The New York Times’ Disunion series continues to be absolutely fantastic, even if it doesn’t get the publicity it did when the series started. And I’ve been reading Kevin Levin’s wonderful blog Civil War Memory for years. So it makes perfect sense that Levin would write a post in the series, on taking his high school students to a battlefield. Tell you the truth, I wish I had a guide like him when I visited battlefields:
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.
I’ve always found the battlefields leave me a bit cold. I think that’s because of the emphasis in traditional Civil War studies on troop movements, which I profoundly do not care about. It’s not that spaces of violence don’t touch me at all. I find sites of white massacres of Native Americans tremendously moving and disturbing. My interaction with battlefield sites has particular relevance this morning as I am off to visit the Saratoga battlefield, site of the nation’s most important victory during the American Revolution.
All this said, I can understand why Civil War battlefields are places of tremendous power. I laud Levin both for his teaching and his public outreach on these matters. He’s one of the great historical prophets on the internet and his blog is consistently excellent.