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.


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 or download the free, Addy award-winning Tennessee Civil War 150 iPhone app, available at

Ask CWH: Calling all teachers

In light of my recent visit to Ellen Hopkins Elementary School to present on the war, I wanted to take the opportunity to reach out to educators that are likely getting to the Civil War in their history curriculum to ask questions about the war that they would like more information on. Any topic goes.

Teachers, if you are interested in using this site to enhance your Civil War curriculum, please use the comment section of this post to ask your question, or a question from your students. I, or one of my esteemed colleagues, will do our best to answer the question in a separate post. If you are interested in having students do brief writing assignments on the war as guest posts, please let us know and we can make that happen (I will edit the commenting on such posts to ensure safety). We look forward to your questions.

Photos from Heritage Days

Like last year, we participated in East Grand Forks Heritage Days, providing a Civil War display. This year, we attended both days, and had extra help in Joe Camisa and Bud Mahnke, who provided their expertise on subjects as well. It was a bit crazy, as Stuart and I had just returned from Wilson’s Creek only a couple of days earlier. Except for a bit of wind and showers, it was fun, and we were able to do several firing demonstrations with the muskets, which the crowd seemed to enjoy. We even made the local paper The Exponent, which was fun. Below are photos from the day.

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The Civil War in the classroom

Given this very interesting post by Brett, I thought I would bring up an interesting couple of ideas for teaching the war in the classroom and see what you all think. While understanding slavery and emancipation are essential to understanding the war years, I do feel that some classes on the war focus too much on non-military issues and not enough on battles. That is where the following ideas come into play.

The first is one I have some experience with from my days in elementary school in Illinois. When I was in fifth grade, my bus driver, who was also an avid reenactor, came and talked to our class on the war, while dressed as a Confederate soldier. It was really something cool to see and got me interested in reenacting myself (unfortunately, I do not have enough cash to get started yet, but some day) and later into public history. I think reenactors should be encouraged to present to schools, as seeing someone dressed in period attire is a wonderful way to introduce the war to younger people. In addition, reenactors do not have to just be soldiers, as civilian reenactors could portray and talk about how the war affected the home front. Further, if looking for a presentation on slavery, what better way to illustrate the evil of it than by having reenactors talk about the Underground Railroad, slave life, and African American experiences. For example, several students, professors, the college chaplain, and I participated in a play when I attended Illinois College, where we acted in several skits dealing with different contributions of my alma mater to the Underground Railroad. I would like to think that it was a great educational tool for the local children in attendance. I hope to use reenacting in the classroom when I finally become a professor, as it is a unique way to present history.

The other idea involves war gaming as an educational tool. There are many good PC games on the war that involve unit level operations and tactics. Students could have a lesson on a particular battle, then take command and see how they would lead troops. In addition to PC games, students might have a great time learning about battles and tactics of the war through more traditional war gaming, including counters and miniature soldiers. Plus, the more traditional method may be easier than attempting to link several computers and providing the software. War gaming is a very unique and fun way to get students interested in the war, as it allows them to understand what it took to lead the armies in the war.

Recall the diorama fiasco in Texas, where high school students built a diorama of the war’s last battle at Palmetto Ranch, Texas. Those students learned about the war through a unique lesson. I can only imagine how much greater appreciation those students have for history and the Civil War after building that diorama, however, when it was destroyed, I bet their enthusiasm was curtailed. This unfortunate incident does not mean that a diorama project is a great way to get students into history.

Overall, bringing reenactors into the classroom, using war games, and building dioramas are all great ways to learn about the war. There are many other great ideas to engage students, but I encourage educators to look at these ideas as potential teaching tools.