Tag Archives: pedagogy

Teaching the West in the Civil War Era

Most courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction venture only briefly into the American West. Textbooks and lectures often dispense quickly with the region. They make fleeting forays into the Kansas and Missouri border wars, or the military conflict over the Mississippi River, before returning to a familiar North/South narrative focused on eastern battlefields and the halls of Congress.

The articles in the December 2016 special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era suggest that elevating the West to a place of importance alongside the North and the South can transform students’ understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction in some critical ways. Expanding our courses to encompass the American West does not merely add new people and new places to the story. Grappling with the West can change how we interpret the significance of the Confederate rebellion, the power of the federal state, and the success of postwar reconstruction. At the same time, incorporating the American West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course already dense with detail, and overflowing with complex themes, poses major conceptual and practical challenges. Below, I outline some strategies for getting the West into your Civil War and Reconstruction course and helping students wrestle with the region’s significance.

Avoid Treating the Confederate Rebellion in Isolation

Rather than focusing solely on the Confederate rebellion against the U.S. federal government, treat the Confederacy as one of many regional polities across the nation that contested federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century. One effective way to do this is to frame the Civil War as a two-front conflict for the United States. At the same time that the U.S. government waged war against a southern Confederacy that defied federal authority, it also prosecuted a western war against Native peoples who disputed federal sovereignty over their homelands. In this framework, the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek (1864) become part of the same story. Students can see them as similar turning points when U.S. military might began to crush regional rebellions against federal authority.

One particularly effective strategy for helping students see these connections is to shift focus to Indian Territory, the place where the southern and western warfronts converged with each other. Complex and shifting alliances among the United States, the Confederacy, and Indian nations—most of whom had a strained relationship with the U.S. government after removal—highlight the multiple, intersecting rebellions against federal authority that bound together the West and the South. Rather than being isolated from or tangential to the “real story” of the Civil War, Native peoples’ struggle to maintain sovereignty over their western homelands becomes vital to understanding the national conflict over the boundaries of federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Focus on Moments of Federal Weakness, Not Just Federal Strength

While a standard Civil War and Reconstruction course might emphasize the rapid expansion and consolidation of federal power during and after the war, events in the American West illustrate the weak and ineffectual nature of the federal state at the borders and margins of the nation. Instructors might assign Kevin Waite’s or Megan Kate Nelson’s essays in the special issue to demonstrate the federal government’s limited power to suppress Native resistance, Confederate invasions, and proslavery imperial ambitions in the distant, isolated New Mexico and Arizona territories.[1] Similarly, Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay can help students think critically about the limited reach of the federal state in the heart of the continent where expanding Native empires often dictated the terms of diplomacy to would-be U.S. conquerors.[2]

Pushing into the postwar era, instructors can juxtapose western and southern moments when the federal government attempted to quell rebellious local polities with mixed results. One lecture might compare federal efforts to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment in the former Confederacy and New Mexico. The inability of the federal government to root out the traces of chattel slavery in the South, as well as its utter ineffectiveness in eradicating peonage in the Southwest, can lead students into a discussion about the limits of the federal state’s power to institute a regime of free wage labor across the entire nation. A comparison of failed land redistribution plans for the freedpeople with the allotment of Indian communal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 could prompt a very different class discussion. The federal state’s power (or lack thereof) to impose a liberal vision of citizenship, based on property accumulation and small landholding, varied tremendously in the former Confederacy and in Indian country.

The events of 1877 also make for a promising point of comparison. Students can consider how the end of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, the Nez Perce War, and the Great Railroad Strike signaled fundamental geographic shifts in federal power. The decline of federal authority in the southern states coincided with the federal government’s swift reconfiguration and redeployment of state power to suppress Indian and working-class rebellions.

Depiction of battle between Nez Perce and the U.S. Army
“The Nez Perce War,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 3, 1877, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Use Biography to Connect North, South, and West

Finally, a powerful way to integrate the West into the familiar North/South story is to track the transcontinental journeys of familiar figures across the Civil War era. Remind students that nineteenth-century Americans did not live in sharply defined regional boxes. They traversed geographic boundaries in fluid ways that demonstrate the interconnectedness of regional histories. Instead of just examining William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts to suppress rebellion against the federal government in the heart of the Confederacy during the early 1860s, place his Civil War military career into the context of his decades-long relationship with the American West. Sherman spent much of the 1850s in California. He worked as a gold rush banker and sought to incorporate the new Pacific territories into the U.S. commercial economy. He had his first experience suppressing civil rebellion when Gov. J. Neely Johnson appointed him as a major-general in the California militia and charged him with breaking up San Francisco’s 1856 Committee of Vigilance, which had overthrown the municipal government. After the war, Sherman took the lessons of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas back to the West. He advocated scorched earth warfare against resistant Native people of the Great Plains that was reminiscent of his policy toward Confederate civilians. Sherman’s wartime promise of forty acres and a mule to southern freedpeople also presaged the kind of property redistribution and emphasis on small-scale agrarianism that the federal government tried to install on Native lands with the Dawes Act. Sherman’s experiences in the West both transformed and were transformed by his experiences in the Confederate South.

Six Union officers sitting outside a wood frame building
Ely S. Parker (seated, second from the right) at Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia, 1865, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Seneca General Ely S. Parker provides students with an example of how Native people also lived lives that do not fit neatly into North/South narratives. Parker advocated for Seneca sovereignty and land rights in New York before becoming General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal military secretary during the Civil War. He recorded the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865 that ended the Confederate rebellion. In the postwar years, as the United States embarked on the project of southern reconstruction, Parker oversaw the reconstruction of Indian country. He served as the first indigenous U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs and worked to make treaties with western Indian peoples that would facilitate their incorporation and assimilation into the United States. In Parker, students can see the intersection of southern and western civil wars and reconstructions, and the ways that Native lives transcended binary North/South conceptions of nineteenth-century history.[3]

Embrace Gradual Experimentation

Incorporating the West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course will necessarily require some trial and error. Rather than attempting to overhaul an entire course in one semester or quarter, consider gradually reworking a handful of lectures to include more western material, or insert a few additional western readings into the mix at critical points. Repeat the process every time you teach the class. After just a few iterations, the West will become a robust and natural part of the class content. The familiar North/South axis that once stood at the heart of the course will gradually give way to a national, continental, narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

[1] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (2016): 536 – 65; Megan Kate Nelson, “The Civil War from Apache Pass,” in ibid., 510 – 35.

[2] Pekka Hämäläinen, “Reconstructing the Great Plains: The Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent,” in ibid., 481 – 509.

[3] I recommend assigning C. Joseph-Genetin Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), which analyzes Parker’s critical role in postwar Indian affairs.

Stacey L. Smith

Stacey L. Smith is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (UNC Press, 2013) which won the inaugural David Montgomery Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She is currently completing a book on African American civil rights activists who migrated to the Pacific Coast of North America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

#TBT: YA Novels Take Teens Back to the Civil War and It. Is. Awesome.

At some point, a stereotypically boring Social Studies teacher probably made you read The Red Badge of Courage, Across Five Aprils, or Rifles for Watie. There’s nothing wrong with these books. They tell compelling stories through teenage eyes that give very accurate accounts of various Civil War experiences. I have used them in my own classroom. But these novels are, for lack of a better term, old. That doesn’t make them unnecessary—far from it. It’s just a fact that begs this question: what are the modern equivalents of these time-honored classics? What themes are more recent works exploring, and how do the stories reflect contemporary notions of the Civil War?
To answer that, I’ve reviewed a handful of Middle Grade and Young Adult Civil War books from the last ten or so years ranging in topic and presentation. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a light survey that caught my eye as an 8th Grade History teacher and YA author who spends considerable time teaching the event and writing for the target audience.

Unique Presentations of Slavery and Race

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“Day of Tears,” Image courtesy of Hyperion Books, 2005.

Lester, Julius. Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2005

This middle grade novel retells the true and horrible story of “The Weeping Time”, the largest slave auction ever held in American history on March 2 and 3 of 1859. The play format gives the reader a front-row seat to the emotions and motivations of each principal character: the indebted plantation owner, Pierce Butler, who mourns the loss of his property—just not enough to keep them; his two daughters, who witness the horror with varied responses; and most notably the young house slave Emma, Lester’s hero, who has no idea that she will appear on the auction block.
Lester creatively peppers the novel with time-hopping interludes that show each character’s future self reflecting back on that horrible day—how it scarred and changed them. Though gut wrenching and vivid, Lester doesn’t leave us in tears: Emma escapes to Philadelphia and eventually onto Canada. True, her husband later dies while fighting in the Civil War, but Emma has her own children, and ends the novel poetically sharing her life story with her granddaughter, over tea. Still, sorrow remains the constant theme of this book, specifically divine sorrow: the torrential rain of that March day was, as Emma’s father says, “God’s tears”.

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“Riot,” Image courtesy of Egmont Books, 2009.

Myers, Walter Dean. Riot. New York: Egmont USA, 2009.

Similarly unique in presentation—this time a fast-moving screenplay—Riot retells New York’s bloody draft riots of 1863 through the eyes of fifteen-year-old, biracial Claire Johnson. The daughter of Innkeepers John (black) and Ellen Johnson (Irish), Myers sets Claire’s search for identity cleverly against the backdrop of a city foaming with racial tension. Angered that Lincoln’s conscription unevenly targets them, poor Irish lash out at the wealthy who can afford the $300 substitution fee and African Americans who are
taking their jobs. Battle-weary soldiers from Gettysburg arrive to maintain order and end up suppressing the riots with particular brutality. So what does all this mean for Claire, who has a black father but looks as Irish as her mother?
This longing to transcend biracial identity drives the novel. “I don’t see why you have to be a black person or a white person,” Clair tells her mother. “Why can’t you just be a person?” Later, Claire questions the notion of race entirely. “I didn’t choose to be black…I just wanted to be a human being. I just wanted to be whoever I saw in the mirror, without a race or a place in life. What is so wrong with that?” By using Claire as a lens to view the draft riots, Myers forces the reader to question race then and now. Coupled with the rapid pace, honest racial dialogue, and more then a few harrowing chases down New York City alleyways, Riot is poised to capture and challenge young readers.

Not-Boring Narrative Nonfiction

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“Chasing Lincoln’s Killer: The Search for John Wilkes Booth,” Image courtesy of Scholastic Books, 2009.

Swanson, James L. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer: The Search for John Wilkes Booth. New York: Scholastic Press, 2009.

Fact: young adults don’t love nonfiction (nerdy honors kids not included). But when the English Department at my school added Chasing Lincoln’s Killer to their curriculum, our eighth graders took to it. Abridged from Swanson’s bestselling adult version, The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killers, young readers will have no trouble keeping up with the fast, thriller-esque work that chronicles Lincoln’s tragic end and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. I’m not saying they’re going to be dying for it, but by and large they don’t hate it—a big win for teachers.
Relying on a host of eyewitness accounts and other primary sources, Swanson weaves together the alternating narratives of Lincoln, his cabinet, Booth, and the co-conspirators. Little-known players also appear: actress Laura Keene, who cradled the dying president in the theatre box; Sergeant Robinson, the male nurse who heroically fought off Lewis Powell thus saving Secretary Seward’s life; photographer Mathew Brady, who captured the crime scene; and Thomas Jones, Confederate Secret Service operative who ferried Booth across the Potomac. While the plot loses some tension relatively early after Booth shoots Lincoln, Swanson takes the reader on a heart-pounding chase through the Maryland and Virginia countryside that culminates in Booth’s own death. Filled with era drawings, newspapers, maps, and a superb array of photographs, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is YA nonfiction at its finest.

Seriously, Disturbingly Dark

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“Kind One,” Image courtesy of Coffee House Press, 2012.

Hunt, Laird. Kind One. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 2012.

This novel takes you to a dark place and (almost) leaves you there. Told primarily from the perspective of Ginny, a fourteen-year-old girl who marries the abusive, slave owning Linus Lancaster, Kind One examines rape, torture, complicity, and redemption on a pre-Civil War Kentucky farm insidiously named “Paradise.” Linus Lancaster is the archetypal slave-owning monster: tall, muscular, hard-drinking, and complete master of his pig-farming domain. His particular brand of sadism mirrors the slaughtering of the pigs he keeps: “Linus Lancaster liked us all to take a turn at the killing…those of us who ate the most ought to kill the most [he said]. That was me and Linus Lancaster.” For six years Linus has his way with Ginny until he becomes bored of her and begins “visiting” nightly his two teenage slaves, Cleome and Zinnia (who may also be his daughters, Hunt isn’t entirely clear on this). Driven by jealousy or disgust or both, the battered Ginny begins assaulting the girls she once treated like daughters; here Hunt is clear: abuse begets abuse. But when Linus is murdered (no spoilers), the girls turn on Ginny with vindictive sadism, leading to Hunt’s other motif: savagery begets savagery.
Hunt interweaves the brutal narrative with Ginny as an old woman, hinting that forgiveness—despite all the horrible things she’s done and endured—isn’t out of reach. And he tells the story’s (thankfully) redemptive end through the eyes of those around Ginny during and after those awful years, a captivating technique that alleviates pressure and stimulates curiosity. Though stunningly written, I won’t be book talking this to my middle schoolers; objectively speaking, however, Hunt has crafted a haunting look at a demented set of circumstances that took place on many a farm in the Civil War era.

A New Take on Divided Loyalty

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“The Mirk and Midnight Hour,” Image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Nickerson, Jane. The Mirk and Midnight Hour. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

I planned this as my guilty pleasure read, but as the pages turned it became something richer—something deeper and more nuanced. Set during a smartly narrow window at the war’s opening year, the story centers on seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey who finds herself running the family farm after her brother is killed at Fort Donelson and her father goes off to fight. Instead of the war itself driving the novel—an exhausted and often alienating feature of YA Civil War books—several unique conflicts propel the plot. New family arrives, including an insufferable stepsister and a cunning, blockade-running cousin; Violet befriends the slaves of a local doctor rumored to practice ‘hoodoo’; and most prominently, Violet discovers a wounded Union officer deep in the woods being kept alive by someone whose motives aren’t immediately clear.
And it’s that secret relationship which forces Violet to confront the inconsistences of her world. The soldier she’s caring for—the soldier she is falling in love with—fought at Fort Donelson; he’s the enemy, maybe the one who fired the bullet that killed her brother, prompting Violet to question her loyalty to the Cause. He also forces her to finally deal with her own nagging suspicion that owning another human is wrong. “…your ‘property’ is men, women and children,” the lieutenant tells her, a truth Violet knows but struggles to calibrate.
Fitting, then, that it’s the family slave, Laney—Violet’s only true friend in the book—who poignantly diagnoses this struggle to love someone you’re taught to hate: “Everything’s different when you get to know folks.” By making this “getting to know folks” the driving theme of the book, Nickerson anchors the narrative in wartime relationships and the difficult task of boundary breaking which young adults will find compelling.

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“Matthew Landis,” Image courtesy of Becka Pillmore, 2016.

For nine years Matthew Landis has attempted to slay boredom wherever it lurks in his 8th grade Social Studies classroom at Tamanend Middle School. An alum of Villanova’s Graduate History program (2013), he recently clawed his way into publishing by signing book deals for his Young Adult debut, THE JUDAS SOCIETY (Sky Pony, 2017) and his Middle Grade debut, PRIVATE OLIVER PRICHARD (Dial/Penguin Random House, 2018). He hopes one day to achieve whatever level of literary success allows him to summer in Cape Town with his wife and daughter and go on Safaris pretty much whenever they want. You can read more about his books at www.matthew-landis.com, email him at author.matthewlandis@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @Matthew_Landis