The Battlefield as Classroom (New York Times)

"Field of Lost Shoes" at New Market Battlefield

In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.  I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history.  Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia.  Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences.  Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column.  This is my second essay in the series.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.

Read the rest of the essay.

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4 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Feb 12, 2012 @ 14:01

    Nice article. I always ended tours with my kids and nieces and nephews at the cemetery where we’d discuss the impact on families, consider the pain endured by the dying and the hopelessness that many must have felt in their last minutes, as well as considering alternatives to butchery.

  • Dudley Bokoski Feb 12, 2012 @ 13:32

    An added bonus in visiting the battlefields is how beautiful the countryside often is. Seeing the photo of New Market reminded me of the view from (unless I’m turned around) just over the crest of the photo. It’s just a short walk to a terrific view looking down over the Shenandoah River from a very tall bluff. Port Republic in the Valley is another wonderful walk. The little town doesn’t look greatly changed from its appearance during the war, with the river running through it and rolling hill sides.

    I was disappointed recently in going back to Drewry’s Bluff in Richmond recently to see the great view back up the river toward the Richmond skyline is now marred by the enormous bridge and cloverleaf on I-95. Hadn’t been there in years. But still, if you look downstream away from town you get a view from the fort hardly different at all from when Union ironclads came up river.

    Out West, Stones River at Murfreesboro stands out for me, just from the variety of trees and the beauty of the country in that area. And there is something about Shiloh completely different from any other battlefield because of the isolation of the area. You can drive up from Cornith and feel like you’ve stepped back out of modern times for most of the last 20 miles.

    Finally, the other scenic spot which comes to mind for me is along Longstreet’s march to the battlefield at Gettysburg, passing along the streams on the way and trying to understand how difficult it was to attempt to bring his corps to the field without being viewed from the high ground across towards the Round Tops.

    You can read about it in books, but there is nothing like going to a battlefield and taking it in.

  • Michele Tollie-Porter Feb 12, 2012 @ 10:23

    Excellent articles, as well as wonderful teaching experiences on and around the battlefields. I envy your students having had such thoughtful and immersed learning experiences. When I was growing up, our American history lessons were quite sanitized and cursory. It irritates me a great deal to hear people say “well, history never changes. Facts are facts.” Not really. Fortunately, in my most recent stint in graduate school I was exposed to the quality teaching of history and the concept of historiography. I am very discouraged to hear about such recent public school history book errors as those you mentioned. Thank you for your scholarship and exemplary teaching skills.
    Michele Tollie-Porter, Director
    Clifton Forge Public Library
    Clifton Forge, Virginia

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2012 @ 11:16

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I am certainly looking forward to getting back into the classroom and exploring the many historic sites in the Boston area.

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