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.

7 thoughts on “The Civil War in the classroom

  1. Pingback: The Civil War in the classroom

  2. When I was a child, we were taught that the Civil War was fought over the question of whether or not states could secede from the Union. Now kids are taught that the Civil War was fought over slavery. It’s sad that we engage in all this revisionism.

  3. Dave,

    That the war was fought over slavery is not so much revisionist, as it is a shift in focus. The right of a state to secede from the Union was largely based upon slavery. You were likely taught the argument of the war being fought to preserve the Union. Keep in mind that the war did shift towards one to end slavery, as slavery would not be able to continue in a post-war America. What I am trying to get at is that the focus on slavery is not something to be ignored, but, when studying the war, slavery should not have such a large place, especially where focus shifts away from the battles and soldiers. The home front and the evil of slavery is important to learn, but not at the cost of the actual fighting of the war. In some ways, I would argue that Civil War classes need to be structured in such a way as to allow one semester to focus on the background and non-military issues, with the other semester being entirely devoted to the military side of the period. Thanks for your comment.


  4. Dan
    I think reenactors in the classroom would be a great idea. It would provide some entertainment, break up the monotony of lecture, and, hopefully, open up a good dialogue with the students. It might be difficult to find someone willing to do this. I wouldn’t even know where to start looking in my area.

    As for the gaming, I’m not sold on this being beneficial to the whole class. You stated the obvious problems of computer networking, software, etc. But how many students can actually play at one time? I could see it being useful as a presentation. In other words the professor would run the game for the class to watch pointing out the importance of terrain and tactics.

    I agree with you that all too often the military aspects of the war are neglected. We are living in a time where social history has taken on a greater importance than military history.

    I just finshed teaching a college level Civil War class over the summer. It was only six weeks and difficult to cover everything. I spent the first week on the causes of the war and Fort Sumter. After this, I lectured chronologically through the military campaigns. In between these lectures, I would cover topics such as: Civil War Medicine, homefront, Civil War Navy, international front, women and prisons. I tried to give the students an over all picture of the conflict but, again, not everything can be covered.

  5. In so far as reenactors in the classroom I am generally opposed to it. First of all I was once a World War 2 reenactor and am now currently a civil war Union reenactor. In both cases I have had experience with public presentations. Here is where I find them not particularly valuable.
    First reenactors have verying degrees of historical knowledge. Some would give Professor McPherson a run for their money others are sorely lacking in knowledge and have said things to the public that are just plain not factually true. Coming from a reenactor who “must” know, anything said is taken as fact by the public.
    Next the reenactor provides only a glimpse at the small picture of the war showing the public the “neato” side of the war with “cool” guns, swords and so on. Another problem is the average reenactor is older and better fed than the average Civil War soldier. All of these things combine to provide a jaundiced view of the war and are not particularly useful in an educational setting.
    I am not against public performances but reenactments are for special occasions but in a classroom not useful. Just my opinion.

  6. Based on my personal experiences, reenactors in the classroom is a very beneficial way to teach a subject. For about 12 years from 1978 until 1991, I dressed in combat utilities (BDU’s – Battle Dress Uniform) with combat gear and gave speeches based on my experiences in Vietnam. I spoke to classes 6 through 9 and was always received by students who were interested, inquisitive, and respectful. A severe back injury in 1991 while on Active Duty (Stateside) with the U.S. Coast Guard during Operation Desert Storm brought my “classroom teaching” to an abrupt end. Today, I spend a little of my time on the internet researching the War Between The States from the perspective of a Confederate soldier who was conscripted (drafted) into service, who never owned a slave, and who only fights because he sees the Union Forces as invaders.

  7. I certainly think or was taught in school that the war was fought over states rights and no one can deny that slavery was an element in the war it was not introduced into the war until two years later to boost the support for the northern side of the war. People have set the Confederate flag up as a symbol of slave trading or hatred of blacks , it is a shame that the flag has to be the brunt of this because it is a flag of half of the United States. The southern people are proud to be from the south and they should be proud of their heritage ,they also have a right to have a flag or the freedom to fly the Confederate flag any time they want . The revisionist have not only removed some of the aspects of the Civil war but certainly a large portion of American history . quite a few of the statements made by our founding Fathers have been removed from the history books . The bloodiest war every fought and it was originally fought over conflicts between the states and federal government . I applaud this site for researching and trying to display all the truth here . I in no way condone any man to be a slave or be mistreated . We have come a very long way to all men be equal and in the eyes not only of God but all men .

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