Category Archives: The Civil War

Civil War Storyline

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In the midst of frantic preparation of ESD 112’s new Teaching American History Grant proposal (due Friday!) and our History on Location expedition to Boston, Plimoth, and Salem (Sunday!), I squeezed in a trip to my daughter’s school Tuesday morning to help them launch their study of the Civil War period.  Using the Storyline approach, students will be designers from Bellthorne Studios, hired by the Smithsonian to create display called “Quilting the Nation, 1849-1900.”  I arrived with the Smithsonian’s invitation, commending them on all the excellent commemorative work they’ve done in the past.  I told them that I thought their statue of Frederick Douglass was wonderful, but that I wanted to make sure that they didn’t repeat the mistake that they made of not sufficiently consulting the historical record when they included Underground Railroad messages sent through quilts.  I warned them that they were in for some controversy, telling them about the strikingly different portrayals they were likely to encounter – using the 2009 John Brown exhibits in New York and Richmond, Virginia as an example.  I’m looking forward to checking in at Sunnyside over the coming weeks to see where they go with this!


November’s Batch

Time for another review of opportunities that have passed my desk over the last month that you might have missed:

National History Day Judge Recruitment: Want to support middle and high school students’ enthusiastic historical inquiry?  The Southwest Washington History Day Competition will be held February 26 in Vancouver and we need judges!  If you’ve done it before, you know how wonderful it is to talk to kids about their research and applaud their projects; if you haven’t, you’ve been missing out and it’s time to turn that around.  Register to judge here.  No prior experience necessary; let me know if you have questions.

Lesson Study: I posted twice on Lesson Study this month – once on Peter Pappas’ always worthwhile blog Copy/Paste; a second time here.  Add your voice to the conversation!

Summer Institutes:  Both Gilder Lehrman and NEH have posted their 2011 summer professional development seminars.  These are unbelievable no- or low-cost opportunities to study historical themes with top scholars in interesting locales:

Spring Institute: The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is running an institute for teachers March 3-5 (Deadline January 28)

Scholarships: The Colonial Dames have posted another opportunity for Grade 5-12 teachers in Washington State to advance their instructional capacity with $1000 grants.  Apply here by March 4.

Other odds and ends related to our work:

Civil War

American Revolution

Civil Rights Movement

Education Reform

If there is something I missed that you want others to know about, add it to the comments section!

For the ears, eyes, and mind – Top tweets

While I think the Twitter feed is a great way to get the word out, many teachers don’t use it.  So, I’ll from time to time post a batch of the links I’ve been listing there on the blog.

Without further adieu:

Classroom resources

Thinking about history & memory

Thinking about schools & education reform

  • Curriculum for Excellence: Video shows Scottish “natural” approach to teaching and learning If any of you ever want to talk about Scottish Storyline, let me know:  It’s a great way to teach!
  • Dan Pink on motivation. Posted a year ago, but I just now saw it and think that it adds to the ed conversation.
  • Lesson Study interviews on It’s the Carolyn, Stan, Mimi, Roni and Matt show!
  • Ken Robinson animated – another fabulous study from RSA
  • Gary Stager offers a reading list for people interested in school reform

Upcoming programs


History and Memory: Confederate History Month

This post is based on a workshop Rich Christen, Peter Thacker, and I put together for Saturday’s Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference.  I’m posting it here thinking that it might prove useful in articulating a rationale for using primary documents with students or parents.

When historical memory drives a news story, the media fills with representatives portraying competing visions about the past.  These talking heads blather past each other, typically driven by ideology rather than historical inquiry.  How might the interrogation of primary sources assist citizens in making sense of the debate?  The recent debate over Confederate History Day provides a case study.

Historical memory is manufactured in a tremendous variety of ways, with film, books, symbols and statuary being especially significant ways.  Political proclamations also play a role in memorializing the past.  On April 6, 2010, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation declaring “Confederate History Month.”  It’s valuable to start by reading the proclamation as originally issued, noting what you think it says about how McDonnell remembers the Confederacy.

Confederate History Month Proclamation

I think it’s an incredible document.  On first glance, I couldn’t get past the idea that he was calling it “Confederate History Month” rather than “Civil War History Month.”  On return readings, other phrases jumped out:  He calls the Civil War a “war between the states for independence“, combining two highly partisan names for the war (“War Between the States” and “War for Southern Independence”).  He calls the period “a time very different from our own,” which – while no doubt true – could be seen to remove any ability to assess motivations today.  He talks about the “insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union [note: not “United States”] Army“, conjuring Lost Cause mythology, and his reference to Lee’s surrender echoes Reconciliation mythology.

National outrage ensued.  Many – including Barack Obama – argued that omitting slavery from the proclamation was unacceptable.  Others defended McDonnell:  Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for example, said that “it goes without saying” that slavery was bad and that protesters were “trying to make a big deal over something that doesn’t amount to diddly.” Watch, for example, this CNN debate on the issue.

In watching the clip, it seems to me plausible that most viewers would adopt a relativistic response – these are two different ways of thinking about the past; two truths, both equally valid and worthy of consideration.  What happens, though, when – rather than listening to debaters giving only the slightest of consideration to the other’s arguments – we add primary sources to the mix?  If we are wondering how we should remember the Confederacy, shouldn’t we invite the Confederates to speak for themselves?

While many different documents can do the trick, one could do far worse than using Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech for this purpose.  In the speech, given March 21, 1861, the Vice-President of the Confederacy is celebrating the Confederacy’s foundation for “all, not only in this city, but in this State, and throughout our Confederate Republic.”  He

elaborates on the Confederate constitution’s vast improvements over the US Constitution, detailing progress in interstate commerce, representation, and presidential terms.  He then turns, “last, not least” to slavery.  He says that the authors of the US Constitution – Thomas Jefferson and “most of the leading statesmen of the time” – believed “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. In this belief, Stephens says, they were in error – and the Confederacy was founded to correct that mistake:


Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

With great detail, Stephens goes on with an argument for White Supremacy and the foundational role it plays in the Confederacy.  One exercise people might be asked to do is to highlight spots where Stephens’ speech is consistent with McDonnell’s proclamation in one color with inconsistencies labeled with a different color – it’s a strong contrast.

Response to McDonnell’s proclamation brought revision from the governor:  first, he added a clause regarding slavery; more recently, “Confederate History Month” became “Civil War in Virginia” month.

Thinking beyond Confederate History Month, though:  In what other studies might primary sources shine light on contemporary debates?  Leonard Pitts had a recent piece on remembering the Civil Rights Movement; Larry Cebula had a post about quoting Patrick Henry; Ron Chernow wrote about The Founding Fathers versus The Tea Party.  Are you doing work with students confronting historical memory?  Let’s hear about it!

Update:  I wish I had known about this video prior to our presentation – Lost Cause Nostalgia – “Virginia.” Definitely worth the watch – but you need to stick around for the whole thing.  h/t: Kevin Levin – Civil War Memory

History on Location Follow-Up Part 5: Archives, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, American History Museum

Note:  This is the final entry on our trip.  Previous entries are on our investigations in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania UGRR, John Brown sites, and Antietam/Lincoln’s Cottage/Ford’s Theatre.

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Beautiful weather followed us to DC, providing project participants with stellar nights and breathtaking mornings through which to enjoy the capital.

Our final day focused on how the Civil War story is told in DC.  We began it with Missy McNatt at the National Archives, who gave us a “backstage tour” of the Civil War exhibit to begin April 30.  Ms. McNatt asked us to consider which themes and documents should be highlighted by the exhibit.  She previewed “Docs Teach,” the Archives soon to be released new effort to move teachers beyond simply using primary sources but to use them in ways which excite students and catalyze inquiry.

From there, we went to the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial.  There, Frank Smith discussed how that site emerged from twinned interests in historical memory and neighborhood revitalization.  Spencer Crew discussed how efforts to broaden the historical narrative can conflict with donors’ visions of the past.*  Spencer then joined us on a short visit to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where he asked us to compare the story told in the exhibit with the one we had been studying for the previous week (and which we had begun with Jenny Wahl, Paul Finkelman, and him the previous summer.)  He encouraged us to pay particular attention to The Price of Freedom:  Americans at War exhibit.

I was particularly struck by the statement which introduced the Civil War gallery, “Americans battled each other over preserving their union and ending slavery.”  I realize that it’s hard to be pithy – and accurate – when describing the cause of war, but I thought that this one’s word choice sent it in the wrong direction.  Yes, it was a war over slavery and union – but was it over “preserving union” and “ending slavery”?  Couldn’t it also be described as a war over “ending” union and “preserving” (or, better yet, “extending”) slavery?  Nice to still have the energy to be energized by words after 6 days filled with them!

All in all, a rich, robust week thanks to the efforts of all the presenters and the people working behind the scenes.  Teachers were equally glowing and exhausted after a week’s “vacation” immersed in a professional development experience will immeasurably enhance their abilities to teach students.  I have no doubt that teachers are already trying new strategies and testing new targets.  This week, we’ll begin collaborating on classroom implementation through Lesson Study.

I’ll leave off with just a few of the enthusiastic responses written by project participants:

This experience has reminded me how important basic content knowledge is to powerful teaching.

It will greatly help me teach the Civil War.  I think I’ve avoided it in the past due to lack of knowledge.  This year I will make time!

Incredible experience…  I am re-energized about my professional development and teaching in general.

It reminded me that history is ever-changing, not static – and that approaches to teaching history where students compare, contrast, and evaluate are more effective and growth inducing.

Visiting the Soldier’s Home was incredible and provided a unique perspective on Lincoln and the war decisions he made.  I learned so much but, more importantly, it instilled in me a desire to learn even more.

Thank you, American taxpayer!

*Note:  I missed much of Dr. Smith’s talk – and all of Dr. Crew’s – because I was running up and down U St. trying to make up for a catering snafu.  If any participants are able to add their reflections on these two presentations, I’d be much obliged.

History On Location Part 4: Antietam, Lincoln’s Cottage, Ford’s Theatre

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Note:  This entry is the fourth of a series, with previous entries on Gettysburg, Underground RR sites in Pennsylvania, and Harper’s Ferry & Charles Town.

Following our trip to Harper’s Ferry and Charles Town, we went to Antietam – site of the bloodiest one day battle in American history.  The site offered Matthew Pinsker the opportunity to discuss George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, and Civil War military strategies in general.  Looking at a map of the broader theater, though, brought up a key question:  Given that the United States’ mandate was to put down the southern rebellion, should we be focusing our instruction on battles that occurred in the North?

Valuable Antietam links here!

Friday was split between Lincoln’s Cottage and Ford’s Theatre.  Lincoln spent much of his presidency at the place now called “President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers Home.”  Because we had read Matt Pinsker’s Lincoln’s Sanctuary prior to the visit, we knew how much Lincoln’s experiences at the site had impacted his thinking and how much insight into Lincoln the person can be rewarded through a visit.  Being there on the site on a bucolic spring day, it was easy to see how this beautiful place was a haven to the family.  The site is striking:  the home’s interior offers a striking counterpoint to the old school “this is the president’s china” approach; the vista overlooking the Capitol building, unfinished in Lincoln’s day, drives home the metaphor of a nation being constructed; the site still shared with a veterans’ home and a national cemetery makes you realize that Lincoln bravely engaged in the kind of daily interactions to which few wartime presidents have exposed themselves.  After touring the site, Pinsker introduced us to a historical mystery he has been investigating:  Where did Lincoln write the Emancipation Proclamation? And what made it radical? Finishing off the day at Ford’s Theatre made me realize how odd it is that we have traditionally given so much more attention to a site where Lincoln happened to die than the place where he chose to live.

History on Location Follow-Up: Part Three – Harper’s Ferry and Charles Town

Note:  This entry continues this one and this one.

Thursday was split between Harpers Ferry, Charles Town and Antietam.  Harpers Ferry falls on the top of my personal list of sites from this trip to which I’m looking forward to returning.  For some reason, I had always imagined the arsenal to be a fort sitting in the middle of a desolate field:  instead, I find a picturesque historic village that is not only the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers but of industrialism, abolition, Civil War, and modern civil rights history (details in this packet.)  After a choral reading of runaway slave notices (led by the Hapers Ferry’s Education Coordinator and taken from American Notes and American Slavery As It Is), we contrasted John Brown’s personal story with Lincoln’s, considered whether or not Brown’s recent successful raid in Missouri left him reasonably confident for this raid’s prospects, and how to deal with questions of violence in teaching our students.  We critically considered multiple monuments, including a somewhat hidden commemoration from the Daughters of the Confederation. From Harpers Ferry, we went to Charles Town – where a small historical society houses multiple Brown-related artifacts from the trial and execution.  Charles Town offered further evidence that the South won:  A city brochure for this West Virginian town – an area that radically seceded from Virginia in order to join the Union – described it as a Confederate stronghold (the perfect lead to our return home, where we were welcomed by Virginia’s governor proclaiming April “Confederate History Month.”)

Audio Files: