Connecting With Confederate Dead

Last Friday I took my Civil War class on a little field trip over to a cemetery at the University of Virginia.  The cemetery contains the remains of roughly 1,900 Confederate soldiers who died in one of the hospitals here In Charlottesville during the war.  It was a perfect day for a walk.  The cemetery contains a statue of a Confederate soldier that sits atop a pedestal which includes the names of the men by state and regiment.  The cemetery itself is a bit deceiving as there are only a small number of headstones spread around the field.  It is difficult to explain why specific stones were placed, but my guess is that at some point after the war either individual families or organizations raised the funds for the marker.  The funds for the statue (which was forged in New York) and pedestal were raised by the Ladies Memorial Association and dedicated in 1893.

I gathered the class around the statue, provided a bit of background of the site and then passed out a sheet with a few questions.  Students were expected to spend some time to think about each question and choose an individual marker for further reflection.

Question 1. In your opinion, what was the intention of the sculptor of the monument; what message was he trying to convey?  Do you think he was successful?  Why or why not?  What features of the monument stand out?  Be specific.  Student Response: “He was trying to give the Confederate soldiers their own share of glory. Fate he said, did not grant them victory – it is a distinction between ‘they gave up on their cause, their side’ and ‘they were beaten honorably’ – he succeeds in giving the confederates honor, from the inscription to the proud soldier on top of the monument.

2. What name would you give to this monument?  Explain. Student Response: “Eternal Glory,” “Courageous Confederate,” “Honorable Confederate,” “The Last Stand”

3. Find one of the smaller grave markers.  Based on the information given, what can you infer about the indivudial buried?  What additional questions would you like to have answered?  Student Response: (1)”John Barlow died at age 33.  At that age he probably had a family. I wonder if is family has ever visited him.” (2) “He was clearly an old man when he died, and his old age may have contributed to the injuries he sustained on the battlefield.  I would be interested to know why he fought at such an old age.” [Thomas Jefferson Caulley was 60 when he died]

4. How do you feel about what you have seen? Student Response: (1) “Conflict between feeling really reverent for the dead soldiers and knowing that they fought for the Confederacy. Most of the soldiers are so young.” (2) “I feel like I have alot more respect for those who fought bravely for what they believed in.” (3) “Kind of weird that I am standing on hundreds of people who died in the Civil War.  I caught myself picturing the people.”  (4) “It makes the war really come to life.  Many people died for the cause.”

My hope is that this exercise at least presents an opportunity for students to empathize with some aspect of the site.  At one point I asked the students to join me in one corner of the cemetery to talk about one particular gravestone.  It is the marker for Private John L. Lanford who served in Co. K, 5th South Carolina Infantry.  He was only 16 when he was wounded at First Bull Run and brought to Charlottesville.  The age is significant given that most of my students are older.  We spent some time thinking about this young man’s life and they shared their own thoughts about what it might have been like to be alone and far from home.

The last question above is meant to force students to feel as oppose to thinking about the past.  I don’t think we emphasize the emotions enough in the classroom, including our ability to sympathize and empathize.  [Hugo Schwyzer blogged about the place of the emotions in his classroom.]  Part of this is the strict distinction that many maintain between the emotions and reason.  The emotions tend to be downplayed as states that happen to us rather than something we control.  On my view this is a false dichotomy, at least that is what cognitive scientists have been telling us in recent years  The emotions include significant content and provide relevant information for serious reflection about the past.

Providing these experiences for students is important as it is more likely to lead to a long-term interest in the subject compared with life in the classroom.  It also allows them to build an emotional connection to the past.  And its a pretty cool way to spend time with a bunch of interesting kids.

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7 comments… add one
  • Michael Aubrecht Sep 14, 2006 @ 16:27

    I understand completely Kevin and that is why you are such a good teacher and I don’t teach. The objective-balance that an educator brings is certainly what the school system is all about – imparting knowledge, presenting both points of view – and allowing the students to make their own opinions. My class would be called “Confederate heroes and some damn Yankees too 101” and that wouldn’t work at all for an SOL test. 🙂

  • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2006 @ 10:11

    Michael, — Thanks for the kind words about my room. Indeed it is a pleasant environment to spend the day with my students. As to your comment re: honor and the cause I’m not sure I agree. As a historian I am not inclined to concern myself with acknowledging some overall moral property of those who served in Confederate or even Union ranks for that matter. My job is to try to the best of my ability to understand what motivated soldiers to serve and remain in the ranks – among other questions. That said, I do find it easy to empathize with certain groups more easily than others. Perhaps I will post something on this in the future. The question of whether Confederate soldiers were honorable is not a historical question, but a personal one.

  • Michael Aubrecht Sep 14, 2006 @ 8:55

    Great comments everyone. And I agree with both of your insights. I guess it has been my experience that people tend to be more “biased” in regards to the Civil War based on their geographic location. Kids are often the most biased of all and that was what prompted my comment. I have personally experienced both sides of this as I grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Virginia when I was 22. There is a distinct difference to the way the War Between the States was presented to me in PA vs. VA. In regards to the Cause, there were some very good points, and some very bad points to the Confederacy, but I think we can all agree that the men that fought under its banner deserve honor regardless of how one may feel about their administration’s political motives. BTW Kevin: Your classroom is awesome. It’s certainly not like the rooms we had when I was growing up.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2006 @ 15:11

    Thanks for the comment Michael. First, I don’t know if I agree that there is more animosity directed at the Confederacy in the North. In fact, I would assume that the Lost Cause version of the war is alive and well in most sections of the country as opposed to an “emancipationist” perspective. I am also not sure whether I would characterize a response that questions the ethical/moral basis of Confederate service as anything negative. In other words, why is her response necessarily construed as “Anti-Confederate”? Perhaps I am not understanding your question. Most of my students are not native to Virginia; many of them are connected to the university which is constantly recycling. Finally, and in response to the experience of your daughter, all I can say is that balance is crucial. Whether or not one must balance Tubman, Douglass, and others with Lee, Jackson, and Stuart is another story.

    Brooks, — Thanks for the link. I pointed the link out to my students before we started today. We are reading Bill Freehling’s article on Virginia’s secession and they seem to be enjoying it.

    Stephen, — I assume you speak for a great many people.

  • Stephen Keating Sep 13, 2006 @ 14:22

    In the end, the question comes back to, can you admire the person while not agreeing with their cause? For some this is not possible, as the cause shaped the person. For some, one does not lead to the other. Nature or Nuture. Having read alot of military history, I can make the difference. I can admire the professionalism of the German Army, without admiring how it was used. That does not mean one should not question motives, but recognize that a person’s best efforts can be mis-used. As with the Confederat cemetaries and the battle flag, one can (and should) object to what they are used for, without dishonoring the people or things. And one can honor them, without agreeing to what others say they stand for.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 13, 2006 @ 13:15

    I wonder what your students would make of this in light of their visit:

  • Michael Aubrecht Sep 13, 2006 @ 10:25

    Kevin, I think your approach to teaching history and the use of field trips are wonderful. Presenting information in a classroom environment is one thing, but getting out of the building and actually “touching” the people, places and things that you are covering has to give your students an education that goes way beyond textbooks and pop quizzes. I have a couple observations (one from your post and one from my own child’s curricula) that I wanted to get your take on.

    First, one of your student’s responses stated that they felt a: “Conflict between feeling really reverent for the dead soldiers and knowing that they fought for the Confederacy.” That’s a GREAT answer by the way.

    I’ve heard this myself, many times before (when talking to some teachers here in Fredericksburg) and I find it perplexing (and a little disturbing) that Virginians would have this type of “anti-Confederate sentiment”. That sounds like something you are more likely to hear up north where the Confederacy is often vilified. There seems to be a decline in regards to the pride and respect for the “hometeam” (for severe lack of a better term – I apologize) among students? Do you find this to be true?

    Also, I noticed in my one daughters’ curriculum (4th Grade VA history) it seems like the syllabus is too one-sided and “trying too hard to overcompensate” by only touching on the causes of the Civil War, and then moving on to in-depth studies of famous black Virginians. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but when 5 out of the 5 people listed are black, it seems like the school is trying to “make-up” for teaching the slavery issue, by glossing over it and then focusing on the Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglasses of the world. Now don’t get me wrong, they are GREAT role models to study, but I wonder (at the risk of sounding racist) where are the Robert E. Lees, or Stonewall Jacksons? Don’t they deserve to be covered just as much as these famous African-Americans? Therefore, on some level, I feel like the curriculum is intentionally catering to a politically-correct “minority-agenda” instead of just teaching VA history. Have you any insight on that?

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