Using Reacting to the Past in the Civil War Classroom

The time had come for the delegates to Kentucky’s Sovereignty Convention to decide whether or not the state should secede. One by one, the delegates responded to the roll call vote. Once the representatives from the Cumberland Plateau, Pennyroyal, and Jackson Purchase regions had spoken, the vote was tied. It was up to the Bluegrass region to determine the state’s fate. “This is so exciting!” said one of the delegates.

The year was not 1861 but 2017, and the setting was not Kentucky but a college classroom in Colorado. For the first time, I used the role-playing game “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) to teach the sectional crisis and secession in my Civil War Era class. One of my colleagues used an RTTP game to teach the Mexican Revolution, and he suggested that I try the “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation” game in my course. I have been moving away from lectures and heading towards active learning exercises in class, so I was open to his ideas. Before following his advice, though, I did as much research as I could on RTTP. The testimonials that I uncovered seemed so breathlessly enthusiastic (Mark Carnes, one of RTTP’s founders, has a book immodestly titled Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College) that I wondered if it was some sort of academic cult. Despite my reservations, I decided to drink the Kool-Aid.

In RTTP games, students take on roles based on historical figures or archetypes and re-enact events from a historical era. The games range from debates over democracy in Athens, to the shape India will take following independence in 1945.[1] In “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation,” the only RTTP game directly related to the American Civil War, students play the role of delegates to a special session of the Kentucky legislature. There are twenty-seven different characters, many of them based on actual antebellum figures. One student became Cassius Clay, another was governor Beriah Magoffin, and a third was Simon Bolivar Buckner, Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard. The “Homespun Lawyer” is based on William Lowndes Yancey while the “Arch-Unionist” represents Joseph Holt. Other characters are archetypes, like the Jacksonian Democrat who opposes additional legislative spending and wants to keep Kentucky united. Each student receives a character sheet (provided with the game materials) that explains the person’s background and views on a variety of issues. All characters have a variety of objectives to accomplish during the game, and they usually have to work with other characters to succeed. Issues ranged from reforming the state’s manumission act, to encouraging immigration into the state, to preventing the flow of military supplies through Kentucky. The game was, in a way, a cross between a historical re-enactment and the “Survivor” television show.

The preparation for the game, both for the instructor and for the student, is extensive. I had to become familiar with the 232-page Instructor’s Manual and the 190-page Game Book. The Game Book includes a historical background on the sectional crisis, the game’s rules, a description of the assignments, a description of Kentucky in 1861, primary source documents, and a bibliography. Instructors have to assign roles to students, distribute handouts, track student progress, and answer an abundance of questions. The students had to read a historical background article and an extensive list of primary texts. They were also tasked with delivering at least one speech and publishing one issue of a newspaper (complete with masthead, an editorial, and articles), both of which had to reflect their understanding of the assigned materials. Students could also run for Speaker of the House, propose legislation, debate initiatives, form militias, and jockey for political power.

The game itself proceeds through 1861, with sessions that respond to the secession of the Lower South, the Crittenden Compromise, the creation of the Confederacy, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the secession of the Upper South. It also requires an extensive investment of class time. My class runs on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and I used two class periods to introduce the material, another five to play the game, and one more to debrief the students. Even though the two introductory sessions covered essentially the same material that I normally covered, I decided to eliminate a third introductory session and one game session. The game thus consumed about four weeks, or one-quarter of my semester. I chose to use Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh’s The American War: A History of the Civil War Era as the text that would take the place of my lectures.

When I spoke of the game during the first couple of class periods, students were dubious. Six of the forty students dropped the class, including one with the last name of Sanders, thus depriving those who remained of the fun of addressing him by the honorific title of “Colonel Sanders.” The discussions of the background reading and primary source material went well, but the game started slowly. I had a hazy understanding of how to act as “Gamemaster” and the students had not fully digested the rules.[2] By the end of the first session, though, we had vigorous debate that revealed the contradictory nature of America in 1861. As we worked our way forward in time, students became more confident to speak up in class, and many of them provided excellent distillations on topics such as the influence of the Fugitive Slave Law on secession or the political philosophy of John Calhoun. I sat off to the side of the class and did not speak much during the legislative sessions. As for Kentucky, the delegates from the Bluegrass region tipped the scales in favor of secession. I rolled a die to determine the war’s outcome and we learned that the war lasted four years and the Union government freed the slaves. In reality, of course, Kentucky did not secede, but the other two events did happen.

The game had a number of positive effects. The level of interaction among students was substantially higher. Rather than being locked into their little cell phone worlds before class began, they were politicking and working the room to secure votes. One student also noticed this change and commented that, more than any other class he was taking, he got to know his classmates. Other students said that they really enjoyed the game and found it to be a good way to learn about the contingent nature of events in 1861. They cited the high level of work that went into the assignments but said that they learned so much. Indeed, their speeches and newspapers exceeded my expectations. The class period after the re-enactment ended was one of the best that I have been a part of during my seventeen years of teaching. During our comparison of the game to actual events, an essential part of the curriculum, the majority of the class asked questions. As we continued to discuss the early part of the war, the students referred back to the knowledge they gained because of the game. I cannot credit RTTP with this passion for history, but I suspect that it has motivated my students to learn more. At least five students have stopped by my office and mentioned how much they are learning in this class.

There are several drawbacks associated with the game, though. In a larger class such as mine, it was difficult for all students to deliver their speeches and the sessions bogged down at times. Some students were simply not invested in the activity while others did not make an effort to build coalitions or trade votes. The game was also a fair degree of work for me, between grading the assignments, answering questions, and keeping up with administrative work.

As for me, I will drink the Kool-Aid again and use RTTP the next time I teach the Civil War course.

[1] A list of published games and those in development is found on RTTP’s website, https://reacting.barnard.edu/ (accessed March 22, 2017). Additionally, there are a number of videos on YouTube that demonstrate how the games work; this video is one example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U6L9ERzw0U (accessed March 22, 2017).

[2] From June 8 to 11, 2017, there will be a Faculty Institute at Barnard College to train instructors. Participants can attend workshops on twelve different games. See https://reacting.barnard.edu/ai-2017.

Robert Gudmestad

Dr. Robert Gudmestad is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. His current research project involves using GIS to study the Union and Confederate brownwater navies and their quest for control of the Mississippi River system. He is author of A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (LSU, 2003) and Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom (LSU, 2011). He can be reached at robert.gudmestad@colostate.edu.

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