Ten Years of Blogging and Reflections on Teaching the Civil War

With all the craziness that has surrounded my life the last few weeks, as I finished my teaching job at Northland and prepare to move to the Bismarck area for my new job as an archivist with the North Dakota State Archives, I neglected to post yesterday for what was the tenth anniversary of starting this blog. I was busy packing some books to bring them down today when I checked into my new apartment out there.

After ten years of off and on posting on the Civil War about a variety of topics and with a diverse cast of fellow contributors, I am excited to see about posting more going forward and trying to get into a habit of writing to one of my blogs each day, which will hopefully inspire me to kick it into gear on my dissertation. Over the time I have tried to devote to this site, I have come to enjoy the periodic journeys into the various matters I have covered, including some controversial ones.

One thing I have done these past few months is teach a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction to students at the two campuses of Northland Community and Technical College. This was an exciting opportunity for me to finally teach a subject I enjoy greatly. Along the way, I learned some important lessons myself and have had some time to reflect on the course as a whole and how I might do things differently going forward if I am fortunate enough to teach such a class again.

One of the first decisions I made was choosing the readings for the course. There are literally hundreds of books to choose from on the Civil War that are useful for a course. I wanted to use a book that would be relatively cheap and cover some of the more recent areas of scholarship, particularly social history. I decided to use Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff’s A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War (2008), as I liked its thematic approach. In addition, I wanted them to read a memoir or diary written by a soldier who fought in the war, so I chose my old favorite and reliable Story of a Common Soldier by Leander Stillwell. Of course, I must confess my bias on using this one, as Stillwell is from my home county, Jersey County, Illinois.

In retrospect, I stand by my choice of Stillwell, as his is one of the best written accounts by a Union soldier in the Western Theater. However, I am not as sure on my choice of my other text, as students seemed, based on comments when I asked them about it, to struggle with the concepts brought forward in the book. Were I to teach the course again at a similar institution, I would consider probably using Charles Roland’s An American Iliad instead.

Now, in terms of subjects for lecture, I wanted to cover a wide variety, while keeping the focus to the major campaigns of the respective theaters and the major battles. I stuck to this, while having lectures also dealing with the historical context of the war, covering the history of slavery in America and the path towards disunion. I also devoted classes to the lives of soldiers and the experiences of women and children, death and medicine, as well as international relations. I was able to cover these subjects to varying degrees, mostly because of the constraints of the nature of the course schedule.

This leads me to one observation of my course that I wish dearly I could have changed, the time and duration of the class. My class was held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:00-11:50 AM. Further, though this was my doing, the class was to be held via Interactive Television (ITV), allowing it to be simultaneously held at both campuses, with me being at one (usually the East Grand Forks campus, since it was closer to my home).

I was scheduled to teach this same class in the fall semester last year, but it was cancelled because of low enrollment, which really disappointed me, as it was to be on the East Grand Forks campus, which would have allowed me to do my stock lecture on creating armies with my reenacting gear outside, as it would have been in September. This development altered that and I anxiously awaited the news of the course being allowed in spring.

Fortunately, the class made it for spring, but it’s scheduling and situation, as noted above, were awkward. I strongly believe that all history courses covering specific events, or shorter-duration periods of time are best suited for two days a week with classes being an hour and fifteen minutes in length. This is to allow a fuller examination of particular topics and time for questions. This is lost in a fifty minute class period and both the courses I took on the Civil War were two days a week. In addition, there is the inherent, though unintentional neglect of the students from the one campus the instructor is not in person with in the classroom.

Despite that issue, I made the best of it and also devoted time to showing some videos. I always enjoy showing an episode or two of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, as it’s a classic and still stands the test of time. I also wanted to show a feature film about the war. While Gettysburg (1993) is a fine choice, it is too long for such a class and I would not want to show Gods and Generals (2003), as while it could foster some fascinating discussions about the memory of the war and interpretations on it, I feared I would spend too much time trying to correct some of the issues related to the portrayal of the Confederate leadership.

I ended up deciding to use another favorite: Glory (1989). First, I have always enjoyed the film from the first time I saw it at 11-12 years old, as it is a great movie with a solid cast, despite some of the historical errors. Second, I felt that choosing a film that covered the often-overlooked contributions of African Americans to the war was an essential subject for the students to be exposed to and learn from. Finally, I hoped that it would spurn a lively discussion when we concluded watching it. Unfortunately, like many college students today, I had to pry answers out of them, and most seemed either uninterested in discussing, or more likely uneasy with speaking up about the questions I posed. I know going forward, I will still show such a film in a class on the war, but will also come up with a list of discussion questions for the students to write on and then discuss.

I’d like to think that all the students learned something from the course, though, as with any class, some exam grades demonstrated that some struggled to grasp the materials, or I am too tough of a grader. One area that really got to me was the efforts on a key assignment for the course, a research paper on any topic related to the war.

It is important to note the students had access to their own college library, albeit with a rather limited selection of quality history titles on the shelves, but also the broader consortium of libraries across Minnesota. I stressed using ILL and required them to use at least one book as part of their research. A few did do this quite well, but many simply used whatever Internet sources they found. This really upsets me, as I feel it is part of a larger problem of high and even middle schools not effectively teaching students how to research.

Anytime I assign such work, I always stress utilizing the library staff of trained professionals to assist in researching, as well as using any writing assistance before coming to me. Since I had them submit rough drafts for me to look over for such things over a month prior to the final papers due date, several did not heed my advice and their papers suffered for it. I still feel that a quality research paper is important for such a class to allow a student’s individuality to shine while learning to find evidence and argue a point. Clearly, we are not serving our students well by not stressing quality writing and citing of sources prior to them coming to college.

Overall, my experience in teaching the Civil War, even with some ups and downs along the way, was a positive teaching experience for me, as I learned that while I still want a book that covers the newer areas of scholarly inquiry into the war, I also need to remember that my students are not like me and perhaps a less formidable style and coverage are warranted. I do hope I get the chance to teach it again some day.

All in all, what a ten years it has been blogging about the war with you all. I have learned much about myself and hope that the next ten years will be more productive, as I hope to begin showcasing some fun finds related to the war in the archives beginning in the summer.

What’s in a school name?-Robert E. Lee is out

On today’s episode of the Ryan Cunningham Show on 1310 KNOX AM, the local talk radio station in Grand Forks, host Ryan Cunningham noted the changing of an elementary school’s name in Austin, Texas. The Austin Independent School District decided to rename the former Robert E. Lee Elementary in late April 2016 after concerns over Lee’s role in history were raised by parents and community members in the wake of the tragic Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. This led to a succession of governmental actions in several municipalities across the nation, but particularly in the South, from resolutions to removals of symbols and icons associated with the Confederacy, or Reconstruction.

Some of the more prominent ones included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state house grounds and the more recent removal of a statue related to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on Confederate Memorial Day. That event related to Reconstruction and Southern resistance, specifically the White League, to that effort to remake the South post-Civil War.

The renaming of Lee Elementary took on a bit of controversy, as dozens of names were submitted, with several being tongue-in-cheek suggestions. Ultimately, the district voted to rename the school for Russell Lee, a well-known photographer. What is interesting is that there are still at least twenty-four elementary schools across the country named for General Lee, as well as at least sixteen high schools that bear his name in some way, but for how long?

While renaming schools do occasionally occur as time moves along and attitudes towards historical figures change (older readers may recall how many schools were renamed for JFK in the wake of his assassination), it is interesting that Confederate political and military leadership, as well as the symbols of the CSA, are under increased scrutiny after every incident of racial violence against African Americans by white perpetrators. I don’t see calls for renaming schools that bear prominent African American figures’ names in the wake of the violence perpetrated by those angry over treatment of black men by police officers, or protests led by Black Lives Matter. So, if we can accept that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, etc. are not responsible for recent activities by black perpetrators who have killed cops and other innocent persons, why can we not also accept the same for the figures of the Confederacy?

Certainly, we can’t and should not deny that these men who sided with secession, the Confederate flag, and other symbols of that government have been used in the years since the war for racist purposes. However, Robert E. Lee is not responsible for the Charleston church shooting any more than Dr. King is for violence in urban neighborhoods.

Yes, Lee did fight against the United States, but he also did much to ensure a more peaceful post-war period during Reconstruction. Where Jefferson Davis wanted to see the army disband into small groups and wage guerrilla war against the Union, Lee surrendered his army and urged his troops to be good citizens and begin the healing of the nation. Yes, the government he fought for was committed to the preservation of slavery, and even its expansion, but this doesn’t take away from his historical importance.

Finally, if we eradicate the symbols of the Confederacy, or purge the names of their figures from our schools and other public places, how can we properly learn from the mistakes of the past that led to the Civil War? Consider that as we are now over 150 years removed from that conflict, it is all the more imperative for us to be aware of the Confederacy, as if it fades from our historical memory and consciousness, we may repeat some of those mistakes that led to war. No, this does not mean we will bring slavery back, but consider that the Civil War originated from deep divisions over politics in America that festered into such polarization that one region of the nation, rather than accept the results of a presidential election, chose to leave the Union. When I see the Resistance movement to Donald Trump and the Antifa movement, I am reminded of the southern fire eaters, who led the charge for secession.

Let’s remember Lee as a capable soldier, who had a distinguished career prior to the war, during the war, and played an important role in trying to heal the nation after the war. Let’s also not forget the racism and segregation that permeated the South, as well as the larger nation in the decades after the war. As Barbara Fields noted in the final episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War there is still a chance to lose the war. If we hide the past and its ugliness for the sake of individual feelings, we risk not learning the lessons of the past and making the same mistakes, which could cause even more pain.

Upcoming Civil War reenactment in Pennsylvania

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28th ANNUAL CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTMENT AT NESHAMINY STATE PARK
The Battle of Antietam

(January 23, 2017, Philadelphia, PA) The 28th annual Civil War Re-enactment will take place on Saturday and Sunday, April 29-30, 2017 at Neshaminy State Park, located on 3401 State Road in Bensalem, PA, from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, rain or shine. Admission is free.

This event is the largest Civil War re-enactment on the East Coast outside of Gettysburg and is coordinated by the Neshaminy Living History Association, a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization. The theme for this year’s re-enactment is “The Battle of Antietam”. Over 1,000 re-enactors will converge on the park for this event featuring:

· Authentic battle re-enactments
· Camp life scenarios
· Military and civilian life demonstrations
· April 30 only at 11:00 AM: 1860’s Exhibition Baseball Game by the Monmouth Furnace Baseball Club at the Drill Field

The Battle of Antietam took place from September 16-18, 1862. Union commander Major General George McClelland organized a series of assaults against Confederate forces lead by General Robert E. Lee, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. At dawn on September 17, Major General Joseph Hooker went after the Confederates and began single bloodiest day in American military history. Despite Union forces having more troops (87,000 Union vs 45,000 Confederate) Confederate forces, lead by General Stonewall Jackson, held their ground. Later in the day, Union forces lead by Major General Ambrose Burnside moved across the bullet strewn bridge at Antietam Creek and jeopardized the Confederate right flank. During the battle, A.P. Hill’s Confederate division arrived from Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) and counterattacked. The Confederates were then able to drive back Burnside and saved the day for Lee’s forces. On the morning of September 18, Confederates skirmished with Union troops while Lee moved the wounded south of the Potomac, yet McClelland did not pursue the Confederates. The battle was a draw from a military perspective. Still, it did drive Lee’s forces from Maryland and it gave Lincoln a “victory” he needed before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.*

While admission is free, a voluntary collection will be taken each day of the event and all proceeds will go toward historical preservation efforts. The Neshaminy Civil War Re-enactment has raised over $55,000 during its 28-year history for various Civil War organizations.

This event is sponsored by the following businesses and organizations: Parx Casino, Neshaminy State Park, the Bensalem Historical Society, the 28th Pennsylvania Historical Association, the First Battalion of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Delaware Valley Civil War Roundtable, The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library, and Republic Services.

For more information about the re-enactment, go to www.neshaminycwevent.org, like the Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment on Facebook, contact Chuck Gilson, Event Executive Chairman, at cdgilson5@comcast.net or write to Neshaminy Living History Association, 3211 Knights Road, Bensalem, PA 19020.

Robert E. Lee: Honorable Man, or Treasonous Scoundrel

I routinely enjoy listening to the personalities on the local talk radio station, KNOX AM 1310, as they cover a variety of topics and have moments of amusement on occasion. Ryan Cunningham, who hosts the Ryan Cunningham Show from 12-3pm on the station noted in late March of his upcoming trip in early April to Tampa, Florida, to cover the Frozen Four for the station. He mentioned that part of his route down to Florida was going to take him near Shiloh National Battlefield.

Ryan noted his interest in that battle and the larger war, which necessitated me calling into the show and sharing my experiences visiting the site two times. I friended him on Facebook and found out he had a good time, but, like visiting most Civil War battlefields, one day can’t do it justice. I do hope he will get the chance to visit again soon, as it is a bit of a drive from eastern North Dakota.

Anyway, he shared with me an interesting thing that happened on Monday’s show, which I missed hearing, where a caller argued that Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man because he fought for the Confederacy. I wish I could have heard the exchange, as Ryan hinted in his message to me that it was an amusing thing. Reading this got me to thinking about that question, as it is a potentially divisive one.

Certainly, one cannot deny that Lee’s pre-war military career and his personality reflected an honorable man. He was one of the most respected officers in the army at the time and such was his reputation that Lincoln offered him command of all Union armies. Had Lee stayed with the Union, like fellow Virginian George Thomas did, one can only wonder how the war would have turned out.

Lee was conflicted in April 1861, go with the Union that he had served for his entire adult life, or resign and side with his home state, which was clearly heading towards secession. History knows which way he chose and he eventually became a beloved general in the Confederate army, as well as begrudgingly respected by his Union counterparts, several of whom had known him before the war and had served under him, or alongside him. Lee achieved some great feats as a Confederate general, but does this service strip him of his honor?

While he did commit treason by levying war against the United States, as noted in Article III of the Constitution, consider his April 20, 1861 letter to Winfield Scott, where he resigned from the Army:

General:

Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army.   I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions.   To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me.   Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

-Courtesy of Civil War Trust

I read in this letter a man conflicted by his competing devotions to his duty as an American soldier and his loyalty to his home state. Keep in mind that many Americans’ identities, both north and south, related to their home state first and the nation second. While the states’ rights movement has clouded some of this in our post-Civil War history, the oath of enlistment for the United States Army is important to consider at that time, where the United States was referred to in the plural. As noted on the Army’s Center of Military History website, the oath used at the beginning of the Civil War read as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.

Yes, Lee served a cause that was committed to the maintenance of chattel slavery as part of its existence as a nation, but he conducted such service with honor. Consider his actions at Appomattox Courthouse, where he agreed to surrender to Grant, under quite generous terms. He very easily could have disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia into the hills and led a protracted guerilla war, which Davis seemed to desire. He chose not to do this and acquiesced to Grant’s generous terms. In fact, the respect and honor that Grant and other Union commanders seemed to hold for Lee is evidenced by Grant reminiscing on their pre-war army days.

Yes, Lee took up arms against the United States, which is treasonous, but I must argue that he retained much of his honor as a man, considering how he could have conducted himself and the war. Lee was an old soldier, who was suited to aid in the reconciliation of the nation.

Love him or loathe him, Robert E. Lee remains an important figure in our history and, with that, I will ask you to consider the following question and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Fort Sumter fired upon 155 years ago

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that inaugurated the Civil War. It is interesting to note that I received the April issue of The Journal of Military History yesterday, which features a wonderful essay on the recent historiography on the war and the direction of the field in light of the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial.

I also must note the irony of the action at Fort Sumter, as P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander, fired upon his former artillery instructor from West Point, Major Robert Anderson, which is referenced in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. With that, I will leave you with the clip from that landmark documentary that details the firing upon the fort.

Some thoughts on Mercy Street

First, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and are entering 2016 with optimism and happiness.

The last two Sundays have witnessed a new Civil War drama premiering on PBS dealing with an often overlooked part of the war. Mercy Street deals with the happenings in the Mansion House Hospital, a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. It offers a lot for those interested in the war and its effects on civilians and medicine, especially in a community along the border.

Having watched the first two episodes, I can say that it is definitely a departure from what I’m used to in terms of Civil War television programming. That said, I am drawn to this show, as it offers a compelling story line, a great cast of characters, and a portrayal of Civil War medicine that will illustrate the horrors of the conflict, from grizzly wounds to PTSD. Three of the main characters are based upon historical figures, while legendary nurse Dorothea Dix was also portrayed in the series’ first episode.

Going forward, the series intends to provide a lot of great drama and intrigue. Some observations I have seen thus far include the conflict over slavery and racial attitudes, as Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the show’s main character, is a strong-willed woman, with a commitment to the abolitionist cause. This is in contrast to other characters who treat African Americans with little regard, or open hostility. In addition, slave catchers have already attempted to apprehend a suspected runaway. African American characters usually appear behind the scenes, but they are portrayed quite well and provide their own dynamic to the story, as they seek to make sense of the events around them, while seeking their freedom, if enslaved, or striving to survive and maybe achieve a better station in life under Union occupation.

The Green family, whose hotel was confiscated and turned into the hospital are indicative of the conflict in Confederate society, as while the patriarch seeks to make the best of the situation of Union occupation, and seems ambiguous to slavery, his daughter appears to have much stronger leanings for the southern cause. While the Greens deal with their situation, there is conflict in the hospital between the physicians over methodology, as well as the nurses, who bristle and Mary’s appointment by Dix as the head nurse in the hospital, despite other nurses in the facility having more experience. Her abolitionism and previous marriage, which ended in her husband’s death, are sources of criticism from both groups.

With an interesting story, grizzly scenes depicting the horrors of America’s bloodiest conflict, and a great cast of characters, set against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, Mercy Street is a show worth watching by anyone interested in the war and the medical side of the conflict. Be sure to either watch it on your local PBS station on Sunday evenings at 9PM Central, or record it for later.

More thoughts on The Civil War rebroadcast

As I continue to watch the rebroadcast of The Civil War on PBS, I find that the remastering has proven to make some of the imagery used by Burns quite crisp and clear, which was his goal. Though the content is not different, so far as I can tell, viewers that have never seen it before will be treated to looking at documents and photos as how Burns likely viewed them 25 years ago. That said, there is a bit of jumpiness with the image, but that likely relates to my cable signal, as it may be affected by solar activity (the aurora was visible near here the other night). Tuesday night’s broadcast featured episodes 2 and 3, which featured the Battles of Shiloh and Antietam respectively.

Shiloh has always had a special place in my historical heart, as men from my home county (Jersey County, Illinois) fought bravely there. A great accounting comes from Leander Stillwell’s memoir Story of a Common Soldier, which can be found online. Stillwell, who grew up near Otterville (about 10 miles from my parent’s house), enlisted in the 61st Illinois Infantry, serving in Company D at the time. Further, this battle, coupled with his earlier victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, elevated Ulysses S. Grant to a position of prominence, as he, unlike his Eastern counterparts at the time, was able to beat Confederate troops. Having visited the battlefield twice, it is a beautiful and poignant place, where you can almost still feel the fighting in the air.

The third episode featured Antietam, but also discussed the Seven Days battles and the elevation of Robert E. Lee to command of the Confederate forces that were renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. The debate over emancipation factored prominently as well. The political situation surrounding this issue was a dicey one for Lincoln, as he faced pressure from abolitionists seeking freedom for the slaves, while simultaneously fearing how the issue would affect the position of the border states, as well as the opinion of many in the Union, who were little concerned with the plight of the slaves.

Antietam represented an important moment in the war, as renowned historian James McPherson expounded upon in his book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002). It was critical to Lincoln being able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, while also influencing the course of the war on the international stage, as the European powers were observing the war from afar to make decisions regarding diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, or even potential mediation of peace. The horror of the bloodiest day in the war was revealed to the viewer through the powerful images of “Bloody Lane” and the cornfield. Though strategically a draw, the battle was just what Lincoln needed.

The continuing theme between the two episodes was the general course of the war going against the Union, as while Grant was largely successful in the West, the Eastern Theater found Confederates usually carrying the day. However, Antietam proved to be pivotal, as while the Confederates were victorious in battle after it, the viewer comes away with a feeling that the war is beginning to turn away from the South, but that the outcome is still in doubt. Further, these episodes demonstrate the carnage of the war that shocked the nation, but was only a taste of things to come.

As the week progresses, viewers will see the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, Grant taking command, and the fight being taken to Southern society in a way that placed the war at the crossroads between older Napoleonic warfare and our modern understanding of war, based upon the carnage of two World Wars, as elements of both conflicts were present. They will reflect upon what a Union victory and the abolition of slavery meant then and today. What the public takes away from this rebroadcast will be interesting to see in the next few weeks.