The Lost Cause? Teaching the U.S. Civil War in 2016
By Dr. Thomas Balcerski
Browse the ever-burgeoning corridors of the internet this time of year, and you will be sure to encounter a popular meme. Two images form a starkly contrasting diptych: one of a younger self from the start of 2016 and the other at the end. Typically, the pay-off by such a comparison is humorous enough—we can all relate to the effects of the passage of time and how each new year brings us one year farther along in the journey of life. I admit that I enjoy a good meme, and in fact, I do something similar by comparing a picture of Abraham Lincoln to start the Civil War and one near the end of his life. The effect is startling.
Except that 2016 has been different, we are told, one for the record books, unprecedented, or, perhaps more ominously, the end of the republic as we know it. Of course, the presidential election of 2016 cannot be ignored, nor, for that matter, can its significance be minimized for scholars working in American history, broadly defined. Democracy, and all its attendant messiness, seems ever more to be at stake.
This past fall semester 2016, I taught an upper-division elective on Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s a course that rotates through the curriculum, largely because I teach at an institution that does not have the faculty bandwidth to offer it, and the many other courses in the catalog, each year. Consider my singular good fortune, then, to be given the opportunity to teach about an epoch defined by the issues of slavery, civil war, and citizens’ rights, during a time when many Americans question if these same issues have yet to be resolved. Seldom has serendipity been so needed.
I designed the course with the usual battery of pedagogical tools. I assigned Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor’s excellent Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction by Cengage, supplemented by two equally useful contributions in the Bedford / St. Martin series on History and Culture: Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery counterpoised to William Cain’s William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery. I also showed portions of several films, including Lincoln (2012), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), and The Free State of Jones (2016). Students wrote two short response papers that engaged primary and secondary sources, including the films (the first one was on the causes of disunion and the second on the winners and losers of the Civil War). For the final paper, I asked students to choose either a research topic related to the Civil War Era in New England or to write a historiographic assessment of the causes of the war, soldier motivation, or reconstruction.
As much as I relied upon the tried and true combination of readings and papers, I did try to innovate in other ways. I tweet under the name @tbalcerski; so, I required students to create individual Twitter accounts and tweet during the semester about topics related to the Civil War era. I was pleased by the number of assumed personae that emerged from this assignment (special shout-out to @yaboiulysses for his pitch perfect tweets as U.S. Grant). Through these efforts to bring social media into the classroom, I came to see more clearly the great need for students to engage. After all, it is the primary way in which they themselves engage with the world around them.
Back in the brick and mortar setting of the classroom, student engagement was equally critical. I required a discussion leader assignment in which students worked in pairs and presented on the assigned reading and facilitated discussions. We traveled as a class to the New England Civil War Museum in Rockville, Connecticut, where we were greeted by staff members (some in full replica Union blue outfits), and ended with a tour of Grove Hill Cemetery to see the final resting place of hundreds of soldiers. I knew that something had clicked when students both tweeted about the trip and referred to it during subsequent in-class discussions.
From this point of view, I fulfilled my obligation to design and teach a course on an important topic in American history: the fiery trial of American democracy during the era of the Civil War. Less clear is just what, if anything, did I end up contributing to the less than fiery trial in which our American democracy is currently engaged? It’s true that students made connections with the historical material to the events of our present time; they tweeted and talked about such linkages with laudable insights. Given the ongoing challenges and conflicts between law enforcement and the citizenry, and especially African American citizens, one student asked in his final paper: “Is Reconstruction really over?” But such promising rhetorical linkages aside, what did we accomplish by looking at the cruelty of the past in hindsight?
It is almost too trite a phrase to carry much analytical value these days, but if I were to rest my proverbial hat on one achievement this semester, it would be this: I promoted critical thinking skills. I first asked provocative questions, such as what can we learn about the American character in the decades-long struggle to end slavery? How does our understanding of patriotism change by studying soldier motivation among the warriors who wore blue and gray? And why did Reconstruction fail to achieve its stated goals, or, for that matter, which issues do Americans still consider unfinished even today?
Admittedly, I only but rarely spoke directly about the political issues of the election of 2016 and its aftermath. I am a historian, after all; and I have learned, whether by social conditioning or an early career scholars’ inherent caution, to aim for something resembling a scholarly distancing when it comes to the present day. But, if I aim to instill the value of critical thinking to my students, what then can I do toward that end? Here, again, I have come to see the value in the process of research, discussion, and writing. For those students who engaged the material as readers, speakers, and writers, they were better able to make those linkages, in the ways best attuned to their learning styles, for themselves.
Teaching about the era of the Civil War in the fall 2016 semester was, I can see now, a timely occasion. For students, the course reinforced basic points about the need for historical knowledge, the ability to provide historical context, and the ability to separate historical fact and well-supported interpretations from mere opinion. For me, I worked to create an environment in which the past and the present refused to be disentangled. In all that we do as teachers and scholars, we should be ever attuned to the value of the study of history in our own present. As academics who study the Civil War era, we need not stray from our knowledge base, nor need we pioneer any earth-shaking new methods (Twitter can be fun, though). Instead, we need simply to keep asking provocative questions, to keep engaging students as critical thinkers, and to be ever ready to connect our not-so distant pasts to the still too fresh present.
Dr. Thomas Balcerski is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the personal and political relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King.