The Human Experience on the Battlefield

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A few weeks ago, I posted a piece outlining an exercise for my students on a school field trip. They were tasked to engage the human experience of soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. You can read the post HERE. I have since taken said trip and followed through on said project. All in all…mission accomplished. To recap: I assigned each student (we had 24 total) a soldier “trading card” that included an image of the soldier and personal information on the verso - age, occupation in civilian life, family information (wife, children, siblings, parents, etc) and any other tidbits that shed some illumination on the humanity of the individual. We had soldiers of many stripes and from varied walks of life. One of them found meaning caring for sick animals, another sent money home to his invalid mother and worried that his sister was spending beyond her means, and yet another had been something of an academic prodigy at a very young age. Some had lived fairly mundane lives as farmers or laborers, others were quite extraordinary. All of them were human beings with families, responsibilities, desires, and ambitions. I wanted the kids to relate to the soldiers as individuals and understand that they were not so different from us, which they did.

What really hit home was the battlefield reveal. The kids did not learn the fate of their soldier until we had explored and examined the fighting where the soldier had been engaged. Some made it through the battle and though the war…many did not. A few were killed instantly, others lingered in agony for a few hours or several days before before succumbing to their wounds. Every story was different. Every story was uniquely human.

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All to often the stories of battles as momentous as Gettysburg are distilled to the movements of armies, divisions, brigades, and regiments. The narratives hinge on decisions handed down by the upper echelon of command. The fighting is reduced to blue and red lines and arrows on maps. And though all of these things are crucial to understanding such battles both in the immediate sense and in the greater context of the war, they tend to discount the humanity of those involved. People and their experiences are lost to abstraction at best…or ignored altogether at worst.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 175,000 men fought at Gettysburg. We got to know 24. I had them write reflections on their experiences when we returned to the classroom - and they unanimously agreed that these personal connections helped them engage the history in ways that they had never considered…beyond the books - beyond the maps. It made the history real in a sense that they saw a hint of themselves in the distant photographs of young men who left their homes and families to risk their lives. I think the exercise helped them better understand cause and context. It helped them see complexity and nuance. And it helped them understand the human experience in ways that did not reduce people to simplistic binaries.

I am fortunate enough to have the resources available to take my kids to the other side of the country where we can explore these sites of historical significance in person. I will be the first to tell you that physically walking in the footsteps of historical actors and imbibing the sights, sounds, and smells of a historically significant place enhances the educational experience. Still, I have executed this project in a classroom environment with nearly the same effect…and I have some ideas for teachers who might want to replicate the exercise themselves. I’ll be exploring those possibilities in a future post - so teachers, shoot me a note for now and I will keep you posted.

With compliments,