Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Author: nathanramin

“150 years isn’t that much time…”

“…and students need to appreciate that.”

Matt’s phrasing at the start of the Gettysburg tour is pretty spot on. I love thinking about history in this way, but it is one of the most difficult things for students to grasp. The sheer width and breadth of time is just so daunting.

I’m going through orientation at a new school, and sat in on my first social studies department meeting today. We each shared our favorite topics to discuss in history — mostly basic stuff, like WWII, Civil War, Civil Rights, and so on. One teacher said that he liked to get students thinking about just how many people have lived since the dawn of humanity. Approximately seven billion people populate our planet right now. We might perhaps estimate the total number of people who’ve lived, ever, but surely any such number would be virtually incomprehensible.

The idea of having a living person who actually spoke with a Civil War vet may not at first seem important, but it helps make this enormous planet seem just a little smaller.

Rage Militaire

It is incredibly difficult to think of a moment that made me want to fight and die for my country. As a liberal arts student at a liberal arts college, I had casual conversations with friends, perhaps late at night and fueled by liquid courage, about what might happen if the U.S. was attacked by an outside force. In reality,  the idea is, despite the events of recent years, so remote as to be inaccessible to most Americans.

I was a sophomore in college on September 11, 2001. I remember this as perhaps the most confusing day of my life. I didn’t know what to do, or how to feel. We actually attended class that day — I remember my professor in Italian 101 breaking down in the middle of her lecture.

One thing I remember, beyond the sadness, beyond the confusion, was the rage. The willingness of my classmates to sign up for, or at least talk about signing up for, military service was shocking. Of course, few did, but I know the feeling was not unique to Loyola University.

This is the closest I can get to the mindset of the Oberlin College student cited  by McPherson on p. 16 of his book. “WAR! and volunteers are only topics of conversation or thought. The lessons today have been a mere form. I cannot study. I cannot sleep. I cannot work.”

How do we move our students to understand this mindset? The September 11 attacks themselves are difficult to teach — most high school students are too young to remember them. How can we give life to the words long dead soldiers in our nation’s deadliest conflict?

War as an Instrument of Policy

McPherson’s talk on Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief is fascinating. I hear frequently about presidents learning and improving on the job, most notably Barack Obama’s apparently increased confidence/competence in regards to foreign policy. This Washington Post editorial is just one of many articles on the topic: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-foreign-policy-obama-learns-on-the-job/2012/05/10/gIQAHSJ4FU_story.html

Although it is perhaps difficult to measure Pres. Obama’s successes or failures in real time, we have the luxury to look back and reflect on Lincoln’s actions. What we can see is a president who evolves with experience, but nevertheless, as McPherson notes, maintains three specific goals throughout the war:

1. refusing to compromise on his policy of preserving the union, despite his generals’ fixation on the CSA as a foreign country
2. mobilizing northern resources efficiently and destroying enemy resources
3. putting into place a team of military commanders who actually did destroy enemy armies

Lincoln was not successful early on, but ultimately was able to get his generals to do what he needed them to do. Whereas others shied away from the idea of war, he saw it as a necessary political tool. Lincoln believed in the Union, and was ready to do whatever it took to preserve it.

McPherson ends with a great essential question: Was Lincoln the only person who could have effectively restored the Union? I’m not sure how this research project would work, but perhaps students could examine the qualities and beliefs of contemporary figures — Douglas and McClellan stand out — and locate primary sources relevant to their potential policy positions. Would Stephen Douglas have preserved the Union? Would McClellan?

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