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.

Reenactress: Examining female reeanctors as soldiers

As some of you may know, I have been involved with Civil War reenacting for five years now, serving in units portraying both sides of the conflict over that time. While I am no expert by any means, I do appreciate anything that raises awareness of the hobby. From articles on clothing to a best-selling book that devoted space to the subject, there are literally hundreds of resources available to learn about this exciting activity.

One area within it that causes quite a debate involves female reenactors and the roles they should portray. There are those who believe that women should only be allowed to portray traditional female roles of the time, while others, myself included, believe that women, if able to look the part of the soldier and handle the requirements of taking the field (no, I am not trying to equate this with real combat, but the strains on the body are there) should be allowed to join the ranks with the boys if she is interested and wants to learn. I’ve been fortunate enough to be with units that have taught women to stack arms and had ladies kit up and fill the ranks for infantry drill at a public event when numbers were needed. With the training, they performed admirably and were as capable as the guys.

I say all this to bring to your attention an interesting project over at Kickstarter. J.R. Hardman, a reenactor, is attempting to produce a documentary about her journey into living history portraying a soldier to examine the politics behind exclusion of women portraying soldiers among some units, despite women actually serving disguised as men during the war, as well as examining the real history behind women’s contributions on the battlefield. The film Reenactress is being Kickstarted to raise sufficient funds to complete the film. It is also getting some early press via places like the Smithsonian.

I encourage you all to go and check out the film’s official site and its Kickstarter page and consider supporting this project, as it will surely raise awareness of the hobby and maybe get more folks interested in it and Civil War history.

On an unrelated note, this represents my 300th post to the blog.

Sons of Confederate Veterans loses license plate legal battle

I posted about this almost four years ago, then updated on the story after readers and fellow bloggers alerted me to some pertinent details. Now, the controversy over the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) seeking to have a license plate made for their organization in Texas has finally been adjudicated and they are on the losing end.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (you can read the briefing here)that Texas may reject the SCV license plate on the grounds that license plate designs constitute government speech and does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Stephen Breyer, who authored the decision, as well as Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia dissented, with Alito providing some biting criticism of the decision, writing, according to CNN, “the Court’s decision categorizes private speech as government speech and thus strips it of all First Amendment protection.”  He added that the ruling, “”establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing.”

What is interesting about this decision is how it goes against the general trend when cases involving the SCV and other states have gone to courts, with the SCV usually ending up as the victor. Personally, I will say that I am a bit concerned about the precedent that this may set regarding other organizations seeking to have license plates for their causes, but as I stated back when this story first flared in 2011, I believe that had the SCV compromised and sought to create a neutral plate with a soldier silhouette and commemorate the 150th anniversary, or Civil War veterans in general, the issue would have been moot.

The Confederate battle flag is a powerful symbol with a complex and divisive past, as evidenced by the tragic shootings in Charleston the other day. I will never deny someone from being proud of their Confederate soldier ancestor, as they fought a hard war for a cause they believed in, or other reasons they believed in as much as their Union counterparts. However, we live in a different era, where segments of our society have different feelings towards that flag and what it means to them.

Unfortunately, one cannot escape the reality that the flag symbolized an army fighting for a government established, in part, for the perpetuation of slavery. Further, it became a symbol of hate and oppression used by a minority of people to intimidate blacks, thus coloring the collective population of the South by the actions of a few. Not all Southerners are racists, just as not all Southerners owned slaves. However, the perceptions cast by the use of the flag and its history since the end of the war stand in contrast to its use by soldiers in the Confederate Army.

Now that the SCV has lost the battle in Texas, only time will tell as to how other states will respond regarding their already-issued SCV plates and the display of the Confederate battle flag in public. Confederate symbols will continue to elicit controversy, but this does not mean that they should be eliminated from our awareness, as they can be tools for educational purposes, whether presenting on Confederate soldiers, or the post-war history of the South, the good, bad, and ugly.

With that I will leave you with a poll and welcome any thoughts you would like to share, provided they are civil, regarding this case and the Confederate flag.