Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Category: Secondary Sources Page 1 of 2

Trailer for Slavery by Another Name (peonage)

Teaching the Underground Railroad

When I first started teaching US history six years ago, the questions I always got when I started teaching the Underground railroad were the following:

So is the Underground Railroad really a railroad?

Why was it all underground?

My biggest goal in teaching the underground railroad is trying to dispel the misconceptions that students have.  Over the years, I have refined my teaching of the Underground Railroad, but one of the challenges has been time.  Usually my teaching of the Underground Railroad comes at the end of the year, when I am pressed for time and have so much to get through.  Last year, I found an amazing website that is both educational and fun for students examining the underground railroad.  It allows the students to get out of the classroom and use technology.  The website is is from Scholastic: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/underground_railroad/index.htm 

I like this website because it is geared towards students, but also provided great worksheets that you can print out for the students to use.  The students follow the path of the slave from slavery to reaching freedom and the challenges they face.

The first year I used this website it took about 3 days to complete all the worksheets.  This past year, I modified it so it took a period and a half and offered the Harriet Tubman webquest as extra credit.  I highly recommend using this website and the worksheets.

In the end, the students understand that the Underground Railroad is not a railroad nor is it completely underground.  The best part about this though is that it is student centered.


Scarlett O’Hara in scrubs…

Confederate Circular asking Southern women to grow poppies for morphine (National Archives)

The Faust book is a godsend for my students-they just don’t know it yet.

Every year each students pick a Civil War topic to research and every year several students choose women-related topic. Spies. Nurses. Homefront. It ends up that most all of it is from a Northern perspective. Alot of them get stymied by the lack of Confederate information. There are a few online sources but most are at an academic level that my 13 year olds struggle with. This book is a goldmine. I’ve already sent an email to my librarian asking for two copies.

I started reading it from page one but have found myself going to the index over and over again as I remember topics students wanted to search out but our library on online source didn’t have. Many of them are covered by Dr. Faust.

One area my students wrestle with is the sensibility of the day. Chivalry states that women were too delicate physically and emotionally. Seeing men at their worst would change a women. They would get in the way of the doctor and might even start bossing the doctor around. Nursing is such a female dominated occupation today that concerns over “The Florence Nightingale Business” (p. 92) seem trivial.

One gift in this book is the explanation of how the Confederate nursing corp developed. We have so much information about the Union and Dorthea Dix and The Sanitation Commission that I almost automatically send students that direction. To have an accessible explanation on how nurses came to care for Southern soldiers is exciting.

BTW-the document up top is a Confederate Circular asking women to grow poppies to be ground into morphine (source-National Archives).

House Divided Fergus Bordewich Video

I spent some time exploring and becoming familiar with the House Divided research engine this afternoon.  There seem to be a lot of very interesting facets to this project which could be utilized in the classroom.  While exploring I spent some time with the House Divided Video Channel and viewed the interview with Fergus Bordewich about the Underground Railroad.


I found Bordewich’s discussion about the religious motivation behind the Underground Railroad particularly interesting.  He commented that he was surprised by the significance that the religious revivalism of the time played in the establishment of the Underground Railroad.  Because I am interested in the religious aspects of the abolitionist and anti-slavery movements this caught my attention.  I am intrigued by and would like to know more about this aspect of the coming of the war, the war itself and Reconstruction.  Any suggestions as to books, websites or other materials on this would be appreciated


His telling of the story of Jermain Loguen was also notable.  This portion of the clip would be a great attention getter to show at the beginning of a lesson on the Underground Railroad.  It could also serve as a springboard into some form of discussion activity which could lead into a brief writing assignment or blogging activity.  Good stuff.

Mother of Invention by Drew Gilpin Faust

I will admit to tunnel vision with much of my teaching over the last eight years.  I believe that I am in such a hurry to make up for the lack of information that I was given on Black Studies in high school and with my undergraduate degree and, I am trying to ensure that my students do not share the same fate. So I am definitely a bottom up interpreter of history teacher for my students.

So, I am intrigued that I am so drawn to the book by Faust and she hooked me with the introduction. As she explain that the “history of elites has not been a particularly fashionable topic in recent years,” and why she chose to still pursue the research. What captured me was that through this work, I was also able to learn nuances of the enslaved people as well.

I use the book NightJohn by Gary Pulsen to teach the Antebellum Period and we watch the movie in its entirety. Last year I added the narratives of Thomas Day and Dave the Potter to give students a wider perspective of people of color during this period.  On page 161 of Faust book, where she discusses reading and writing, and how the Civil War and literacy changed the course for many women, I thought that I could add this in another layer to my NightJohn lesson, particularly comparing and contrasting the meaning of reading from an enslaved perspective and that of the elite class. So excited to see where this will lead.


Constitutional Firewall

Constitutional Firewall. What an interesting phrase. I rolled it around on my tongue a few times and I liked it. Wish I’d coined it, but that credit goes to Allen Guetzo.

Did not know about Guetzo except he delivers internet lectures in an arresting fashion. Searched for more about him and found a few tidbits and a presidential appointment. Which is excellent, because I took what he said as solid historical documentation. His GL lecture explained a good deal of the political intrigue behind Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Washington, D.C. was a tough town for Lincoln. He did not have as much support from his fellow republicans as I presumed and surprisingly, one of his military generals, was bent on telling him how to run the country. On top of two prominant snakes waiting in White House front lawn grass, Lincoln’s hands were bound by the constraints of the U.S. Constitution. Firewall indeed. Lincoln had to color within the lines while maintaining the founding fathers’ war powers. But, he did not necessarily have to live by them.

According to Guetzo, Lincoln devised a modern day “buyout” plan. A golden parachute he wanted to offer to border states willing to accept $700 thousands dollars. It was insurance money for Delware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri to stay on the side of Union and even better, entice the rebel states back home. It was not a cheap plan. Lincoln needed something though to outmaneuver Roger B. Taney. The US Chief Justice and brother-in-law of Francis Scott Key, was determined to stop Lincoln from declaring maritial law, civil war, his love for his country, heck, he did not want Lincoln doing anything that helped the cause against the South. Taney was not Lincoln’s biggest problem child at the beginning of the war. That honor went to Major General George Brinton (love the middle name) McClellan.

It seems “Little Mac” or “Young Napoleon” was pretty sure of himself during his tenure as Lincoln’s General-in-Chief of the Union Army. At this point in his lecture, Guetzo reminded his audience of a fact I did not know existed. McClellan wrote a missive to Lincoln. Told the chief executive Washington, D.C. would be best run by a military man, a dictator rather than the president! I can see why Lincoln dismissed McClellan’s fanciful notion and then dismissed (now lower case) major general as well. Although, presidents could not afford to fire military leaders, they just reassigned them elsewhere, way elsewhere, so they were no longer important. As Douglas MacArthur, in his famous bitter last words, stated these type of “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  These “mac” militaries had more in common than I thought!



An Eye Opening Perspective of the Emancipation Proclamation

In my capacity as a teacher and a historical performer I often ask people What they know about the Emancipation Proclamation. The answers are varied but usually people have an incomplete understanding of the famous document. Most people children and adults alike will say it freed the slaves. They think all the slaves were freed but of course it’s much more complicated than that. While watching Allen Guelzo’s excellent presentation it opened up many realities of the great document . It was not well received at all by anyone North or South except of course by the slaves who were freed. Guelzo points out that many people thought it was a legal sham, that Lincolnused it to promote himself as the great crusader for freedom. Others claimed Lincoln’s heart was not in it that it was a propaganda ploy ,that’s why it was so plain and boring very unLincoln like writing , a document of disappointment ,not freedom. Many questions arose Why was the document so bland?, Why did Lincoln wait two years into the civil war to issue it?, What were his real motives? The simplified answers are Lincoln was not pushed reluctantly by zealous abolitionist toward Emmancipation , in fact he was working on a way to do just that since the beginning of the war. It was not a sentimental trick in fact it cost the Republicans 31 seats in the elections . It was not a political device. Guelzo said Lincoln felt to save the Union was to Emancipate the slaves and to Free the slaves was in fact to save the Union. Allen Guezo’s presentation was very eye opening to me and it gives me some great insight and wisdom to pass along to my students and adults that I present to.

Civil War Diaries and Local History

I’m still being overwhelmed by all of the resources available. Yesterday evening, I traveled to our public library (to pick up Professor Pinsker’s book, Lincoln’s Sanctuary) and I was greeted by a sign inviting me to attend a dedication ceremony “in honor of the late Edgar T. Brown and his extensive local history collection.” When I inquired, I discovered that Virginia Beach has a substantial local history section, although very little of it is digitized or easily available. As with Colin Macfarlane’s quest to find Henry W. Spradley, there would have to be substantial time spent with the microfiche reader.

I also did some searching (not researching) on the internet to find local civil war diaries. While this search still continues, I was able to locate some sources that may be of use to those seeking readily-available primary source materials of this era. The University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute, and the College of William and Mary have special collections accessible to the general public.

My biggest concern is having the time to develop all of these resources into a workable positive force in my classroom. As Rebecca Winslow responded to an earlier post of mine, “More and more I am beginning to understand the mile wide inch deep teaching when we should be doing it quite the opposite.” There is such pressure in my school system to follow a pacing guide in order to raise standardized test scores. For example, since we are in yet another presidential election year, we were told not to teach the election process in the fall, but rather when it falls in the curriculum (it’s unit 6 and it would be taught around February). Why? Supposedly, there was research that demonstrated that students scored better on standardized test scores following the pacing guide of our curriculum. Wouldn’t the elections count as a “teachable moment,” in the jargon of our chosen profession?

Oops, it appears that I am getting off topic. This post was supposed to focus on finding sources for civil war diaries. I wouldn’t want to be accused on not following the curriculum!

signing statements and executive orders

Matt talked about signing statements.

The American Presidency Project tracks signing statements from Hoover through Obama, as well as executive orders back to 1826 (Ironically, or not, the year Jefferson died. His was one of the most eloquent voices cautioning against such power in the executive.)

I’d also like to add a plug for David Gray Adler, one of the most articulate presenters on presidential power I have ever heard. A recent article is here: Executive power is ‘pregnant with menace’


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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