Teaching Confederate History Month

A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia.  Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted.  I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.

Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event.  I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:

Confederate History Month Proclamation

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk.   I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom.  A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary.  I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.

The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning.  More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:

  • What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past?  Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
  • What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
  • Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
  • Were the criticisms of the governor justified?  If so, why?  Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified?  If so, why?
  • Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
  • What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?

Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation.  In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation.  References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained.  Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation.  I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea.  Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory.  This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.

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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4 comments… add one
  • Raleigh Werberger Oct 7, 2010 @ 13:56

    I teach IB History of the Americas at a school in Honolulu. The nature of the IB course gives me leeway in the topics I choose, so I have been teaching the American Revolution & Constitution; the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the Civil Rights Movement in the first semester. I had traditionally done this with the idea of tracing the development of equality and rights within the Constitution, but this summer I had the kids read Obama’s 2008 speech on Race as a summer assignment, and having the course built around how the past is remembered differently based on race and history (if that makes sense.)

    So, at the end of the revolutionary era, we discussed the Tea Party and the modern purposes for which the Revolution has been appropriated. I’m going through the final thought essays now and getting some interesting, very thoughtful stuff.
    For the unit on the Civil War, we will end with readings on the Confederate History Month brouhaha (I’m using pieces from the actual proclamation, Roland Martin’s article in which he called Confederates terrorists and a Confederate heritage website, among others).
    For Civil Rights, I’m using an article that centers on Haley Barbour’s memories of his relationship with a black student in the 1960s, and the reporter’s subsequent interview with that student. the contrast between their memories in striking. Their final assessment will be linking all this back to Obama’s Speech.

    I’m kind of excited to see how this all comes out…I’m posting stuff on a blog I’ve started up as part of a program I’m taking on Project-Based Learning. It’s pwninghistory.tumblr.com. If anyone wants to see these documents I’m using, or student work, feel free to e-mail me.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2010 @ 14:03


      Great to hear from another teacher and yes it makes perfect sense. In fact, it is an excellent way of moving beyond the standard approaches in survey courses which is to take a straightforward narrative approach. I also love the fact that this gives you plenty of leeway to explore topics related to historical memory as well as the relationship between modern movements such as the Tea Party and its historical roots. Thanks for the link to your own site and best of luck to you.

  • Nat Turner's Son Oct 7, 2010 @ 10:08

    It is great to see a more balanced approach being used. Remember Political types are all about style points and very few facts.

  • Adam Arenson Oct 6, 2010 @ 10:29


    A nice set of lesson suggestions. When the brouhaha first erupted, just as I started my Reconstruction unit, we did compare the original and revised proclamations — though giving the students what McDonnell added made it too obvious to see what he missed the first time.

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