Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Making the Civil War relevant

Tom Jameson, who lent me Capt. Frank Butler’s wartime correspondence to use for Our War, recently emailed me a photo of Butler’s spurs. Butler was a young 5th New Hampshire officer from Bennington, N.H., who rode with Col. Edward E. Cross to Gettysburg and later served on the staff of Maj. Gen. William F. Smith. His correspondence allowed me to tell his story in the book and the story behind the story in an earlier post on this blog.

Capt. Frank Butler's spurs, with a 5th New Hampshire regimental badge.
The clover-shaped badge identifies the regiment as being in the Second
Corps. Red signifies the First Division. 
Before Tom Jameson delivered bound transcripts of the Butler letters to archives in Bennington and Concord, he hired a young historian to put them in order. Her name is Katie Knowles, and she is working on her doctoral dissertation at Rice University in Houston, Tom’s hometown. Knowles also teaches American history, including the Civil War.

Tom gave her a copy of Our War some time ago, and the other day she agreed to answer a question for this blog. Here is what I asked her:

How, as a teacher, do you make the Civil War relevant to female and minority students?

Here is her answer:

Part of the challenge is bringing aspects of warfare that occur off the battlefield into the classroom. We are all squished for time and it is difficult to go beyond the highlights of major battles when trying to tell the entire story of the war in one or two lectures during a U.S. history class.

Most of our students cannot relate to the life of a soldier because they are not soldiers themselves. Those who are or were know battle in incredibly different ways from the Civil War soldier. Bringing in the total experience of war, any war, can help bridge the time gap for students and provide a fuller picture of the consequences.

In my Civil War lectures I cover some major battles, but I also talk about the moving of soldiers, by rail and by foot, and how this would be the more typical daily life of soldiering – walking and walking and sleeping and walking. I talk about the weaponry and how it caused so many awful wounds resulting in amputation, and the problems of death from disease or wound infection. I use the story of Capt. Frank Butler, who is in your book, as an example of an individual soldiering experience.

As someone who studies women’s history, I am very aware of gender and the role it plays in the life experiences of men and women. For soldiers of the Civil War, I talk about the need many men felt to serve their country – Union or Confederate – to fulfill their role as men. Similarly, many black soldiers, formerly enslaved, were able to assert their manhood in donning the garb of a soldier.

Katie Knowles and her dog Lulu, named after Louisa May Alcott.
My interest in the Civil War era began when I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a girl. Wanting to know more about the war that served as a backdrop to her novel, I began reading other books and was drawn into the complexities of the period. I think it is imperative to understand war through women’s eyes – as nurses, cross-dressing soldiers, fundraisers and family and friend of the soldier.

Northern women largely experienced the war by waiting and working as the men they knew went off to risk life and limb. Southern women experienced this part of war at home, but often the war literally came to their doorstep, with troops occupying homes and farms transformed into battlefields.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering does a great job of connecting the soldier’s experience to that of the family waiting at home. I think your book also does this well, being a story of individual soldier experiences, but also very much about the families they left behind.

Black women are probably the most absent group in the story of the Civil War, largely because information about them is hard to find. This is where I often refer my students to historical fiction. Through imagination, historical accuracy and the knowledge that our past is filled with people just like us, novels like The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Paradise Alley bring us stories of the war that can’t be recovered from the archives.

When thinking about slavery during the Civil War, we often focus on the legal changes such as the Emancipation Proclamation or the military policy of accepting runaways as contraband. These are an important part of the story, but they don’t acknowledge the extreme deprivations the majority of enslaved people in the South experienced.

Their homes were war zones for four years. When planters talk of burning their cotton, it is the slaves who must go out to the field or to the lint house to set it on fire, destroying the crop their own hands first planted. There are numerous instances of both Union and Confederate troops committing atrocious acts upon enslaved and free people, black and white, all across the South – raping, pillaging, destroying property.

Many enslaved people were forced to leave their homes when owners abandoned land to try to escape Union troops, taking their slave property with them. I read to my students a quotation from the WPA interviews of a man who, as a young boy during the war, was forced by his owner to march hundreds of miles in winter without proper clothing or shoes. His mother became ill and unable to continue, so the owner shot her dead and left her on the road. The son's memory of the Civil War, the war that killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, is yet another tragic story of the loss and hardship that war caused.


  1. This comment came from my friend Al Hutchison, a retired newspaper publisher in Inverness, Fla. He moved to the United States from Scotland during the 1940s:

    After reading your blog entry today, I found myself trying to remember a single history teacher I felt positive about during my days in American classrooms. That young woman you introduced your readers to today would have been much, much better than any of them, with one possible exception, a Professor Bentley at the University of Florida. The most memorable moment for me came when he told us we were all far too ethnocentric. Many in the class protested, but upon questioning they had to concede they had no idea what the term meant.

  2. This is where American Studies courses can be at their best. I team-taught a two-period AS course with an English teacher at Lebanon HS, where we read Douglass 'Narrative . ', 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', 'Red Badge of Courage', along with Bierce short stories and Whitman poetry. These all gave excellent context for the military and political issues of the Civil War era. I also bought in my great-uncle's Civil War rifle and several other artifacts, which, along with his story [embellished as it probably was], helped all students learn about this era.