February 12, 2012, 1:00 pm
The Battlefield as Classroom
By KEVIN LEVIN
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite moment of the year. The trip that follows is a chance for us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.
My students and I walk Virginia’s hallowed ground and try to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time, we struggle to understand the courage of the men who fought and, as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, like that of Pvt. John F. Chase of the 5th Maine Battery, who manned his gun at the Battle of Chancellorsville in the face of a strong Confederate advance, providing the Union Army with valuable time to move out of immediate danger — an act for which he received the Medal of Honor.
But I try to take my students off the beaten path as well, to show them how most of what happens in the thick of fighting doesn’t lend itself to the often arbitrary distinctions drawn after the war ended. In the classroom, it’s easier to dismiss the courage of Southern troops or the savagery of Union officers; standing on the same field where thousands of acts of valor and cowardice and ruthlessness played out simultaneously, it’s much harder.
Much of my teaching isn’t through lectures, but contemplation. As part of our tour of the New Market Battlefield, I ask students to spend a few minutes alone to reflect on a short profile of one of the 48 Virginia Military Institute cadets who ran across a the “Field of Lost Shoes” to turn back a Union charge; the ground was so thick with mud that most of them lost their footgear in it — and still they kept running.
When positioned below Marye’s Heights, near Fredericksburg, I give my students a few moments to reflect on the steadfastness of the tens of thousands of Union men who marched 600 yards over open ground to certain death (some 15,000 died there during the two battles of Fredericksburg). After lunch on Fredericksburg’s Telegraph Hill, I ask them to sit alone and think about Robert E. Lee’s poignant words about the nature of battle — “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it” — that he muttered as he contemplated the bloody scenes unfolding below him.
Many of the stories I share include the civilians who were forced to evacuate their homes, or else were caught in the murderous cross-fire. At Chancellorsville students discuss the experiences of 16-year-old Susan Margaret Chancellor, whose home became the headquarters of the Union Army in the spring of 1863. Susan and a small group of family members and neighbors listened to the “shrieks and groans” of battle, emerging to find “piles of legs and arms outside of the sitting room window and rows and rows of dead bodies.”
Library of Congress - Union troops crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in December 1862.
Some scholars fear that a focus on fighting and battles diverts attention from the war’s meaning, its roots in the struggle over slavery and the ultimate emancipation of slaves. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Our first stop in Fredericksburg is downtown, not only to discuss the crossing of the Federal Army on Dec. 11, 1862 and the defense of the town, but also to consider the significance of the slave auction block on the corner of William and Charles Streets. It reminds us that the soldiers didn’t just fall from the sky prepared to kill, but that the fighting was the result of decades of national struggle. I also remind students that if the introduction of war represented a failure of government, the war itself offered an opportunity to reshape the nation in a way that more clearly embodied our founding ideals.
Indeed, slavery and freedom are always central to our battlefield visits. After a tour of one of the many battlefields around Richmond, we follow the footsteps of the 28th United States Colored Troops as they entered the city on April 3, 1865, to the cheers of hundreds of newly freed slaves. The regiment included the Rev. Garland White, who was born into slavery in Richmond 35 years earlier. After addressing the men and a small crowd, White was approached by an elderly woman. She asked a few questions and then said, “This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent 20 years of grief about her son.”
The courage displayed by White and tens of thousands of other black Union soldiers helped transform the nation by offering Americans the opportunity to embrace a “new birth of freedom.” The battlefields set in motion a chain of events that resulted in emancipation in 1863 and the eventual end of slavery in December 1865. It is the successful preservation of the Union and end of slavery for four million slaves that give meaning to the brave men who fought and died during the four years of war.
I hope my students – their generation, as much as my own – will come to see themselves as part of a larger narrative, a larger community that continues to be shaped and defined by those who came before us. It is my responsibility as a teacher, and our responsibility as citizens, to understand the achievements and failures of the Civil War generation. In large part, white Americans rebuilt their lives. Through reunion ceremonies and monument dedications, former enemies put much of the hatred behind them. In doing so they helped forge a new nation.
But I also expect my students to deal with questions that, unfortunately, too few of us are willing to confront. While sitting in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery I have them consider what the war meant for African-Americans. Why did the local African-American community in Fredericksburg stop celebrating Memorial Day a few short years after Appomattox? What did the battle of Fredericksburg mean, for example, to Joseph Walker, who was born in Spotsylvania County, witnessed the bloody battle in May 1864 and went on to found the Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute in 1905, at the height of Jim Crow? What stories did he share with his students about the war, stories that were lost in the broader movement of national reunion? Would Walker, White and other African-Americans have been welcomed to the battlefield reunions of their white former comrades and enemies? What meaning would they have found on those days if they had been?
Such questions aren’t easy, nor should they be. Battlefields are not simply places to visit for fun, retracing the movements of soldiers from point A to point B. We ought to feel uncomfortable when confronted with so much bloodshed and sacrifice. We can honor that sacrifice and ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain” by acknowledging the legacy of emancipation and freedom that they helped to bring about — and, in doing so, continue their work of more fully embracing the founding ideals that we as Americans so dearly treasure.
Kevin M. Levin is a historian, history educator and blogger in Boston. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.” He can be found online at Civil War Memory.