plenty of ordinary, reasonably good people who did, too, just because it was the way it had always been, and they probably thought that if that was the case, there must have been a reason for it.

And you know, none of this happened very long ago.

When I watch those interviews I almost want to reach into the television and shake those people into my world or what I assume is some semblance of rationality and understanding.  The challenge, of course, is to appreciate that white Southerners (“ordinary, reasonably good people”) were working through new and difficult experiences based on their own racial assumptions and a Jim Crow legal system that was taken for granted.  In short, what they considered reasonable or rational.  New Kid highlights what for me is the moral backdrop of my own interest in reading and researching the past, and that is the role of luck.  We need to be reminded that much of what goes into our “selves” or personalities involves a set of conditions that we have no control over, including when, where, and to whom we are born.  History provides an arena for thinking about moral case studies that are not so removed from what we consider possible behavior once the role of luck is acknowledged.  [Psychology also provides examples, most notably Milgram's famous experiments on obedience to authority.]  Would I have supported segregation if a few conditions had been changed?  The answer is more than likely YES.  And that is why it must be understood.  Thinking about history in this way brings me closer to people that for moral reasons I am tempted to push away psychologically.  To run the risk of sounding philosophically vague, and borrowing a phrase from one of my undergraduate professors, the realization is that I AM THAT PERSON.

Gary Gallagher’s Lee

Today my class tackled an article by Gary Gallagher on the evolution of Robert E. Lee’s reputation both during and after the war.  There are a number of article-length pieces that can be used, but I stick with "When Lee Was Mortal" which was published in the Military History Quarterly (1998).  I always start with a very general question of whether the students enjoyed reading the article.  Except for one person who suggested that Gallagher repeated himself once too often, the class concluded that it was a nice blend of narrative and analysis.  We then discussed the author’s thesis; I force my students to be as clear and inclusive as possible when sketching out the scope and purpose of the article.  There was one really nice moment: As I was sketching out the thesis on the white board one of my students objected to the way I framed the argument.  She said something along the lines of, "Mr. Levin I think you missed the point."  I stepped back and asked her to clarify which she did with the help of a few classmates.  After a few minutes it was clear that I had indeed missed a crucial point.  It’s always nice when your students feel comfortable questioning your authority.

For those of you who are not familiar with Gallagher’s interpretation of Lee it is best understood as one rooted in a broad historical context.  Lee studies tend to fall in one or two categories.  The first includes those ridiculous Lost Cause/Christian Warrior sketches that give the back of their hand to any serious historical analysis.   The second concentrates on Lee the general and judges his decisions by looking specifically at the battles and campaigns.  The paradigm example of this is Alan Nolan’s critique.  Gallagher is interested in both the evolution of Lee’s reputation and the salient factors that shaped it.  It is not enough to look at the battles, according to Gallagher.  What is needed is a wider perspective that includes the expectations of white Southerners and the way in which Lee’s offensive campaigns both rallied Southern support and worked to build his reputation as a rallying point for Southern independence by the summer of 1863.  I was pleased with the overall discussion and the relative ease with which they were able to piece together why his analytical points about the integration of the battlefield and homefront in any historical analysis is so important. 

What I like about using Gallagher’s work is that his style and clarity have a tendency to "make you smart."  Click here if you would like a more detailed summary of the article that was written by one of my students last year and posted. 

Homophobia On Campus

This is a sensitive topic, but one that I’ve been wanting to comment on for some time.  I am extremely proud of my school for its hard work over the past few years to diversify our student body.  We’ve increased the numbers of students from foreign countries and other minorities from within the United States.  It makes for a much more interesting environment to work in and my class discussions have greatly improved owing to the different perspectives.  If Thomas Friedman is indeed correct that the world is becoming flatter than it is absolutely necessary that students learn how to relate and respect those with very different personal histories and cultural/religious beliefs.  We still need to do more to diversify our faculty, but I have no doubt that we will make progress.

The one area that I am still very concerned about is in the area of sexual harassment, and more specifically, the language of homophobia.  Let me start out by saying that I have no intention of getting into a discussion about whether homosexual behavior is immoral or whether it is a matter of choice.  And please don’t write me to tell me that homosexuals are condemned or welcomed by God.  I am not interested.  As to my own position I am convinced by the limited number of scientific studies that I’ve read that it is indeed "natural" and therefore the morality question is entirely misguided.  On the other hand, to reduce any individual to one category can easily be categorized as dehumanizing.  We are all complex beings and we perceive ourselves as more than our politics, race, religion, sexuality, and nationality.  [Amartya Sen explores in his latest study the pitfalls of this kind of identification in the context of nationality and religion.] In short, I don’t see any difference between our attitudes about sexuality and racial prejudices.  In fact, many of the same arguments against homosexuals were also used as justifications for Jim Crow and other racial stereotypes not too long ago.  My interests are focused on how a school community ought to handle this issue.  This post is not directed specifically at my school as I feel that schools across the country have failed to deal with this problem.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed here, both from the perspective of a school community and my role as a teacher.  I work at a school that has committed itself to educating students beyond the classroom to include character and honorable behavior.  From our "Philosophy Statement" contained in the Student Handbook:

We at St. Anne’s – Belfield believe that the transmission of knowledge, the encouragement of curiosity, the development of rational thought, and the cultivation of responsible, honorable behavior are the great ends of education. In asking students to master a specific body of knowledge, we seek not to impart knowledge alone, but to instill the lifelong habit of learning.  Although we expect our graduates to be prepared for the nation’s finest colleges and universities, our true purpose is to create a challenging yet charitable atmosphere where students gain skills necessary for both creative and disciplined thought, where they have opportunities to achieve in athletic and artistic endeavors, where they understand their responsibility as a member of a community, and where high expectations of both their personal and intellectual lives are complimented by the School’s commitment to nurturing students in the spiritual dimension of life. (my emphasis)

I wholeheartedly support this Philosophy Statement and believe that it captures the values that our faculty and staff hope to impart to our students.  As I read it, our statement commits our faculty and staff to the project of creating a safe environment where learning can take place and where students feel comfortable, protected, and respected.  I assume that this means addressing any and all problems that prevent or detract the community from attaining this broad goal.  The application of this statement seems to leave the door open for those who do believe that homosexuality is morally/religiously problematic since I assume we can agree that the security of all our students is of top priority.

How to go about addressing the problem of homophobia and its manifestations on campus, however, is not straightforward and while I am committed to addressing the assumptions that lay behind this particular set of beliefs it is not at all clear how to go about it.  If my responsibility is to educate beyond the classroom than it is not at all clear where the line is between my role and the student’s parents; notice that we probably wouldn’t even assume there is an issue here if this were about race.  We can approach this problem by considering two examples.  In one example a group of students is taunting a fellow students with inappropriate language such as "fag" or "gay."  In another example that same group of students is isolated and talking about a fellow student and using the same language.  Now I assume that it is my responsibility to intervene in the first example and take appropriate action against those students involved.  The second example, however, may not be as clear cut as there is no clear target present.  From the perspective of our Philosophy Statement, however, I do believe that action is appropriate.  First, I do not want to hear such language, and more importantly, it adds in a negative way to the overall school environment.  Failure to challenge such talk is tantamount to legitimizing it within the community.  While I favor intervention in the second example it is still unclear what the response should include.  Given my earlier concerns, am I to reprimand the students for their beliefs or the vocalizing of those beliefs on campus?  The problem is that implicit in the reprimand for vocalizing those beliefs on campus is a criticism of the content of those beliefs. 

The solution to this problem would be a very clear statement issued on behalf of the school outlining a Zero-Tolerance policy concerning sexually-harassing language of any kind.  Until then and even in lieu of I fully support the establishment of such groups as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).  These organizations offer a safe zone for students who feel intimidated or who feel that the school has not acknowledged the problem.

A GSA is a group organized and led by students to create a safe, supportive, and accepting school environment for all. What is unique about gay-straight alliances is that they are open to any student, regardless of sexual orientation, who would like to take a stand against harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Unfortunately, GSAs sometimes face opposition, mostly due to misconceptions about their mission and what occurs at their meetings (and other times, simply due to homophobia).

I think it is important to acknowledge that groups such GSA would be unnecessary if sexual identity were not such an important issue for some along with the aggressive behavior that often accompanies the language.  One can easily imagine an analogous example involving a similar organization focused not on sexual identity, but race.  My guess is that few people would have a problem if it was the case that students were being harassed for racial reasons. The other point about these organizations is that their purpose is to challenge harassment by being inclusive.  I would sponsor an organization such as GSA in a heartbeat. 

It should be clear that this post raises more questions than it answers.  And as someone who is extremely sensitive to harassment of any kind I am concerned primarily with guidance from above or a statement that reflects our position as a school community.   I am uncomfortable with having to question my role in dealing with examples of homophibia on campus.  Without a statement I remain unclear as to the extent to which my responsibility as a faculty member involves challenging student’s beliefs (apart from a statement on behalf of the school).  What doesn’t change is that I do have a responsibility to protect the interests of the student body. 

Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery

My Civil War class just finished reading and discussing a very interesting article by Chandra Manning on how slavery entered the decisions of men on both sides to enlist and remain in the ranks.  The article appeared in North and South Magazine back in 2004.  This is the second time I’ve used the article and since I blogged about the piece this past February I thought it might be appropriate to run the two-part post again.  Manning’s dissertation is set to be published in 2007 and is titled What This Cruel War Was Over.

This semester is a bit more relaxed in my Civil War class. I have four students who are all dealing with various forms of second-semester senioritis. Still, we are making progress and having some very interesting discussions. Today we started reading a recent North and South article by Chandra M. Manning titled, “Our Liberties and Institutions: What Union and Confederate Soldiers’ Thought The Civil War Was About.” (Vol. 7, No. 6) Manning’s research fits neatly into recent studies by James McPherson, Earl J. Hess, and George Rable which emphasizes the ideological convictions of Civil War soldiers. The article’s appearance in 2004 sparked a great deal of criticism, which I will touch on later. For now, it is enough to say that studies of ideology and politics within the ranks are troubling for many people outside academic circles.

Manning’s argument is best understood as a form of reductionism:

…the Civil War was nothing less than a clash between competing ideas about how Americans should interpret and enact their founding ideals. The problem, as soldiers on both sides saw it, was that the opposing section posed a threat to the practice of self-government, the principles of libert and equality,the virtue necessary to sustain a republic, and the proper balance between God, government, society, the family and the individual. At the heart of the threat, each side believed, was the other’s stance on slavery.

Manning’s argument can be characterized as reductionist owing to its tendency to interpret a range of what appear to be specific reasons for joining the ranks as an extension of one basic motivation. While both sides claimed to be fighting for freedom and their understanding of the Revolution, Confederate notions could not be divorced from “individual interests, or from slavery.” Manning provides ample evidence of how various arguments can be understood within the context of slavery. “Slavery played many roles,” according to Manning, “that nonslaveholders considered vital to themselves and their families.” (No doubt, the author is anticipating the standard response that since my great grandfather did not own slaves he did not fight to defend slavery.)

Even the argument that Confederates were defending hearth and home must be understood ultimately as a defense of slavery. Few southerners believed that the war would drag on to a point where “yankee” invaders actually penetrated into the Confederacy. Accordingly, letters including “pledges to defend home and loved ones dramatized a concept more than explained the war.” Manning concludes that Confederates were committed to defending their property as an expression of his “understanding of liberty.” Nonslaveholders did not have to own slaves to understand the necessity of its survival. Their individual freedom was guaranteed only with continued enslavement of southern blacks. The institution of slavery guaranteed ideas of liberty since it guaranteed white egalitarianism and prevented the amalgamation of the races. “Nonslaveholding Confederate soldiers fought to safeguard slavery,” according to Manning,”because they believed that survival–of themselves, their families, and social order–depended on its continued existence, and because they believed that otherwise, race posed a dangerously insoluble problem.” The survival of their families also included the hope of one day becoming a slaveowner.

Confederate soldiers also viewed slavery through the lens of religion and what they assumed was God’s divine order. Northern abolitionism reflected “heresy” and a threat to hearth and home, and according to Manning “amounted to a social earthquake that rattled every single social relation.” Arguments surrounding honor are also interpreted through the lens of slavery–as a “demonstation of authority over subordinates, including women, childeren, and African-Americans whether or not a man owned slaves.” Throughout the article Manning utilizes letters, diaries, and newspapers to support her conclusions. Her sources cover a wide spectrum of the social/economic/political spectrum. Manning’s Confederates are hyper-sensitive to slavery and are animated by a commitment to preserve the political and racial status quo.

It is easy to see why so many readers were upset with her portrayal of why Southerners went to war in 1861. What is interesting is that the letters to the editor expressed frustration over her interpretation of Confederate and not Union soldiers discussed in the article. Somehow the political convictions of Union soldiers are not as troubling as Confederate soldiers. Manning’s conclusions do not represent a step in a new direction, but it does go furthest in examining the ways in which slavery touched southern whites and their reasons for going off to war. Ultimately, the frustration over Manning’s article is more a reflection of our tendency to remember these men as fighting for values beyond the political and racial realm. In a sense, our frustration is our problem not theirs. More on Manning tomorrow.

We finished our discussion of Manning’s article on Thursday. The students generally agreed with the argument, but noticed a few places that seemed to lack sufficient evidence. In the first part of the article Manning argues that explanations of hearth and home as a reason to join Confederate ranks should be interpreted as a concern with property and livelihood which connected directly to the preservation of slavery. My students thought that while Manning may be right they felt that the conclusion went too far beyond the evidence she provided. In other words, they wanted more proof.

We spent some time trying to make sense of Manning’s claim that while many Union soldiers were “abolitionized” by direct encounters with slavery in the South this “did not necessarily mean support for racial equality.” (James McPherson emphasizes the growing commitment to abolition among Union soldiers in his, For Cause and Comrades.) Manning goes on to emphasize that “white Union soldiers strove mightily to keep the issue of slavery and race separate.” This is a difficult distinction for students to grasp as they assume that one’s view of slavery and race is one and the same.

Perhaps the most controversial claim that Manning makes is that while Union soldiers identified in numerous ways with the nation as a whole, Confederates were routinely distracted by more local concerns such as the conscription bill, taxes, and impressment. This distinction is not designed to make a point about whether Southerners forged bonds of nationalism, but to emphasize that it was the preservation of slavery that could and did unite them. “Potential conflicts between personal interests and Confederate necessities were troubling, but resolvable,” argues Manning, “as long as Confederate troops remembered that the Union meant abolition, and abolition was worse than anything even the most disappointing Confederacy would impose.” And it is a short jump to the debate over black Confederates. Confederates could not fathom the recruitment of black soldiers given their commitment to white supremacy. Manning’s short analysis compliments the much more thorough interpretation by Bruce Levine in Confederate Emancipation. She is correct in noting that the proposed enlistment of only 25% of black male slaves between 18 and 45 was designed to guarantee that slavery would continue; this was not a debate over the future of the institution. The Union army’s decision to enlist black soldiers served to unite Confederates because they understood that it meant-nothing less than the leveling of the racial hierarchy. My research on Confederate reactions to black Union soldiers at the Crater confirms this beyond any doubt. (See my upcoming article on just this topic in the magazine America’s Civil War.)

I look forward to reading Manning’s dissertation in book form. It is sure to spark debate, not with academics who understand the centrality of slavery to the war, but with many lay readers who continue to imagine or wish for a sanitized narrative.