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  • Teaching Civil War HistoryFrom the Classroom to the Battlefield
  • Kevin Levin

There has never been a better time to teach the Civil War era on the high school level. Over the past ten years, both my survey course on American history and, especially, my electives on the Civil War have benefitted from the availability of a wide range of accessible secondary sources as well as rich online databases of primary sources. Taken together, these resources offer educators numerous ways to move their students beyond a study of history that continues to rely on the traditional textbook as its foundation.

I have had the opportunity to teach more than one version of my Civil War elective, including a class on Civil War film, Civil War memory, and an entire course on Abraham Lincoln. A course organized as a research seminar offers students the opportunity to experience the process in its entirety, from the formulation of a research topic to the interrogation of primary sources to the working through of multiple drafts of what will hopefully result in an original piece of historical writing. Regardless of the course, the goals are the same: to introduce students to how the Civil War has been interpreted and understood from academia to popular culture and to offer students every opportunity to interpret for themselves the deep well of available primary sources.

Finally, teaching in small private schools—first in central Virginia for ten years and now in Boston—also leaves plenty of opportunity to bring students to historic sites. Teaching in Virginia afforded opportunities to utilize the many major battlefields of the eastern theater that were within easy driving distance, and the proximity of Richmond opened up additional activities. While the American Revolution looms large in the collective memory of most Bostonians, there is a rich historical landscape of buildings, memorials, and other sites devoted to the Civil War. Taken together, these locations, arguably, offer the best opportunity to foster meaningful connections between students and history.

Still, the central action takes place in the classroom. Choosing the most effective reading material is the toughest challenge. Unfortunately, many high school students read the standard textbook—heavy, long, and written as if intended to alienate as many students as possible from the serious study of history. Fortunately, Civil War classrooms have a wide range of available secondary sources. I want my students to see history as a process. They [End Page 76] should understand that history is not simply the collecting of facts followed by memorization, but an ongoing discussion built on interpretation, critical analysis, and revision.

In seeking to achieve these pedagogical goals, I utilize a continually expanding collection of relatively short essays by some of the leading Civil War historians that cover a wide range of topics, including the cause of secession and war, the soldiers’ experience, the coming of emancipation and the end of slavery, the home front and the legacy of the war. Accessible readings can be found in a number of places, but I have come to rely heavily on Civil War Times and the Civil War Monitor, two magazines that regularly feature the work of academic historians. No source has been more helpful in recent years than the New York Times’s Disunion blog, which has featured a wide-range of relatively short and accessible articles on a wide range of subjects from some of the leading historians in the field. During a normal week, students read one to three articles and write two- to three-page summaries of the main theses in each essay.1

The summaries help students focus on the historian’s assumptions and supporting evidence. The written component also aids in developing clarity and precision in the students’ own writing. Classroom discussions focus on the relative merits and limitations of individual arguments on their own and in relationship to competing interpretations. Our discussions focus as much on the actual events of the period as on historical method. Historical inquiry thus becomes an ongoing discussion rather than a static memorization of facts. [End Page 77]

The emphasis on the structure of historical interpretations and historiography that I have students work on is intended as a foundation for...


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