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.

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.

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.

Bonds of War-a new blog on the economy of the Civil War

As many of my readers will know, military history, and the Civil War specifically are not just about soldiers and the movements of armies on battlefields, though these are usually the most popular subjects for consumption and study by many people. That said, the Civil War also had a profound economic impact, which is important and worth studying to understand the full influence this conflict had on the nation as a whole.

One enterprising doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, David K. Thomson, who has an impressive curriculum vitae, is chronicling his dissertation research into the role of Union bond sales on the war through his site Bonds of War. Though a new site that is just getting started, as Thomson begins to examine his topic, it will be exciting to see what conclusions he reaches on this unique and seemingly little-known topic of Civil War history. The blog portion of his site will share the stories of those who purchased Union bonds, which looks to be an interesting glimpse into a cross-section of 19th century society.

As someone at the same stage as him, I wish Mr. Thomson luck on his project and success in the historical profession going forward. As you have time during your day, go and check out Bonds of War and support this scholarly project.

Momentous anniversaries and visiting Civil War history

To my loyal blog readers, my apologies for not actually posting something worthy on the actual anniversaries recently, but I do want to share with you that the last several days have commemorated some momentous events related to the history of the Civil War. One of the reasons was that I was out of town visiting my parents for Easter, followed by a trip to Branson, Missouri to celebrate my mother’s birthday, which is actually April 15 (yes, I do appreciate the irony as a historian of her birthday).

On April 7, my Dad and I traveled to Illinois College, my alma mater to hear Dr. Robert Welch, who also writes a blog The Eagle and The Journal, which deals with Macomb, Illinois during the war via articles from its two main papers during the war The Eagle and The Journal. Check it out, as it’s quite good. Welch brought a lot of gear to his talk and drew a crowd of around 75, who were quite interested in his topic on Civil War Living History and Reenacting, including its uses as a teaching tool, which resonates with me quite well.

April 9 marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. I unfortunately missed the NPS program on it, but my good reenacting buddy Den Bolda had two questioned answered during the live-stream, which was quite cool. I did make a Civil War trip out of it though, as my Dad and I visited Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield that day. I had been there before in 2011 to reenact for the 150th, but did not get to see much, so it was fun to take time with him and survey the park, despite limited time.

April 14 marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in DC. Finally, April 15 marked the 150th anniversary of his death. Springfield is abuzz with activities leading up to ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of his funeral, so, if you are in Springfield, be sure to take in the festivities.

With that I will leave you with some photos of Welch’s talk and my visit to Wilson’s Creek.

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