New Course: Civil War Memory

It’s that time of the year again when I have to decide what courses to teach next fall.  We are moving to a trimester schedule which will present a number of challenges relating to the amount of material which can be covered.  I thought about teaching the Lincoln course once again, but decided against it given the number of students who will have already read William Gienapp’s biography in the survey course.  I also played around with a course centered on the history of children, which would use Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.  In the end I decided on a survey course on the Civil War in the first trimester and a course on memory in the second.  Students will be encouraged to register for both classes and should prove to be quite an experience given the amount and range of material which can be covered between the two courses.  Keep in mind that this is a rough description and outline.  Feel free to offer suggestions and remember that this is an elective for high school students.

Course Description for Civil War Memory

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961.  Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans.   This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture.  We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory.  Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces.  We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square.  Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia.  Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.


Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, reprint, 1998).

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2004).

[Additional readings will be made available by the instructor.]

Outline [very rough]:

Week 1: Early commemorations and Reconstruction
Week 2: Competing Memories of the War
Week 3: The Soldiers’ Memory
Week 4: Americans Remember Lee, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant
Week 5: Black Americans Remember in the Jim Crow Era
Week 6: Reconciliation and Reunion at Gettysburg
Week 7: The Civil Rights Movement and Civil War Centennial
Week 8: The Civil War in Film
Week 9: The Civil War in Art and Reenacting
Week 10: Displaying the Confederate flag and other public controversies

12 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 29, 2008 @ 7:06

    Hi John, — Welcome back. No, I didn’t seriously consider Reardon’s book though I am a big fan of it. I am going to focus on the remembrance of battles and may use an article-length piece by her in an edited volume.

  • John Maass May 29, 2008 @ 6:47

    Did you consider using Carol Reardon’s book on Pickett’s Charge?

  • Craig Feb 3, 2008 @ 21:13

    Based upon my experience I would say there is also an element of the subconscious at work in the phrase “felt memory”. Freud employed repressed memories as the mainspring or central mechanism for his theory of the unconscious mind. Customarily it’s been assumed that repressed memories involve sex, but in tracing my family history I’m finding that many of my repressed memories can be traced to the Civil War. For instance, I have a distinct memory of waiting at a train station when I was about three with my mother and two sisters, watching the train pull into the station with my dad aboard. I lived in Lawrence, Kansas at the time. My dad was returning from his mother’s funeral in Wisconsin and on the return trip he had stopped in St. Louis for an orientation with his new employer, the Veteran’s Administration, after passing his orals for a doctorate in clinical psychology. The orientation was held at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. I learned through my research during the past five years that my great great grandfather died in the Civil War and is buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. It was news to my dad when I told him about it. He had an older sister who died last year at the age of 90. I received an e-mail from her about six months before she passed. She knew that her great grandfather died in the Civil War, but my dad, ten years younger than his sister, learned about it from me.

  • Kevin Feb 3, 2008 @ 10:10

    Terry, — I’ve already used the articles by Berry, Manning, Carmichael, and I should add, Mitchell. They are perfect for the classroom.

  • Terry Feb 3, 2008 @ 10:07


    Sounds good. Re: a civil war soldier class, you’d definitely be able to pull reading material from N&S. In fact, you might be able to build the bulk of your reading list with its articles (just off the top of my head, articles by Chandra Manning, Michael Bennett, Steve Berry, Pete Carmichael, and Andy Coopersmith would work well). I’d gladly help you comb through past issues for ideas if you decide to move forward with such a class.

    I hope you won’t be moving totally away from the Civil War! I know plenty of folks who have CW burnout. They move on, never to return. Say it ain’t so.


  • Kevin Feb 3, 2008 @ 9:35

    Hi Terry – Nice to hear from you. Most of the readings will be pulled from magazines such as N&S as well as other secondary studies. Cullen’s book is definitely on my short list.

    I’ve actually thought about doing a class entirely on Civil War soldiers. I will probably move away from the Civil War after next year and do the class on children and perhaps a class on some aspect of African-American history.

  • Terry Feb 3, 2008 @ 9:27


    Sounds like a great class. I wish I could have taken it–or something like it–as a high school student.

    You might already have it in mind for the reading list, but if not, you might want to add Jim Cullen’s The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past. It’s got to be about 10 years old now, but I’d think still good for your purposes.

    As for another class idea, how about something that focuses on Civil War soldiers—a “Billy Yank and Johnny Reb” class. You could probe the motivations and experiences of soldiers on both sides—and all the related complexities—while tying things into the home front, i.e., the connection between the folks at home and the men (and women) at the front. You’d of course have many terrific works of scholarship (much of it recent) to draw upon.


  • Kevin Feb 3, 2008 @ 5:55

    Glory will definitely be included. In fact, I just showed a segment from the movie on Friday. As for the blogroll I probably need to add one or two more.

  • matthew mckeon Feb 2, 2008 @ 22:37

    Also, I like the addition of Draw the Sword and Year of Living Rangerously to your blogroll.

  • matthew mckeon Feb 2, 2008 @ 22:34

    In terms of films, segments by all means. Are you including Glory?

  • Kevin Feb 2, 2008 @ 18:26

    I plan on using segments of movies in order to save time. Birth of a Nation and C.S.A. will surely make the cut in addition to Shenandoah, Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain, Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Ride With the Devil. Of course this list is also tentative depending on how the course progresses and student interest.

  • Erik Feb 2, 2008 @ 18:03

    For the summer semester at the college I teach at, I am going to be teaching a course called “Civil War in History and Memory.” I am going to combine the traditional Civil War narrative with a lot about memory. It’s a 4 week course that meets for 2 1/2 hours a day. So this is incredibly useful.

    The question I have is, do you use many films in your courses and particularly do you plan on using many in this course? I was thinking of Young Mr. Lincoln, Birth of a Nation, C.S.A., maybe one or two others.

    This sounds like a fantastic course by the way. I hope you write about how it goes.

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