The North’s Civil War: A Research Seminar

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but at the end of the year I will be leaving high school teaching behind to explore other opportunities in history education. I plan to say more on this in a future post. For now, I want to share one new adventure that I will embark on in September. Earlier this year I was invited to create a research seminar for honors undergraduate students at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester for this coming Fall semester. If I remember correctly, around twelve students from area colleges will be admitted to the seminar. This was certainly not something I anticipated, but I jumped at the opportunity.

Since 1978 the AAS has invited scholars to introduce students to the research process through a seminar focused on a specific historical subject. It’s been quite some time since I taught a college course, but given the emphasis that I’ve placed on primary source research throughout my teaching career and my own experience in the archives I feel up to the challenge. This will also give me the opportunity to explore the AAS’s collections for my own research projects. I am embarrassed to admit that I have yet to visit.

So, what am I planning for this seminar? You got it, a course on the American Civil War. The specific title is: “The North’s Civil War: Union and Emancipation.”

Course Description: Between 1861 and 1865 Americans made war on one another. By the time the killing had ended upwards of 750,000 were dead and much of the South lay in ruins. In the process the United States was transformed in ways that few people could have anticipated in 1861. Through service in the United States army, participation in various patriotic organizations, or just by following the war’s progress on the home front Americans debated central issues related to the survival and maintenance of their Union. Most importantly, the war forced Americans to debate the gradual unwinding of the institution of slavery and the eventual emancipation of four million African Americans by 1865.

This course will explore how the loyal citizenry of the United States struggled to come to terms with the war’s meaning. How did Americans understand the importance of Union? How did emancipation and the recruitment of former slaves and free blacks into the army re-shape the goals of the war? How did communities throughout the North support the men who went off to war and how was that service remembered and commemorated during the immediate postwar period? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed.

While the course will explore these questions in a broad manner by considering the North as a whole, close attention will be paid to Massachusetts and the Worcester area. The state of Massachusetts was committed early on to supporting the war effort through the raising of numerous regiments, which was accompanied by an outpouring of patriotic sentiment. It was also the first state to raise African-Americans soldiers in 1863. After the war, cities such as Worcester were very active in commemorating the service of their white and black soldiers and in remembering the war through the construction of monuments and the dedication of other public sites.

Students will explore these themes through a selection of readings as well as a substantial research paper that they will undertake during the semester. The American Antiquarian Society’s rich holdings, including newspapers, manuscripts and other forms of material culture, will support essays on a wide range of topics.

I still need to tweak a few things and come up with a reading list. Please feel free to offer your suggestions. This is a huge honor for me and I am super excited to get started.

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

Purchase your copy today!

13 comments… add one
  • chancery Mar 8, 2015 @ 18:31


    OK, you’re “leaving high school teaching behind to explore other opportunities in history education,” but your “bigger plans still align with history education on the secondary level.” That’s a teaser if I ever saw one. Looking forward to further announcements.

    And congratulations on the AAS seminar.

  • Keith Harris Mar 6, 2015 @ 11:58

    Actually, yes – I am surprised and kind of bummed at the same time. You are the history teacher that every high school kid should have, but sadly does not. At any rate, good luck on your next endeavor. I’m sure you’ll be a great success!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2015 @ 12:07

      Thanks, Keith. I really do appreciate that. It’s time to change things up a bit, but I suspect that the work I do won’t be far from the classroom at all. In fact, I hope to have even more of an impact.

  • Conrad Mar 5, 2015 @ 13:59

    Oh, most certainly.

  • Conrad Mar 5, 2015 @ 13:42

    It does, and thanks for the reply. I was mainly interested because although you plan to use the term “North” in the title of your seminar, there is no geographic fault line running through the United States whereby all states North of that line waged war against all the states South of that line. In like manner, the fault line between the belligerents was not between slave states and free states. The war, as you know, was fought between seceded and loyal states. But again, thanks for the reply.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2015 @ 13:50

      …there is no geographic fault line running through the United States whereby all states North of that line waged war against all the states South of that line.

      And vice-versa.

  • Conrad Mar 5, 2015 @ 13:14

    Interesting title for both the thread and the seminar. Inasmuch as this is in fact the title, which geographic line will you use to delineate the North from the South for the seminar ? Perhaps 40 degrees North latitude? The constitution, of course, never uses the terms “North” or “South”, so I am keenly interested in how you will divide North from South for the purposes of the seminar.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2015 @ 13:19

      These words are rarely used with precision. I am certainly in this context using it loosely to refer to the states that did not secede from the Union. Even without including the slave states the region is incredibly diverse. We will be looking closely at how Northerners understood the war through print and material culture as well as other primary sources. As I mentioned in the course description, the seminar will focus closely on Massachusetts and, to some extent, the Worcester area. Hope that helps.

  • Andy MacIsaac Mar 5, 2015 @ 11:28

    Kevin, Congrats the AAS is a great resource and I am sure the local undergrads will get tremendous benefit from having access to the society and your teaching. I think Worcester has a fascinating pre Civil War and Civil War history. Lincoln’s visit to Mechanics hall. Camp Wool and the formation of Dale Hospital For your reading list I might suggest “Mather, May You Never See the Sights I have Seen “, by Warren Wilkinson. It covers the 57th Mass which was partially raised in Worcester County. Another recommendation is “Yankee Correspondence: Civil War letters between New England Soldiers and the Home Front, edited by Nina Silber and Mary Beth Stevens. It provides a good survey on few key topics related to the war (ie the meaning of the War, views on the South, the home front, etc) as described through soldiers letters from thought out New England. Another good collection of letters from a local solider is “Fall Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg and Beyond: The Civil War letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Mass Infantry” , edited by Gregory A Coco. Best of luck to you. Regards,
    Andy MacIsaac
    Shrewsbury, MA

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2015 @ 11:33

      Hi Andy,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the recommendations. I have the Wilkinson and Silber-Stevens books. Will look into Bowen. I didn’t know that Lincoln visited and the hospital may offer a number of research possibilities. Thanks again.

  • Chris Lese Mar 5, 2015 @ 9:47

    Congrats Kevin! Although I am somewhat saddened you are leaving the high school ranks, I am really happy for you and this opportunity. You have been such an outstanding champion of secondary teaching and I have no doubt you will excel at the next level.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2015 @ 10:19

      Hi Chris,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the kind words. This teaching gig is just for one semester. My bigger plans still align with history education on the secondary level. More to come. Hope your year is going well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.