Showing posts with label History Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History Education. Show all posts

Monday, August 16, 2010

News---The Lessons of Civil War Reenacting: Biases, Epiphanies, and Education

Remove Second-Guessing From American History, David Christy, News Editor, Enid (Oklahoma)News and Eagle, August 13, 2010.

I doubt it’s a recent phenomenon and it probably goes back to biblical times, but second-guessing and Monday-morning quarterbacking by people in every walk of life is as much an American pastime as watching fireworks on the Fourth of July or rooting for your favorite college football team. It’s as all-American as apple pie and drinking cold beer on a hot day after mowing the grass.

But for historians, second-guessing history is something of a pitfall — it should be avoided at all costs lest said historians’ bias and beliefs slip in and cloud the final picture. You see, it’s my contention we all should look at history and historical events from all sides, with as little bias as possible and with the most open mind we can muster.

Most who are familiar with me know I spent nearly 25 years as a Civil War living history re-enactor.

Re-enacting history, in my own view, is a way for an individual to go back in time on the odd weekend and attempt to live in the shoes and act the part of an individual from a bygone era. In this case I was able, within certain limitations and obvious boundaries, to try and re-create history in my own mind, and at the same time provide the public with a snapshot of how an individual soldier during the American Civil War would have lived, would have reacted, would have thought and would have interacted with others.

Re-enacting Civil War battles is not for everyone. It’s grueling, time-consuming, dirty, sometimes dangerous and most times a very mentally challenging hobby. Not only that, it’s a little on the expensive side to authentically outfit yourself both as a Confederate and Union soldier, constantly do research, travel around the country and find time to take a three- or four-day weekend to lose yourself in mid-19th century America with tens of thousands of other like-thinking re-enactors.

But ... it was an absolute epiphany.

So, when I see an author or historian who writes a book and questions how a particular Civil War general made his battlefield decisions, or a politician or president reacted to a situation, I always hope the author of the second-guessing has been there and done that, so to speak.

My first Civil War re-enactment occurred in the late-1980s at the Indian Territory Battle of Honey Springs, in all-encompassing 110-degree July heat, ticks, chiggers and powdered dust near a little creek and wooded area called Rentiesville, north of Checotah in McIntosh County. After two days of marching and fighting and putting on a show for thousands of appreciative spectators, I had lost 10 pounds and was hooked on re-enacting for life.

The next 24 years were full of building impressions of both a Confederate and a Union infantry soldier, studying and working to be as historically accurate as is possible for a 20th century individual, who didn’t have to live in those trying and history-altering times.

The first and most lasting thing I learned from travels to hundreds of places like Wilson’s Creek, Mo., Chickamauga, Ga., Franklin, Tenn., Vicksburg, Miss., and Mansfield, La., — my hat is off to the men and women who lived through those times, and helped us to get to where we are in history today.

Don’t believe me? Try wearing a heavy-wool uniform, long johns, lugging an 11 lb. musket and about 25 pounds of leather gear, water and food in heavy-leather, high-top Jefferson brogans about 15-20 miles during an average re-enactment, eat homemade hardtack and biscuits and wake up shivering in a thin canvas tent while sleeping on the hard ground when its 15 degrees.

It will open your eyes. More than a few historians over the years have questioned why the Confederates didn’t follow up their rout of the Union troops at the Battle of First Bull Run, capture Washington and end the war in 1861. Or, why Union generals George McClellan and George Meade didn’t pursue their battlefield successes at Antietam and Gettysburg and end the Civil War in 1862 and 1863, respectively.

If you’ve ever re-enacted a battle, you know why. Physical exhaustion, mental fatigue and sheer hunger and thirst are overwhelming. Any soldier in any real war will attest to that. And re-enactors aren’t being shot at in anger with real bullets and real artillery shells. There’s no dead or dying comrades. After the battle they aren’t forced to march mile after mile in freezing temperatures, over rivers of mud or in 100-degree heat, day after day after day.

History is made by the sacrifice of flesh and blood and intestinal fortitude. It is not made by historians — it’s only chronicled as best we can. It does dishonor to those who lived, fought and died to do otherwise. Keeping bias out of history is the ultimate goal. It allows us to see events and decisions and outcomes from different perspectives. It allows us to learn by mistakes made and keep the past from being tainted by our own individual mores — historically speaking.

Text Source: Enid News and Eagle
Image Source: Civil War Librarian, Bentonville, NC 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview: Publishing, Primary Sources, Doing History, and Student Learning

Slavery and Sectional Strife in the Early American Republic: An Interview with Gary Kornblith, Seth Binder, History News Network, December 14, 2009.

Gary Kornblith is a professor of history at Oberlin College, where he has taught since 1981. His publications include The Industrial Revolution in America and, with Carol Lasser, Teaching American History: Essays Adapted from the Journal of American History, 2001-2007. His most recent work is Slavery and Sectional Strife in the Early American Republic, 1776-1821, the inaugural volume of Rowman & Littlefield’s American Controversies Series. His books can be located for purchase online.

What prompted you to write this book?

In 2005 I was at the book exhibit at the OAH (Organization of American Historians) Convention in San Jose looking for a book to assign undergraduates on the Missouri Compromise. The standard secondary account of the subject was more than 50 years old, and I was hoping to find a collection of primary documents that would be suitable for classroom use. When I asked a sales rep at a publisher’s booth whether his company had any such volume in the works, he replied, “What was the Missouri Compromise?”

Heading home from the conference, I ran into Doug Egerton at the airport and told about this disconcerting exchange. Doug said that he was editing a new series for Rowman & Littlefield on major controversies in American history and that I should write a book for the series about slavery as a political issue in the early republic. I jumped at the opportunity. The projected format for the new series was to combine the kind of historiographical discussion found in Harlan Davidson’s American History Series with the kind of primary documents featured in the Bedford/St. Martin’s Series in History and Culture. My hope was to provide undergraduates – and others as well -- with an accessible sourcebook for exploring why slavery was such a bone of contention in the early republic. Today’s students know that slavery was wrong, but they find its evil so obvious that they have trouble understanding why people ever supported it and why it proved so difficult to abolish in a country supposedly founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.”

What attracted you to this period of history?

As a sophomore at Amherst College, I took John William Ward’s course on Jacksonian America and got hooked on the early nineteenth century. As a graduate student, I – like many others of my generation – looked to E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class for a model, and I wrote my dissertation on master artisans in New England, 1789-1850. The great thing about the early republic as a period is it is full of dramatic change and upheavals. It starts with the first American Revolution and ends with the second (to use Beardian terminology). In between, the country quadruples in size and sextuples in population; the Industrial Revolution launches; and the struggle for African American emancipation moves from the margins to the center of the national narrative. What could be more exciting than all that?

What was the decision process like in deciding what to include or exclude in terms of the primary documents?

Painful! I wanted to include the well-known voices and documents that one would normally learn about but also the more obscure. The idea was to show a wide spectrum and different dimensions of this complicated debate. There were white southerners who pushed for emancipation, white northerners who didn’t, and so on; students should have a chance to discover that the historical record is not neat and predictable but instead full of surprises that complicate easy assumptions about how people in the past thought and acted.

Obviously, we are focusing on the Early Republic… is there one person whom you would consider the most influential in terms of the slavery debate?

Thomas Jefferson. You can’t get around him. He is the author of the greatest polemic for freedom. Both sides in the argument over American slavery quoted him—the Notes on the State of Virginia as well as the Declaration of Independence. He believed that blacks were human beings with equal human rights--though not equal abilities--and he acknowledged that slavery contradicted his most cherished principles. Yet he remained a slaveholder throughout his adult life. He decried miscegenation and could not imagine a racially integrated republic. Yet he fathered children by Sally Hemings and failed to pursue a “two-state solution” (e.g., a black colony in the Louisiana territory) when he had the opportunity as president. It is easy to attack Jefferson today as a hypocrite or worse, but he epitomized the tragedy of what Edmund Morgan has termed the American paradox of slavery and freedom.

Historians have long argued about whether or not the Civil War was an irrepressible conflict. Much less has been written about the “irrepressibility” of the Missouri Compromise. Could the Missouri Crisis have turned out differently?

Of course! The Missouri Compromise was not inevitable. It seems to me quite conceivable that disunion would have occurred in 1820 had both sides in the debate hung true to their original positions. Would the result of have been civil war at that point in American history? Many contemporaries feared such an outcome, which was a crucial reason that Clay et al. succeeded in forging a compromise. Yet it is also possible that disunion in 1820 would have been peaceful, at least in the short term, and that the so-called free states would have been better off untethered to the South. John Quincy Adams, for one, thought such a path worth serious consideration – at least in the privacy of his diary, though not in his public pronouncements. I include Adams’s reflections in the book.

Throughout your analysis in the first section of the book, you bring in several different scholars each with their differing views about the period. Can you explain your purpose in doing this?

I wish to convey to students and other non-specialists that history is contested terrain even when historians agree about the “facts.” Doing history involves complex judgments that you cannot score on an AP test. I want students to think for themselves and to join in the debate over competing explanations of why things happened the way they did—not just to scribble down what one expert or textbook says is The Truth.

This is your third book designed more for use in the classroom than the traditional monograph. What draws you to this format?

I certainly value monographs and am engaged in writing one right now. But more than a researcher, I am a teacher, and I am proud of my vocation. I like to raise provocative questions in classroom settings and to push students to think “outside the box.” If I can’t interest a twenty-year-old in a historical problem, then I haven’t done my job.

Text and Image Source: History News Network, December 14, 2009.