Tag Archives: pedagogy

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.

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.

“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