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.

Review of Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

Product DetailsSmithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013. 308 pp. $40.00.

This book reflects the efforts of the Smithsonian Institute to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war by showcasing the many unique and special items housed in their collections related to the war.

While it is not a scholarly monograph, this book is a wonderful piece that belongs on the shelf of those interested in the Civil War for both scholarly and general interest pursuits.

It provides hundreds of beautifully detailed photographs of objects housed in the collections, including uniforms, equipment, photographs, and documents. In addition, informative captions describe and discuss the objects. This is coupled with thematic and chronologically-focused stories to provide context to the substantial amount of images.

The book covers many themes related to the war, including the home front, slavery, freedom, music, government, soldiers, material culture, and photography. Readers will find something for almost every possible topic related to the conflict within this book.

What stood out for me on this book was the beauty of it and its construction, as a fairly sturdy hardback book. The paper quality is excellent, with glossy paper that allows the images to pop off the page. Related to the great construction and printing, is the price, which is quite reasonable for a large hardback book, making it affordable for many interested in the war.

Through rich photography of items, coupled with informative and gripping stories and captions, this book will hopefully build interest in learning more about the Civil War well beyond the recent 150th anniversary commemorations. Younger readers will be able to access the book via the rich imagery, while adults can discuss with them the stories behind the photos, fostering learning.

The Smithsonian did an outstanding job with this book and I recommend it for all folks interested in the Civil War as one that should be on your wish list and eventually your shelf. Smithsonian Civil War is a glowing testimony to the expertise and quality of the Smithsonian’s commitment to preserving our nation’s history, including the Civil War. If you don’t have a chance to visit the physical museums in Washington, consider getting this book to allow you to take a virtual tour.

ACCLAIMED HISTORIANS AND AUTHORS TO SPEAK AT 2015 TENNESSEE CIVIL WAR SESQUICENTENNIAL SIGNATURE EVENT

I received the following press release from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development about an upcoming event, so if you are in Tennessee, check it out:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The 2015 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Event will welcome acclaimed historians and authors to present “Reconstruction Tennessee” to audiences in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area is the co-sponsor of the speaker events.

This year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Caroline E. Janney, history professor at Purdue University, is the author of “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation,” an examination of how men and women protected memories of the Civil War. Janney will present her keynote address “Remembering the Civil War” 7 p.m. April 30 at The Bijou Theatre. The world-renown Fisk Jubilee Singers will open the evening with a special musical performance.

The “Reconstruction Tennessee” Speaker Symposium will take place 1-2:30 p.m. May 1 at the Knoxville Convention Center. Speakers Todd Groce, Luke Harlow, Bobby L. Lovett, and Tracy McKenzie will conduct a discussion on Reconstruction Tennessee. A book signing with authors will follow the event.

Todd Groce is the president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society. With 25 years of experience, Groce is one of the leading public history executives in the nation. He has led initiatives that have raised $50 million for educational programming, capital projects, and endowment.

Luke Harlow is a historian of slavery, race, abolition, and religion during the 19th century in the U.S. His first book, “Religion, Race and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880” was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press. Harlow was co-editor with Mark Noll of “Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present” which was published in 2007 by Oxford University Press.

Bobby L. Lovett is professor emeritus, an award-winning author, speaker, historian and retired professor of Afro-American history. His book, “The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History” won the Tennessee History Book Award from the Tennessee Library Association and Tennessee Historical Commission.

Tracy McKenzie is a history professor at Wheaton College. He has written three books including “One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee”; “Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War,” which received the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award; and “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.”

The state’s 2015 Sesquicentennial Signature Event, “Reconstruction Tennessee,” will be held April 30May 1 in Knoxville and surrounding historic sites. The Tennessee Sesquicentennial Commission sponsors a series of free signature events including the keynote speaker Dr. Caroline E. Janney and educational events for teachers and students.

For more information on Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial, visit www.tncivilwar150.com or download the free, Addy award-winning Tennessee Civil War 150 iPhone app, available at www.itunes.apple.com/us/app/tennessee-civil-war-150.