Tag Archives: veterans

Soldiers’ Letters in the Classroom

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:

Union Stationary

Confederate Stationary

And you can find resources from which to draw HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

If you have your kids do this project, I would love to here about the results. Below are a few examples from my class:

With compliments,

Keith

I Disagree With Some of the Best Books Ever

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.28.20 AMA former student recently asked me to comment on David W. Blight’s  Race and Reunion. I said it was a great book…but one with which I disagree. And I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory – maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight’s (and others’) “reconciliation premise” – paraphrased from my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, on the subject of veterans, commemoration, and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm (see what I did there?)  only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought over…on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always – I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.

With compliments,

Keith

It’s Just Like You Are There

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 8.23.16 PMOn July 3rd – just a few short weeks ago, I took part in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signing Event in, as the event title might suggest, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offered a few words as part of a panel discussion and question and answer session concerning Civil War veterans and how they told their story of the war.

I really enjoyed the event and being in Gettysburg during the anniversary of the battle was something to behold. Suffice it to say, the Civil War tourist industry is alive and well. Just try and find a parking spot on Steinwehr Avenue and tell me something different.

If you couldn’t make it to the talk – the video is below. It’s a little over a hour, but worth the time spent watching. I would especially pay attention to the engaging questions posed by the audience. It’s just like being there!

 

With compliments,

Keith

Should a Battlefield Visit be a More Solemn Occasion?

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 7.32.08 PM
View from the Angle at Gettysburg…looking across the field at Seminary Ridge.

Tourists in cars, tourists in buses, tourists on Segways, tourists with selfie sticks, tourists yelling, arguing, dropping garbage. This is the typical scene at the most visited section of the Gettysburg battlefield: The Bloody Angle. Much of Gettysburg takes on a carnival atmosphere. The town itself is tuned almost entirely to the tourist industry – and the associated tourist revelry spills out to the surrounding fields of battle in ways that are – shall we say…less than dignified.

As a historian who studies memory, commemoration, and historical interpretation, I find battlefield tourism fascinating. Especially these days as the commemorative landscape is in a clear state of flux. But I can’t help but wonder if tourists more often than not miss the point.

You know that spot where where you are yelling at your kids? Yes, that one…thousands of people were killed there. And the ground was dedicated to honor the fallen. Perhaps death on that scale is too abstract for most to really fathom. Perhaps we are too far removed from the event.

Perhaps.

But I think it would be a good idea for everyone to take a minute away from shouting and selfies to reflect on what actually happened there. Let’s stop and think for a moment about those who fought, killed, and struggled for their lives…and maybe then we can understand why they did it.

With compliments,

Keith