Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Category: Memory Page 1 of 2

the Civil War in our memory

Besides my fascination with the mindset of slavery advocates, I’m starting to take a keen interest in Americans’ attitudes (if they have them) about the war. Again, the work of David Blight on Civil War in American Memory has been wonderfully illuminating.

I need to study more about the collective memory surrounding the “cause lost” theories, and also the morphing patriotism of Sons and Daughters Of… organizations.

Here, on the west coast, we have Highway 99. It was the original north-south highway from Canada to Mexico, subsequently replaced by Interstate 5. At one time it was the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a designation long-since legislated away. But remnants remain, which fascinate me. A couple photos, the recent one with The AndyBear, who was five at the time. This is the marker to be found in Jefferson Davis Park, which has a Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jefferson-Davis-Park/111684485552784

Memphis – 2009

Reconstruction was about many things, but it’s hard to separate from the word, “legacy.” We talk about legacies in terms of current effects of past behaviors… history’s hand-me-downs. Reconstruction left legacies, of course, Jim Crow among the most prolific. One fine morning I found myself in Memphis, experiencing the irony I would later ‘anecdotalize’ on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. I share this brief story as a way of tipping my hat, in acknowledgment of the background radiation of the legacy of Reconstruction that permeates the South. https://700billionreasons.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/memphis/

on history and memory

I am a big fan of iTunes University, especially the many items found in the Gilder Lehrman section. The process is simple and I really don’t need to just watch someone talk… I’d much rather pop in the earbuds and get moving.

A few months ago I came across a talk by David Blight that is similar to the video on the syllabus. The talk is about the Civil War in American Memory, but the part I find most engaging comes at 17:10, when he discourses on the differences between history and memory. Some people may consider it a matter of parsing words, but he makes a great case for considering them separately and cautiously.

An immediate difference that comes to mind is the naming of the conflict itself. I grew up in Detroit, where an intrepid person can find statuary and memorials of the ‘Civil War’ and Michigan’s importance in it. I have friends my age, 47, who grew up in Tennessee, and heard nothing except of ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ and didn’t realize the South lost until they had long departed middle school.

Blight asserts that memory is “owned,” not necessarily shared. My travels in Northern Ireland and Central Europe in the mid-1990’s pointedly drove home the violent power of collective memory. What I saw were the festering, amorphous resentments of many decades of real and perceived abuse. These seventeen years later I hear Blight and I  wonder about resentment, the accumulating emotional plaque that hardened the hearts of the non-planter class in the South in the wake of the Civil War and helped make Jim Crow so widely mainstream.

I want to reread Faust and McPherson with an eye toward Blight’s points. As I do so I’ll add some asides to this, or perhaps add posts.

What follows:

1. my annotation of Blight’s talk, simply tabled to help generate talking points. I’ve quoted him directly… none of the words are mine, although I’m only as exact as the toddler in my lap will allow.

2. a screenshot of the page where the lecture can be found in iTunes.

This is all quoted as carefully as I could manage. These are David Blight’s words, not mine.Where he directly sets one point against another, I have placed them side-by-side on the table.

“Although history and memory are often conflated, keeping something separate and distinct… is valuable.



is what trained historians do – a reasonable reconstruction of the past rooted in research.
is critical and skeptical of human motives and actions.  can be a safe place to escape to, or sometimes it just plays romantic, sentimental tricks on us.
is more secular than memory. is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage and identity of a community.
can be read by, and belong to, everyone. is often owned.
just gets interpreted.
is more relative – it depends on place, chronology and scale, and a host of other factors.
gets revised. is passed down through generations.
seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. That’s why it’s harder. often coalesces in objects, sights, monuments and places.
Historians assert the authority of academic training, of canons of evidence, of authority. often carries the more immediate authority of community membership and some kind of personal experience.
Historians study In reference to Bernard Bailyn’s writing, Blight quotes: “Memory’s appeal is in its relation to the past as an embrace, ultimately emotional, and not intellectual.”
Historians these days study memory because it has been such an important modern instrument of power.”

where to find this on iTunes:

Lincoln, vampires and too much freetime on my hands

Ok, this is just silly … but I had a moment and wanted to play with the Google Ngram viewer. Is it a coincidence that we are seeing both an uptick in Lincoln books at the same time books about vampires gain in popularity? … maybe Seth Grahame-Smith is onto something

Lincoln and vampires

A monument to slave traders or emancipation?


I showed the Freedman’s Monument to my students for the first time last year. It is one of the few monuments I have been to over and over again this past year. It’s probably a mile behind the Supreme Court building and so out of the National Mall loop. I have been struggling with the monument from the moment I saw it.

Lincoln Park as seen by Google Maps.

A freedman inspired, freedman funded moment which looks more like a monument to slave trading than emancipation. The first time I saw it it looked like Lincoln was a slave trader. I haven’t been able to shake that image.

I’ve studied the Fredrick Douglass dedication speech.

I’ve read part of Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Forced Into Glory which suggests that the Proclamation ‘never freed anybody anywhere’ (quoting a reporter of Lincoln’s era). Bennett goes on to say:

“There, then the secret is out! Political history never happened. Sandburg wrote tens of thousands of words about it. Lindsay wrote a poem about it. Copeland wrote a musical portrait about it. King had a dream about it. But the fact is that Abraham Lincoln didn’t do it.” Bennett’s first chapter is here.

I’ve read Dr. Guelzo’s book on the Emancipation Proclamation and listened to both him and Dr. Pinsker and follow their logic and agree with their insights and observations.

And yet I still struggle with the monument.

I’ve come to decide that my job is to show my students the images and then shut up. Let them marinate on the messiness and realities of Reconstruction. Of politics. It helped to create a shorthand in discussions as well as a reality of the old saw about good intentions.

While researching newspapers of the Civil War, one of my student’s found this Thomas Nast drawing. I knew the moment I saw it I had to put it with the pictures of the Freedman’s Monument. A explanation of the Nast image can be found here.


“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.

How sleep the brave …

Unknown Soldiers 1 and 2 at Gettysburg National Cemetery

There is a story told of a visitor to the cemetery at the Old Soldier’s Home who encountered President Lincoln walking among the grave stones reciting this poem.

It has stuck with me since.

How Sleep the Brave
William Collins. 1721–1759

HOW sleep the brave, who sink to rest
By all their country’s wishes blest!
When Spring, with dewy fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallow’d mould,
She there shall dress a sweeter sod Than Fancy’s feet have ever trod.

By fairy hands their knell is rung;
By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
There Honour comes, a pilgrim grey,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell, a weeping hermit, there!

The general location of Gettysburg Address

"War" on the Gettysburg Monument

"History" on the Gettysburg Monument

Unknown Soldiers at Gettysburg National Cemetery

Row of gravestones at Gettysburg National Cemetery


Henry W. Spradley is not forgotten

I was quite impressed with Colin Macfarlane’s digital story about the black soldier Henry Spradley. It was refreshing to see this young student care about the past. He understood that finding out the story of this black soldier was important, to Colin ,Henry mattered. His gravestone had been removed and his contribution to the community,the college and his country was to be forgotten. This young man researched for hours and hours, followed clues and solved this intriging history mystery . He brought dignity back to the lost sole of Henry W. Spradley. He found a connection to the very school he was attending. Henry was a beloved custodian of Dickenson college , and a man whose funeral was so big they needed an auditorium for those whose life he had touched.   thanks to Colin a whole new generation can be touched.

The idea of solving a mystery such as this would really excite my middle schoolers. I can see my students wanting to create a “movie” by using some of the rich history our town has to offer. They initially would want to be part of a movie regardless of the subject. My job is to motivate them to want to find the history and eventually love it like I do. I have been fortunate to have worked on two historical docudrama films about Kansas through Lone Chimney Films and am eager to share my knowledge with my students.

Rodney King and the Civil War

Sorry… this isn’t a deeply introspective connection between the late Mr. King and the CW. I am thinking much more shallowly (there’s one for my Language Arts friends) about the famous video of his beating. Remember how obvious the issue seemed when we first saw it? But the case got more and more complicated as the trial progressed, enticing people to consider that what we saw wasn’t what actually happened, that seeing wasn’t believing and there was so much more to the incident. I don’t think my students would have followed such entreaties. What they see is what they see.

We may consider developmental stages, but regardless of that there is elegance in their distillation of causes…  of course the CW was about slavery… like, duh.

But how was it about slavery? How can we prove it? Can we use the words of the central actors to establish the true causes of the war? Lincoln went there, at least in part, in his Second Inaugural:

“All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Then he went into the similarities of both sides, laying the groundwork for his renowned “charity for all”:

Neither party.. Neither anticipated.. Each looked… Both read… and each invokes… but let us judge not… prayers of both… neither has been…”

Words expressing commonality, but words in common, too.

Despite the relentless nature of anywhere “content,” words matter. The right words impel people to fight, make love, vote, revolt, endear, die.

Here, though, I have a problem. Our 8th graders are now largely visual learners, and simply compelling them to parse historical texts is less effective than it has ever been. While I’ve heard the jargon of “differentiated instruction” and “learning styles” ad mortem, the reality is that my kids can’t read Lincoln. Really, they can’t derive much meaning from what they read, whether it is historical or contemporary. This is a generality, but it’s true enough to drive the organization of my classroom.

To deal with the YouTube reality, I start with the importance of discrete words, then work my way up to quotes and passages, then to letters and documents. **




Below are seven word clouds. The fonts, layout and colors are the same – purposefully. I ask kids to compare and contrast between the different clouds, and only at that point do I explain a bit about each. Once we find common words we can begin to get at causes.

Preamble to the Constitution

Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone" speech March, 1861

Declaration of Independence





Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech

Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union

Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”

James Henry Hammond's "Mudsill" speech








**To this end we’ve started teaching basic Latin in our Language Arts classes, in an effort to better connect our kids to words. By the end of the year most of my kids could at least understand what I meant by, “casus belli.”



They were people too.

My students sometimes complain that they are tired of learning about “dead people.” As a history teacher it is vital for me to help my students see the relevance. They have a misconception that history is dead along with its people. I want to teach them that “Dead people were people too.” They had emotions, cared for their families, and had opinions. And it was these people that made decisions and shaped ideas. It can be hard to teach this concept among the big ideas of war and conflicts, large social and political movements, and causes and effects in history.

As we have studied the Civil War, I have found nothing more convicting to me than my lack of focusing on the “people” of history. As we studied the images this morning, the personalities of the soldiers reminded me of the emotions that can get lost in the teaching of history. The men were not just part of the large troops or the cause of the war, they were the people that made the war worth fighting. If I use such exercises in my classroom, I can create empathy in my classroom which will intrigue my students.

From now on, I want to add a “person” component to each concept I teach. After all, “dead people were people too.”


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