Tag Archives: Emancipation Proclamation

The 150th Anniversary of the US Civil War

The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 —...

Antietam Creek, MD September 17, 1862. Image via Wikipedia

The horror of the Civil War is in the accounting—a terrifying piece of accounting.

Between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865 (the last shot was fired in June) almost 2.2 million Americans fought against each other—almost 40% of those eligible for military service. In that time, approximately 625,000 Americans were killed, either in action, in hospital or illness. Another 402,000 were wounded, with injuries as varied as a scratch and a severed limb. 10% of the North’s population of military age, and 30% of the South’s never came home.

We will never know for sure the total number of civilian casualties.

I bring out these numbers as a static, mathematical reminder of the costs of fanaticism, militaristic saber-rattling, authoritarian usurpation and a lack of compromise. The math can often resound decibels louder than any rhetoric.

Tomorrow, we mark the 150th anniversary of the greatest disaster in our history, and I mean “greatest” in all its senses. The Civil War has been written about to death. It has been the culprit of reams of academic pap, both useful and useless, often hashing and rehashing the debates about slavery, states’ rights, civil rights, Lincoln’s actions and inactions, as well as every slight movement of the battlefield in those little blue and red rectangles.

If that wasn’t enough, the unlettered masses have fistful of Hollywood movies, some good (Gettysburg, Glory, Gods and Generals) and some God awful (Sommersby –I threw up a little on saying its name). Then there’s documentaries, docu-movies, PBS documentaries, History Channel documentaries, even those weirdoes who dress up each weekend, playing ancestors with which they have a dubious family connection. There’s no way ALL you guys had a great uncle who fell at Shiloh, right?

In a sense, the sesquicentennial ruckus can be just as disturbing as the war itself. That’s pretty frightening, since the greatest effusion of blood in American history still hold lessons today—particularly in how we forget our past.

David Von Drehle, in a funny connection to two anniversaries this year (he wrote the book Triangle, about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) wrote an interesting piece in this week’s Time Magazine about a collective amnesia Americans from both North and South have about our greatest conflict. In a nutshell, Von Drehle writes about how Americans have washed away the more distasteful or painful elements of the Civil War in the course of 150 years.

Some of these include:

The persistent need to push the slavery issue as secondary to the issue of states’ rights. Slavery, in fact, was the elephant in the room ever since the Revolution, and even Thomas Jefferson (himself a slave owner) prognosticated civil war over the issue.

The connivance of monied interests on both sides. Arms, munitions and logistics industries in the North were itching for a conflict to cash in on army contracts. Yet there were even more business to be lost by the South. Southern cotton not only greased the wheels of the mills in New England and the clothing factories in New York, but also buttressed the textile industries of Great Britain, France, even Germany. New York City, in fact, came close to “seceding” from the Union over the issue of lost revenue due to the lack of cotton.

The lack of enthusiasm—and outright rage—over fighting to free enslaved Africans. The 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was not met with resounding enthusiasm, even in the North. Many states began to question continuing the war. The Irish of New York rioted outright in the summer of 1863, fearing they would lose their jobs to free blacks. Even the arrival of black soldiers did not ease the racism and hatred that pervaded the North—a hatred well established in the South.

The burial of the events leading up to the shots on Fort Sumter. Events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” the Pottowatamie Massacre, the 1857 Dred Scott decision, even so far back as the compromises of 1820, 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act.

Furthermore, the period after the war became a time when veterans of the Blue and Grey would meet in reunions as brothers to remember the old times—and to decry the Northern reformers and shiftless Blacks that sent them to fight in the first place. Ever since, according to Von Drehle, we have been struggling to find the complete story.

This anniversary, we at the Neighborhood implore our readers to look at the Civil War with open minds, with clear eyes and with an empty heart.

Take a new look at the war for yourself, filtering out the din of media and talking heads. Look at the photos. Read the letters. Hear the arguments. Examine the carnage. Let the war speak to you.

In fact, 625,000 soldiers speak to us everyday.

They speak whenever we debate about the government’s role in our lives, be it on the federal or state level. They speak whenever an American is slighted due to race, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic status. They speak when moneyed classes suffer a severe disconnect from the reality of the American people.

Most importantly of all, they yell—they scream—when intransigent politicians, policymakers and ideologues entrench in their opinions with no room for compromise.

The 625,000 are the warning of fanatical, unscrupulous, un-American partisanship. Their number, and their silence, is the loudest of all.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 7: The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

 “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Rarely did a teaching workshop produce such a valuable resource as my first.

Around my second year teaching, I was at a low ebb.  I had a terrible class, nothing was getting done, and my room was a mess.  Curiously, it was at this point that I signed up for my first Teaching American History grant seminar.  There was little else I was doing on Saturday mornings in the fall, anyway. 

It would be an experience that changed me forever, as a teacher and as a historian.

Over the course of five years, I have listened to incredible history professors, sitting with like-minded teachers who also felt frustrated in the current educational environment.  Furthermore, the TAH program helped to ensure that the concepts learned could be applied to any classroom–and that means ANY level, from elementary to high school.

TAH was also a fountain of resources, books, videos and classroom materials.  Yet none would be more cherished than a black-covered book, now dog-eared and bookmarked to death.  It has become, quite literally, my Bible in the classroom.

In 1998, distinguished Yale professor David Brion Davis, along with University of Houston historian Steven Mintz, co-edited an anthology of primary sources called The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War.  The book is much more than an anthology–it is exactly as the title states: a history of the United States as told through the primary resources of the period. 

 One of the most important movements in history education, at least at the K-12 level, is the move away from scripted textbooks (at least a lessened reliance on them) and an increased emphasis on primary documents: the artifacts from the past that give a window to history without the filter of the textbook editor or the teacher.  Davis’ introduction says as much in that:

“Nothing can overcome apathy, boredom, or contempt for the past as quickly and effectively as primary sources.  Eyewitness accounts of a battle or bitter legislative debate can have the power of a fax or e-mail just received, evaporating the gap between past and present.  Such sources enable readers to identify with men and women long dead and to suddenly understand how decisions made in the past continue to haunt our lives.  No less important, as we learn to listen to these voices we gain a growing sense of the complexity and contingency of past events.” ~ David Brion Davis, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 1 “Introduction”

Yet this book could be simply a set of primary documents bond together.  Thankfully Davis and Mintz included their own commentary and created a straightforward, dense, comprehensive narrative of the American story, using the primary sources as a the driving force. 

This is where the “textbook” aspect of this book is done right: often, teachers lack the context or background knowledge behind such famous documents as the Mayflower Compact, Columbus’ Letters to the Sovereigns or the Emancipation Proclamation (all included in the book, by the way).  Davis and Mintz provide a refreshingly nuanced, evenhanded view of events that doesn’ t create sacred cows, yet won’t necessarily jump on the Howard Zinn-esque revisionist bandwagon.

One example of this is their treatment of Columbus’ first voyage.  In their introduction to the Columbus letters, Davis and Mintz mince few words: the European encounter decimated the indigenous populations of America, raped their resources and introduced enslaved African labor in large quantities.  Yet they end this passage with the following:

“Columbus’s (sic) first voyage of discovery also had another important result: It contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress.  To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom and eternal youth.  The perception of the New World as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all social evils.  So while the collision of three worlds resulted in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged visions of a more perfect future.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 32 “First Encounters”

The same instinct pervades the book in other areas.  The concluding discussions about the end of the Civil War, for example, involve a frank exploration into the shifting patterns of race and class distinctions in the South following the conflict.  To be sure, Davis and Mintz argue, the new order did not necessarily mean complete freedom.  Blacks would be restricted in public places, in employment and in the exercise of their new constitutional rights to vote in elections.  Furthermore, many rural Blacks were trapped in the sharecropping system that bound them to the land of their former white overlords.  Yete even here there is a glimmer of hope:

“Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that experiences (sic) under slavery.  As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields…incredibly, about 20 percent of African AMericans in the South managed to acquire their own land by 1880.  Real gains had been won, though full freedom and equality before the law remained unfulfilled promises.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 559 “Toward Reconstruction”

This approach is perfect for average readers who see this book as a narrative that explains, guides and instructs the reader on the events, concepts and ideas of American history.  As an educator, the real treasure is the primary documents themselves.

The commentary is important and very well written.  However, the primary sources are what make this book an integral part of any history classroom.  Most of the primary quotes I use in this blog, if not all, come from Boisterous Sea of Liberty (at least those quotes pertaining to before the Civil War).  These documents have been printed and reprinted and recopied and reused ad infinitum for classroom exercises, tests, lesson plans, assessment portfolios and even professional development.

Even in the classroom itself, Boisterous Sea of Liberty holds a certain allure.  My students always know that when I whip that book out, something important, shocking or interesting will be shared today.  In fact, they have given it a nickname: “The Book of Sadness”, since I have a tendency to use it for tragic or horrible events. 

Case in point: the Schenectady massacre of 1690.  During the ongoing wars between the French and English, the New York settlement of Schenectady was attacked by French soldiers and their native allies.  Robert Livingston provides a particularly grueseome account, full of wailing victims and children’s brains getting bashed.  The scene is hard to read, even for a teacher well divorced from the situation.  Yet this account allows students to live their history in all its gory details.

 Boisterous Sea of Liberty has become a backbone of my curriculum design, lesson planning and assessment.  The results are truly remarkable: students are, often for the first time, thinking critically not only about events, but the authorship and authenticity of primary accounts.  My kids are making important connections between historical events and current situations in our world. 

Most important for me, though, is that for the first time, my students are actually excited about social studies.  It stimulates their brains, forces them to think, encourages them to look for their own solutions.  Primary sources have “emancipated” students from the shackles of textbooks and test prep workbooks.

Boisterous Sea of Liberty is a must-have, in fact one of the few must-haves that a social studies teacher should own.  I can’t imagine teaching without it–and neither will you.

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