Teaching the Battlefield

“Civil War America,” a course dealing with American history from roughly 1848-1877, is part of my teaching assignment at Messiah College.  I will be teaching it in the Fall. 

I will be honest–it is not my favorite course to teach.  I like the Civil War just fine, but as an early Americanist I just can’t keep up with the literature.  The class always seems to go very well, but I can’t help but think that my students might be better served by a Civil War expert.  (Any Civil War scholar-teachers looking for adjunct work in the future? Let’s talk).

Everytime I have taught the Civil War I take students on a day-long trip to Gettysburg. (Messiah College is about 30 or so miles from the battlefield).  Over the years I have gotten to know enough about the Battle of Gettysburg to conduct an introductory-level tour that I feel comfortable with.  We basically follow the driving tour and linger at different places along the way for mini-lectures. 

Sometimes when we are on the field we pause to reflect on issues raised by the Civil War that go beyond the guns and canons.  These are always the most memorable and the most educational parts of teaching on the battlefield. 

Kevin Levin, the Civil War educator and scholar behind the very informative blog, “Civil War Memory,” knows how to teach a battlefield.  His recent piece in The New York Times discusses his experience with high school kids at some of the more popular Virginia Civil War fields.  Here is a taste:

I hope my students – their generation, as much as my own – will come to see themselves as part of a larger narrative, a larger community that continues to be shaped and defined by those who came before us. It is my responsibility as a teacher, and our responsibility as citizens, to understand the achievements and failures of the Civil War generation. In large part, white Americans rebuilt their lives. Through reunion ceremonies and monument dedications, former enemies put much of the hatred behind them. In doing so they helped forge a new nation.

But I also expect my students to deal with questions that, unfortunately, too few of us are willing to confront. While sitting in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery I have them consider what the war meant for African-Americans. Why did the local African-American community in Fredericksburg stop celebrating Memorial Day a few short years after Appomattox? What did the battle of Fredericksburg mean, for example, to Joseph Walker, who was born in Spotsylvania County, witnessed the bloody battle in May 1864 and went on to found the Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute in 1905, at the height of Jim Crow? What stories did he share with his students about the war, stories that were lost in the broader movement of national reunion? Would Walker, White and other African-Americans have been welcomed to the battlefield reunions of their white former comrades and enemies? What meaning would they have found on those days if they had been?

Such questions aren’t easy, nor should they be. Battlefields are not simply places to visit for fun, retracing the movements of soldiers from point A to point B. We ought to feel uncomfortable when confronted with so much bloodshed and sacrifice. We can honor that sacrifice and ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain” by acknowledging the legacy of emancipation and freedom that they helped to bring about — and, in doing so, continue their work of more fully embracing the founding ideals that we as Americans so dearly treasure.