Civil War & Reconstruction Online Course

Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

NCHE / AHEC Colloquium 2020

PinkserIn July 2020, the House Divided Project at Dickinson College partnered with the National Council for History Education (NCHE) and the US Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) to offer a special colloquium for K-12 educators on “Industrialization of Warfare.”   This colloquium was funded from a grant by the Library of Congress (LoC) on Technology’s Impact in American History (TIAH).  Lots of acronyms all around –but the the bottom line is a fascinating series of topics to consider for history and social studies classrooms with plenty of modern-day resonance.  Originally, this gathering of about 30 educators was supposed to take place in Carlisle, PA at AHEC and on the Dickinson campus, but owing to the pandemic, we were compelled to take our talents to Zoom instead.  Below you can find the PDFs from House Divided Project director Matthew Pinsker’s daily lectures at the colloquium.  Each one is organized around an essential question and offers a litany of free, supporting online resources put together by students and faculty at Dickinson College.


Pinsker on The American Way of War

Essential Question:  How did 19th-century industrialization change American military strategy?


Pinsker on How Americans First Experienced Industrial War

Essential Question:  What were the most challenging aspects of modern war for American soldiers?


Essential Question:  How did the Civil War and WWI affect American society?

Men of Company E

Men of Company E

End of TAH Days –Visiting Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg, Lincoln Cottage with Arkoma Educators


Matthew Pinsker touring with a TAH group in 2011

Matthew Pinsker touring with a TAH group from Utah in 2011

It will be a bittersweet three days for me on June 4, 5 and 6, 2013 when I travel under the auspices of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History with K-12 educators from the Arkoma (OK) Teaching American History (TAH) grant to various battlefields and Civil War sites in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.  Bittersweet because despite what promises to be a terrific educational journey, this will be one of my last outings under this wonderful federal program, which has been zeroed out of the federal budget.

Since TAH is coming to a close, I thought it was appropriate to share the materials that I will be highlighting with the Arkoma educators online –offering a kind of summary and resource guide that helps capture some of what I have been doing on dozens of these trips over the last several years with grant groups from all over the country. I will highlight here materials relevant to our four key stops between June 4-6, 2013:  Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, and President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.

Day One –Harpers Ferry

First things first.  You’ll see Harpers Ferry spelled both with and without the apostrophe, but leaving out the apostrophe out is preferred.   This is the place where John Brown led his famous (or infamous) raid in October 1859 that many argue was a critical turning point in the coming of the Civil War.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, the town became a unique industrial outpost in western Virginia, best known for the federal armory and arsenal where various types of munitions were built and stored.  That’s what made Harpers Ferry a target for abolitionist John Brown who hoped to use weapons seized from the armory to help support a massive effort to free slaves along the nearby Appalachian mountains.  Brown’s capture, trial and execution riveted the nation and cast a polarizing shadow over the election of 1860.  Later, during the Civil War, Harpers Ferry played a pivotal role in several Civil War campaigns, most notably during the Maryland invasion of September 1862.

The House Divided Project at Dickinson has created a host of free digital resources on Harpers Ferry, beginning with a large section in our research engine that includes dozens of historic documents, images and reference materials.  Using a tool from Google called Sketch Up, we have created a set of 3D models of landmarks in Harpers Ferry. Some of these models are also featured in a Google Earth tour of Underground Railroad sites in the region that culminates at Harpers Ferry.  The main blog section of our project, entitled “Blog Divided,” aims to create short posts that provide a quick guide to teachable topics and resources from the Civil War era.  There are a number of helpful Blog Divided posts about Harpers Ferry, see especially the ones on digital resources about John Brown’s raid, southern newspaper reaction to the raid, the escape of some of the raiders into Pennsylvania, Brown’s execution, the Senate investigating committee which followed up on the raid, the 1861 military campaigns, and the 1862 campaign.


When I bring educators to Harpers Ferry, I usually distribute two handouts.  The first offers a comparison of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.  It forces us to consider both how they were different but also how they were alike and it raises the larger, philosophical question about when Americans consider violence to be legitimate. The second provides an excerpt from Brown’s statement at his sentencing.  This one offers insight into Brown’s eloquence and suggests that teaching him as some kind of insane terrorist underestimates his influence in antebellum America, relegating him to an extremist sideline that –perhaps– he only partly deserved.  Again, the goal with this exercise is not to bully students into moral judgments but rather to force them to consider moral complexity as they decide for themselves about right and wrong.


Day One –Antietam

The September 17, 1862 battle at Antietam Creek or Sharpsburg remains the bloodiest single day in American military history.  Few experiences are as somber as visiting this battlefield site and imagining the carnage that occurred over the space of that bloody day.  The National Park Service website on Antietam is especially useful for educators and includes a timeline, gallery of historic photographs, and first-rate curriculum materials including lesson plans, primary source packets, and various types of worksheets.  The best site for student research papers, however, is most certainly Antietam on the Web, which features  links to all 315 of the After-Action Reports published in the Official Records.

But for most classroom teachers, Antietam offers perhaps the Civil War’s most teachable turning point.  James McPherson has a terrific lecture on Antietam, videotaped in 2002 and available from the Gilder Lehrman Institute multi-media channel, explaining why the battle should be taught as a pivotal turning point of the war.  The 45-minute lecture can be supported quite nicely with a short essay on the same topic from McPherson that is also available on the Gilder Lehrman website.


The House Divided Project contains a number of documents, images and maps related to the 1862 invasion of Maryland, but perhaps the most classroom-friendly item on the subject is a student-produced documentary short film about a northern family whose husband and father was lost at the Battle of Antietam.  To view, “Do They Miss Me at Home?” by David Gillespie (Dickinson College, Class of 2011), click on the YouTube video below, or to read more about the Colwell family, visit Cumberland Civil War.


Day Two –Gettysburg

No battle has endured in American memory more than the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).  It was the largest engagement of the Civil War and perhaps the most important.  I add the caveat “perhaps” because despite all of the talk about Gettysburg as a turning point, I’ve always been inclined to view that claim with skepticism.  The idea of a “turning point” is one that marks a decisive change.  It’s not always clear to me that Gettysburg marked such a change, despite its importance.  Throughout my travels with educators to Civil War sites, such as Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg and elsewhere, I always like to return to this notion of “turning point” to see if each example adds depth to their understanding of how to present this kind of complicated military and political narrative in a classroom setting.

To see how I try to present this kind of multi-dimensional story at Gettysburg, you should consult the teacher’s videotaped tour of the battlefield that I created in 2012 with Gilder Lehrman education coordinator Lance Warren and which is available here under the “Gettysburg Virtual Tour” tab in this website, complete with several short videtotaped segments and accompanying handouts.   For those traveling from Arkoma on June 4-6, this virtual tour will offer both preview and postview and might help provide a series of extension classroom exercises based on our work together in the field.

Day Three –President Lincoln’s Cottage

Abraham Lincoln spent over a quarter of his presidency in residence not at the White House but at the Soldiers’ Home, nearly 3 and 1/2 miles away in the northwestern section of the District of Columbia.  It was at his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home that Lincoln developed his emancipation policy in 1862 and where he planned his reelection campaign in 1864.  The place offered a unique working retreat for the busy president.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation spearheaded the restoration of Lincoln’s cottage at the Soldiers’ Home and opened it to the public in 2008.  They maintain a terrific website, full of resources for educators.  I wrote a book about Lincoln’s experiences at the Soldiers’ Home called, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (Oxford, 2003), some of which is available at Google Books, but all of which can be purchased (with royalties returning to the National Trust) from online booksellers such as Amazon.  Or you can view videos about Lincoln’s experiences at the cottage from C-SPAN, including a documentary film tour and also an interview with me from Booknotes.

When I bring educators to the Soldiers’ Home, I usually emphasize ways to use the story to teach Abraham Lincoln and his family, including wife Mary and sons, Robert, Eddie, Willie, and Tad, as a representative one for nineteenth-century America.  Here is one handout which I use to help start that discussion.  Another place to begin that conversation, however, might be with the new “Lincoln” movie from Steven Spielberg.  We have created an Unofficial Teacher’s Guide to that wonderful (but sometimes historically challenged) film, which you might find especially useful for what it reveals about the historical realities behind the portrayal of the Lincoln family.


This is only a sampling of the topics that I plan to discuss with the educators from Arkoma.  I hope those who participate in that trip and anyone who’s attended previous TAH field studies such as the ones I’ve outlined above, will feel free to post comments here, adding their own perspectives, questions and suggestions.

touching history(ans)

I couldn’t help but follow the previous post… no disrespect intended.

Last week I had a chance to meet David Blight, whose work on the Civil War in American Memory I found so captivating. He was here, in Vancouver, to give a talk from his new book, American Oracle. He is as friendly and accessible as one could hope, and as I share with him the status of being ex-patriot Michigan high school teachers, we shared a nice chat about our Tigers going to the World Series.

As a community, public lecture, the audience was a nice mix of people: students, on assignment; high school students receiving extra credit; educators of various stripes and curious members of the citizenry.

At one point he talked about the Lincoln Memorial as America’s oracle, the touchstone of our history. Perhaps, but what got me thinking was the question he threw out to the young students in the room: what’s your oracle? Really, what is it? What is mine? The answer is private, but the thought lingers about the wonderful power of good historical thinking… it can, perhaps should, intermix with the deeply personal to form something akin to a worldview. Or, at least, a point of view. Regardless, the challenge inherent in the question is to move beyond the passivity of data and story collection and into an awareness, if not wholehearted embrace, of the process by which we assimilate history into our own stories.

If “cogito, ergo sum” is true, is not “cogito, ergo ego sum historicus” not the takeaway from his question? “I think, therefore I am a historian.” Aside from the pesky details about historians doing history work, isn’t it also true that historians are truly steeped in their subject? At what point might we, as teachers of history, consider ourselves  historians? Do we have to have written an unreadable book with 4,000 footnotes? Maybe. At some point I hope to finish my own unreadable tome. But I don’t think teaching is enough.


Touching History

As I walked into my friends house my interest was slightly peeked. Her description of some civil war stuff her mother in law had me a little curious. As I entered the dining room I actually gasped and became short of breath . I looked at not a couple of papers, but 150 authentic 1864 enlistment papers of soldiers who had enlisted in Gallipolis, Ohio in September of that year. These were real ,authentic, genuine 148 year old documents in my hands. I touched them with extreme care and asked in wonder how on earth did you get these? How come they are in such beautiful condition? Pat (Mother in law ) explained to me that her great great grandfather was the Captain in charge of enlisting the men of the Gallipolis. Ohio  area. He was essentially the clerk in charge of all the paper work. In civilian life he had been a lawyer , a very neat and particular man it turns out. He had kept every document on every man he had enlisted. Pat tells me that these documents had been in a box in the basement of her grandmother for over 40 years . Pat had them in her attic for over 10 years and had just recently thought to see what was actually in the box. My co-worker called me and I have been helping research and talking to museums to figure out what to do with these precious and historically important papers.

As an educator this has been overwhelmingly satisfying to help research and preserve these wonderful pieces of history. I plan on scanning and copying every one of these (very delicately of course ). I will hopefully get hold of some experts to  help research and perhaps solve some century and a half old mysteries.  The search for knowledge of the past within these men’s stories. History can come alive as we  connect with their experiences. These documents hold a window to the past. A look into the lives of these soldiers and the sacrifice they made to keep our country whole and free. It is indeed, a golden opportunity for me to use these documents to help my middle schoolers do some primary source research. This is so exciting to me I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with these documents.

183rd Ohio Volunteer Enlistment Document September 1864

African Americans in the Civil War (Lesson Plan)

“Ms. Laing we LOVED that lesson! Can you do more like those?” Hearing those words from high school students who have earned their reputation as an apathetic bunch, was like the proverbial music to my ears. I’ve been teaching my 11th graders how important it is to study primary sources, and how much of a role art plays in history. With the help of a worksheet from the National Archives, I’ve incorporated photograph analysis into our study of the Civil War.

With a high number of ELL students, I have to differentiate lessons in a manner that will help them to understand complex ideas. The Valley of the Shadow website was the repository for the photographs that I used in this lesson. Students who arrived in the United States less than six months ago were able to participate when given the opportunity to express what they have observed.

Students use word clouds to create a visual representation of their analysis of African Americans in the Civil War photographs. During the whole class discussion their Wordles are projected on the SmartBoard and they compare the similarities noticed in the visual patterns. I ask students what similarities they predict they will see in their classmates Wordles, and what themes can be identified. I’m also curious about how students see the word clouds fitting in with the historical context of the photographs.

Visuals are a powerful medium that transcend time and language. I encourage you to incorporate them in your classroom! Click on the link below to download a copy of my lesson plan.

Loi Laing Lesson Plan

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:

the first painting


The first mural in my room, a beautifully painted eagle breaking the chain to England. In its talons are the Declaration and Constitution. This one is 4 years old. I suggested we paint over it, but the kids fell into an uproar. They had waited 3 years “to get to the painting room.” The murals hold a surprising degree of allure to the younger students. I’m almost out of wall space.

decorating the classroom


I know the point to our group is to work with technology, but I am too happy with this not to share. I have two murals in my classroom. The first one will be in another post. The mural here is on the east wall of my room, created by last years’ students. It’s 12 feet wide. The main point is the constitutional crisis take on the Civil War. This is how I get at the slavery question. Yes, I considered having the kids add slaves, but human figures are tricky and we decided against. I feel strongly about the House Divided, so they divided Lincoln’s own Springfield house. On the far right is the Gettysburg Address. It’s roughly 5 feet high. We projected the G.A. from an overhead and a steady student traced it with Sharpie. It looks great, even nose-up to it. We did the same with “We the People”, but didn’t even attempt to write more. We all felt the point was made. We tried to find a simple way to show Lincoln, and someone thought of the funeral. As for authenticity, the Lincoln Museum folks sent me a photo of a model of his final funeral carriage… it was a loaner, and WAY too ornate to replicate. Forget it. But someone saw pictures of other presidents’ funerals, particularly Kennedy, and we agreed to what is here. The exaggerated tophat takes care of the Lincoln reference.

Cool Tagxedo of Douglass’s “Cast Off the Mill-Stone,” Sept. 1861

If I do say so myself, this turned out kind of neat, with the colors and font.  The transcript of the article from Douglass' Monthly may be found here:

If I do say so myself, this turned out kind of neat, with the colors and font. The transcript of the article from Douglass’ Monthly may be found here:

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