Teaching the Civil War

A few months ago I was asked to put together a panel on teaching the Civil War for the Society of Civil War Historian’s June 2008 conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Today I was notified that the panel will indeed be included in the conference program.

Session Title: "Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom"

Chair: Professor Joan Waugh, UCLA

Commentator: Ronald Maggiano, West Springfield High School and George Mason University

Session Description: Between 2011 and 2015 much of the country will have an opportunity to mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Questions about slavery, secession, emancipation, and the outcome of military engagements will be hotly debated within both the scholarly community and general public.  The shape of these debates will tell us much about how the general public continues to choose to remember some of the most salient aspects of the war years and beyond.  This panel will address ways to introduce questions of memory and the selective uses of history into the high school classroom. The presenters seek to provide high school students with the analytical skills that can be used to uncover and better understand how memory of the war has been constructed and how it continues to be reinforced in film and in public spaces. Levin’s presentation examines the popular film documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns and its continued influence on our collective beliefs surrounding Robert E. Lee, Lincoln and emancipation, and reunion at Appomattox Court House. Percoco’s presentation explores the ways that Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience and public memory.


Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s – Belfeild School

Title: "Using Ken Burns’s The Civil War in the Classroom"

Abstract: When it aired in 1990 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted by the powerful images, sounds, and narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote and other noteworthy Civil War scholars – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be used in history courses on the high school level. All too often the film is presented as historical fact rather than interpretation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaged in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the sights and sounds come together to tell a coherent story. More importantly, students fail to see the film as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular culture and often guarded as sacred. This presentation will focus on ways in which Burns’ film can be utilized, alongside other primary and secondary sources, to engage history students in critical thought. In doing so this presentation will focus on three moments in the film, including Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army and align himself with Virginia in April 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Utilizing The Civil War in a comparative fashion highlights for students both the film’s interpretive strengths and shortcomings as historical narrative. More importantly, it engages students in broader questions of how our Civil War has been remembered and why.

James Percoco, West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia

Title: "Monumental Memories of the Sixteenth President"

Abstract: There are more statues to Abraham Lincoln in the United States than any other secular figure. A recent survey of the Inventory of American Sculpture, Smithsonian Institution list 600 monuments to American presidents found on the national landscape, of that number one-third are erected to the memory of the Sixteenth President. Many of them are competent works of art, while others are out and out duds, but a handful of these Lincoln’s in marble and bronze are important works of art meriting a place in American cultural and social history. These handful of monuments shaped part of Lincoln’s legacy serving not only physical constructs of portraiture, but also as devices which interpret the life of Abraham Lincoln, within the context of the time in which they were created and dedicated. Seven specific monuments erected between 1876 and 1932 speak to various phases and themes of Lincoln iconography; the Great Emancipator, the Great Statesman, Man of Sorrows and Compassion, and the Common Man. All of them were created by America’s foremost sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Gutzon Borglum, George Grey Barnard, James Earle Fraser, Paul Manship, and Thomas Ball. Huge and elaborate dedication ceremonies were held for each monument, bringing together, in some instances, veterans of the Blue and the Gray, as well as giants of American Arts and Letters. Jim Percoco will demonstrate how these Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience, public memory, American civil religion, historical interpretation, and the selective uses of history, within the context Abraham Lincoln.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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