The Civil War in the classroom

Given this very interesting post by Brett, I thought I would bring up an interesting couple of ideas for teaching the war in the classroom and see what you all think. While understanding slavery and emancipation are essential to understanding the war years, I do feel that some classes on the war focus too much on non-military issues and not enough on battles. That is where the following ideas come into play.

The first is one I have some experience with from my days in elementary school in Illinois. When I was in fifth grade, my bus driver, who was also an avid reenactor, came and talked to our class on the war, while dressed as a Confederate soldier. It was really something cool to see and got me interested in reenacting myself (unfortunately, I do not have enough cash to get started yet, but some day) and later into public history. I think reenactors should be encouraged to present to schools, as seeing someone dressed in period attire is a wonderful way to introduce the war to younger people. In addition, reenactors do not have to just be soldiers, as civilian reenactors could portray and talk about how the war affected the home front. Further, if looking for a presentation on slavery, what better way to illustrate the evil of it than by having reenactors talk about the Underground Railroad, slave life, and African American experiences. For example, several students, professors, the college chaplain, and I participated in a play when I attended Illinois College, where we acted in several skits dealing with different contributions of my alma mater to the Underground Railroad. I would like to think that it was a great educational tool for the local children in attendance. I hope to use reenacting in the classroom when I finally become a professor, as it is a unique way to present history.

The other idea involves war gaming as an educational tool. There are many good PC games on the war that involve unit level operations and tactics. Students could have a lesson on a particular battle, then take command and see how they would lead troops. In addition to PC games, students might have a great time learning about battles and tactics of the war through more traditional war gaming, including counters and miniature soldiers. Plus, the more traditional method may be easier than attempting to link several computers and providing the software. War gaming is a very unique and fun way to get students interested in the war, as it allows them to understand what it took to lead the armies in the war.

Recall the diorama fiasco in Texas, where high school students built a diorama of the war’s last battle at Palmetto Ranch, Texas. Those students learned about the war through a unique lesson. I can only imagine how much greater appreciation those students have for history and the Civil War after building that diorama, however, when it was destroyed, I bet their enthusiasm was curtailed. This unfortunate incident does not mean that a diorama project is a great way to get students into history.

Overall, bringing reenactors into the classroom, using war games, and building dioramas are all great ways to learn about the war. There are many other great ideas to engage students, but I encourage educators to look at these ideas as potential teaching tools.