The very first time I visited Gettysburg, with my UCLA undergraduate class…way back in 2001, I was particularly struck by the commercialism of the battle. Everything, or nearly so, is geared to selling that fight. I suppose I understand. After all, the town itself is nearly completely surrounded by a national park, and thus cannot expand into other areas of the marketplace. Its main attraction of course, is tourism, and businesses have responded accordingly.
This academic year, I am taking my own class to Gettysburg. As part of the experience, we are going to spend some time examining the commercial landscape. A few questions I expect them to tackle: at what point (if any) does tourism trivialize the struggles of those who fought at and lived in Gettysburg in 1863? If you looked only at the commercial landscape, would you understand any of the issues that had been at stake during the war? Similarly, could you tell who won the battle by looking at the commercial landscape? When visiting the park visitor center, what are the dividing lines between consumer culture and history?
That should certainly keep them busy for a few hours – I am open to your suggestions as well.
I have had my Civil War class write op-eds on 1860 presidential candidates, I have had them debate and vote on Virginia’s secession in the wake of Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops (secession carried), next week we are making (and eating) hardtack, in the near future we are going to review the Gettysburg Address from all perspectives on the political spectrum, and – just for fun, we are going to put Jefferson Davis on trial for treason. But of all of the things I have developed in an effort to get the kids engaged, my favorite by far is the soldiers’ letters assignment.
It’s simple really, I have the kids read a handful of typical soldier letters that I assemble for them, then I have them go to the virtual archives to research on their own. I give them some patriotic stationary (both Yankee and Rebel) and task them to write a letter home…paying particular care to strive for an authentic voice.
The results are remarkable, without fail. Now I owe much of this to the unbridled enthusiasm of my exceptional students. My kids tend to be ambitious and go above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. But this last group of letters really hit the target. They captured the soldiers’ sentiments and recreated an authentic look with cursive, stains, misspellings, bad grammar, tears and holes.
Teachers – give this a shot. I think you will find that the kids learn quite a bit about soldiers’ thoughts on loneliness and missing their families, camp life, terrible food, weather, fear of being killed, the enemy, ideology, and any number of other things a typical soldier would have recorded in a letter home. If you want, download this stationary to help recreate the look:
Greetings all – I am about to take something of a different tack with this blog – and get back to my roots: historiography, popular history, memory, and teaching. As much as I love calling out the asinine in the world…I think there is enough of that out there to go around. So there you go.
Let’s kick things off with a review of a first-rate book: Six Days in September….
Alexander B. Rossino’s Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, 1862, paints a vivid picture of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, which culminated in the bloody Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Rossino captures the spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia, simultaneously depicting the events as they unfolded for the upper echelon of command, a number staff and field grade officers, and a handful enlisted soldiers as they maneuvered from South Mountain to Sharpsburg to slug it out (spoiler alert: unsuccessfully) with George B. McClellan and the Union Army of the Potomac.
I found the layered narrative to be especially engaging. The narrative style reminds the reader to take both a wide and narrow view of the military landscape. Rossino deftly lays out the grand strategy with Lee and his lieutenants and then refocuses his attention on the more personal exploits and adventures (as it were) of a Maryland Confederate officer and a group of Alabama enlisted men.
I was particularly satisfied with how Rossino chose to deal with the broader Civil War issue of slavery. Waters such as these are difficult to tread in a fictional recreation of a historic event. To simply sidestep the institution’s role in the cause of the war seems imprudent. And so an author might be tempted to resolve this problem by following one of two general paths: he or she might apologetically absolve the actors as people of their times or pander to a 21st century audience with cliché modernist critiques of the institution. By my estimation, both narrative courses are equally unwise. And thus I was relieved that Rossino chose neither. Instead, he is forthright about the issues that moved men to fight, including the Confederate preservation of slavery from a 19th century perspective.
Readers versed in Army of Northern Virginia lore will certainly be familiar with the strategic disputes between Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet. Rossino explores the tensions between these two, as well as others among the Confederate high command, in a way that foreshadows the more famous strategic disagreement between Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg the following year. In ways similar to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the 1863 Gettysburg campaign, Six Days in September leaves the reader questioning Lee’s wisdom in Maryland that preceding autumn, challenging the notion of the peerless Lee. In Six Days, Lee is not without virtue, but he is clearly flawed as any mortal man tasked with such great responsibility might be.
After reading this thought-provoking, well-researched, and beautifully written novel, my only hope is that Rossino adds an additional layer (or layers) to the story by once again taking on the battle from the perspective of Lee’s adversaries: George B. McClellan and the men of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan makes only a peripheral appearance in Six Days, and only through a Confederate understanding of his cautiousness. I would personally love to see how Rossino would have McClellan act (or fail to act) when he finds himself in possession of the Lee’s famous “lost orders.” I would be equally intrigued by Rossino’s take on McClellan’s relationship with his commander in chief. These, of course, are hopes for the future. For now I am quite satisfied with Rossino’s novel – and I recommend it highly.
Buy the book HERE – and stay tuned, I’ll be posting a lot more frequently in the days to come.
You know…it’s 2017 – and people still think that the southern states seceded in 1860-61 to protect some vague notion of state rights. If you encounter some of these people, talk about what you learn in the video below…and if necessary, you can further consult these primary documents:
In case you did not yet get the news on the other side, here’s what the man who currently holds your old gig had to say:
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that he saw what was happening, with regard to the Civil War. He said, there’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, the Civil War — you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question. But why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
Is this for real? Was this an episode of Drunk History? I mean…honestly. Let me quote that one more time…just let it sink in.
“People don’t ask that question. But why was there a Civil War?”
IT WAS SLAVERY, STUPID!
So, Mr. President…no, not you Easy D, but Zombie Andrew Jackson. Can you please arise from the dead and help rid us of our pestilence…that plague of imbecility that has descended upon our nation’s most hallowed office…before another epic conflagration erupts? We need your help. I will put aside the fact that while you were alive, you were an Indian-murdering slave-owning sociopath. Because apparently, you are the right man for the job.