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.

Skype-ing the Civil War with students, part II

What a great day today! The St. Louis Blues beat the Blackhawks to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs and I was hired as a year-long sabbatical replacement at Northland Community and Technical College, which has campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, so I am staying in North Dakota for another year. An added plus is that part of my forthcoming teaching load includes a class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Needless to say, it has been an awesome day that started out with another amazing Skype session.

Just as with my first Skype session with Gary Kaplan’s group of History Club students in California, I again used this technology to do a brief impromptu talk on the Civil War. Today, I was privileged to be invited to speak to an eighth grade class from Andover Central Middle School in Andover, Kansas. Since it was a morning talk, I was able to broadcast from my home, allowing me to show off my musket to the students and discuss several topics, including how the war relates to today, medicine, training, and some of my experiences as a reenactor.

What was fun was being able to share my screen with them to show via Google Maps where I was in Grand Forks, in relation to their location, as well as some of my pictures from reenacting. I was also able to relate some of my personal interests into history with them, which has its roots in my dad taking me to Fort Scott, Kansas for a living history event when I was six or seven years old (we were stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas at the time). I also wore my sack coat for them too.

The students asked some awesome questions, including one who asked about how I researched my own Civil War ancestors. I also took the opportunity to have them do a bit of drill (mostly basic facing movements) and also described the medical examination, or lack thereof for joining the army. I also told them about women serving in the army, as well as children that served.

In a follow-up email, Dyane Smokorowski, who reached out to me to arrange the meeting, shared that the students were excited and talking about the experience. It is my hope that there will be an opportunity for the students to provide some guest posts here, as well as use this blog as a vehicle to ask questions about the war.

I want to thank Mrs. Smokorowski, as well as Heather Hawkins, who assisted with the technological aspects on their end, for allowing me to share my knowledge on the war.

Skype-ing the Civil War with students

I had an awesome time this afternoon getting to talk the Civil War with a group of middle school students in California. I reached out to Gary Kaplan, who has provided several insightful comments to this blog in the past, and offered to give a talk to his students via Skype. We arranged for me to present to the History Club at Nueva School in Hillsborough, California on the topic of camps of instruction in the Civil War. Having used Skype for other business and a couple job interviews in the past, I was very interested in branching out to use the technology to give talks to folks that are geographically removed from where I am in North Dakota. I would call this first foray into that a rousing success.

The students were very attentive and asked some great questions related to the topic and on the war in general. I gave a truncated version of the normal talk I give on this topic, as I was limited on time and did not have the ability to provide a demonstration of drill and the manual of arms (University campuses tend to frown on sharp, pointy objects, and things that go boom when triggers are pulled). The kids learned about joining the army, including the rudimentary physical examination, the uniforms, as well as life in camp. I also touched briefly on women in the war and how some impersonated men to join up.

The question and answer time was quite fun, as they asked a wide variety of questions, including economics and what motivated the men to join up. I was able to share with them an excerpt from Leander Stillwell’s memoir The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War 1861-1865 (1920), as well as tell them of some good books on the war.

Overall, the experience was well worth it and I hope it’s the start of more such opportunities to use Skype to talk to folks about the war. It was fun to interact with an excited group of youngsters two time zones and almost two thousand miles from me. I would like to thank Gary for allowing this presentation to occur and to the kids in the History Club for being an attentive and fun audience.

If you are interested in taking advantage of this and having me talk to your group via Skype, please use the Contact CWH page to get in touch with me and I’ll see if I can arrange to Skype on a topic related to the Civil War.

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.

Reflecting on The Civil War after 25 years

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Civil War blogging community about the rebroadcast, which is starting tonight, of Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut on PBS. Many bloggers note the significant changes in our nation and the debate over how we remember the war that have occurred in the last 25 years. Consider that the direction of the historical study on the war has blossomed in many different ways since 1990. Further, no one in 1990 likely fathomed that we would have an African American president (regardless of your feelings on him and his administration). Needless to say, I hope many in the country will watch this and reflect.

I remember vaguely viewing segments of it when a little boy at Fort Hood, Texas, which was only a couple years after the piece debuted on television. It was still routinely broadcast on PBS then. I had an emerging interest in history at that time, the Civil War in particular. As I got older, watched Gettysburg at 10 and Glory at age 12, I eventually sought out this program and checked it out from my local library on VHS and watched it, enjoying it immensely. A few years ago, I finally purchased it on DVD and watch it occasionally to draw inspiration from different sections when needed.

Tonight’s broadcast features episode one, which focuses on the historical context and causes of the war. To hear of the violent acts and division in the nation at that time (Bleeding Kansas, the attack on Sen. Sumner, and John Brown’s Raid), causes me to reflect on recent violence and riots across the country. I will say that I doubt we’re heading towards conflict as in 1860, but that we must remember the lessons of the war and the horrors that it wrought, so that the “better angels of our nature” can prevail between those on opposite sides of the political fence.

While it is still about an hour and a half away, I always find a semblance of comfort and power in the words Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. He wrote:

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

(Text courtesy of National Park Service website)

I hope that sincerely hope that many will take time to watch this documentary, especially with children, and educate them on the significance of the conflict and what it means today in our current society.

Duffel Blog provides Civil War satire

If you follow the US military and the blogging world that surrounds it, you may have visited Duffel Blog. This site presents all the hilarity and wit of the legendary satire publication The Onion, but with emphasis on the armed forces and veterans, to provide members and supporters of the armed forces a bit of levity in trying times. I have enjoyed several pieces from this blog in the past and a recent one was no different.

With all the controversy surrounding the status of the “Confederate flag” (predominantly dealing with the battle flag design) in the wake of the tragic murders in Charleston at the hand of a deranged white supremacist, there have been hundreds of stories relating to symbols of the Confederacy and its military and political leaders. Duffel Blog decided to jump into the fray by writing about West Point revoking the diplomas of graduates who went on to serve the Confederacy. This “story” follows an earlier posting regarding efforts to rename Army installations named for Confederate generals.

Both of these pieces are amusing, but also thought-provoking, as they force us to consider the broader role of the war on our society. Clearly, Duffel Blog is responding to the controversies surrounding Confederate symbols with tongue-in-cheek humor designed to make us reflect on the absurdity of the reactionary nature of our times. They are also aware that a sizable portion of their audience is likely Southern and is in the cross hairs of this debate. That said, they also make one reflect upon the careers of the Confederate military leadership when viewed against the backdrop of American military history. Further, they speak to attempts to reconcile the two regions after the war by naming the installations for these men.

That said, I doubt that West Point will be revoking diplomas of former Confederates anytime soon, as the Academy knows that, despite their switched allegiance during the war, many of these men had distinguished antebellum careers in the Army, with Robert E. Lee being among the most prominent. Whatever your stance on the symbols of the Confederacy and how they are used and displayed, I invite you to read the two Duffel Blog posts, chuckle a bit, and allow yourself a moment to breathe and reflect, as more of that would certainly benefit this ongoing debate.