Monday, January 24, 2011

The Civil War Teaches Us About Death... and the Beauty of Life

There is a great beauty in life that we fail to recognize until something, some experience or some knowledge, gives us the gift of perspective.  I have personally gone through some difficult moments recently, but I was reminded of the great beauty of life last week as I got off a chairlift and buckled down my ski boots for the first run of the day at Attitash in Bartlett, New Hampshire.

Rarely do we teachers get the opportunity to give our teenage students, who are caught up in a material and highly virtualized world, such perspective.  There are countless passages and examples of the lives and deaths of ordinary soldiers throughout Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War. This book just might provide us teachers with that opportunity.

Faust is able to present ample evidence to prove that the nature of death and the American understanding of what death meant changed as a result of the war. The study of these ordinary soldiers is important for our students’ learning and understanding of the intense impact of this war on American society, economics, politics, and culture.

To understand this shift I might first explain what ars moriendi is. Students need to understand that a proper death at the time was at home, surrounded by loved ones, prayerful, and followed an honest profession of sins in a Christian mindset that allowed for both the dying and the living to be secure in the fate of the soul of the moribund.

Next, the passages I might use with students would include the stories of soldiers who struggled with the fact that they did not know when they would die and were therefore denied ars moriendi.

“Sure knowledge – even of death – seemed preferable to persisting uncertainty, for it restored both a sense of control and the possibility for the readiness to central to the ars moriendi. …Early in the war W.D. Rutherford of South Carolina remarked to his fiancĂ©e upon ‘how we find ourselves involuntarily longing for the worst.,’ so as simply not to be caught unaware. Rutherford confronted three more years of such uncertainly and ‘longing’ before he was killed in Virginia in October 1864.” (p. 19-20)
I might also use a passage to illustrate the point that this uncertainty affected the loved ones of the soldiers at home as well, especially when they couldn’t bury their husbands or sons ‘properly.’

“Redemption and resurrection of the body were understood as physical, not just metaphysical, realities, and therefore the body, even in death and dissolusion, preserved ‘a surviving indentity.’ …Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi… As he lay dying at Gettysburg, he wrote to urge his mother not to regret that she would be unable to retrieve his body. With his last words, he asked ‘to be buried like my comrades. But deep, boys deep, so the beasts won’t get me.” (p. 62-63)
The burial ceremonies and huge numbers of citizens in attendance for the burials of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Abraham Lincoln demonstrated the overwhelming desire of the public to compensate for the time they lost when denied ars moriendi. The compositions of Walt Whitman about Lincoln are especially expressive of this mourning that the whole nation shared. While the lines are outwardly about Lincoln, they seem to hint at the hopes and dreams of all soldiers who fell before him.

“Sing of the love we bore him-because you, dwellers in
camps, know it truly.

As they invault the coffin there,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.”(p. 159-161)
The entire book is difficult emotional reading.  Probably too much for the average teenager to handle.  But a few carefully selected excerpts put in the right context could help our students gain some much-needed perspective on the value of life and the great suffering others have endured so that we have the opportunity to live.

Please Note: This reflection was completed as part of the author's participation in the History Connected program. Please see the History Connected Wiki or the History Connected Official Website for information on the federal grant that provided the opportunity.

Cover Art:

Monday, January 3, 2011

Using John Booker's Civil War Letters In the Classroom

John and James were born to John Booker (1797-1859) and Nancy Blair Reynolds Booker (1796-1859) on October 10, 1840, and both enlisted in the Confederate Army on May 24, 1861, at Whitmell, Virginia, in Company D 38th Virginia Regiment, Infantry (also known as "the Whitmell Guards"). They began writing letters to their cousin soon after enlisting, and they continued until they were both severely wounded in the Battle of Drewry's Bluff near Petersburg, Virginia, on May 16, 1864. John died of his wounds in August 1864, but James recovered, married Martha Ann Fulton ["Pat"] (?-1923) of Pittsylvania County, on October 31, 1867, and lived until 1923. (Click here for the source of this summary)

The John Booker letters are great examples of the realities of participation in wartime. They demonstrated that the initial enthusiasm and adventure-seeking that motivated young men to volunteer and enlist faded away when the realities of war became evident. Booker, a Confederate soldier, probably enlisted with his brother and friends to preserve their way of life and defend their homes and families. Over time, he realized that war is not always about these heroic intentions. It may start out that way, but when it comes down to doing the work of war, it is unpleasant, unfair, and isolating.

Booker's participation was punctuated with frustration and disillusionment. He was frustrated with his officers and his family and friends at home as well. His officers seemed unaware of the importance of fairness among their men.

Christmas is close by and I see no chance for me or James to get home. I would like the best in the world for one of us to get home by Christmas if we could ans I think one of us was to get a furlough and if the officers would do right we would get one. But if they can get home whenever they please, they don't care for us.

Furloughs were obviously highly valued, and granting them in a fair way was essential to maintaining the loyalty and motivation of the men. Additionally, Booker saw right through the governor's strategy to give the men an impossible choice when trying to get them to reenlist in the Confederate Army.

The Governor came out the other day and made us a speech an tried to the get the men to re-enlist for the war, and when he had quit speaking the Colonel had us all in line and then the Colors carried to the front and then told all the men he wanted all who were determined to be freemen to step out on the line with the Colors and all who were willing to be slaves for their enemies to stand fast. ...I didn't wish to be in either line. ...I believe that as long as we will stay here and express a willingness to stay here our leading men will keep the war up.
Booker argues that he wants peace and seems to believe that the officers and political leaders do not, but they need young men like him to fight their war for them. Our students might look at this and try to connect it to the strategies that politicians use today to convince their constituents that their legislative agenda/campaign platform/party tagline is the best.

Most interesting, and sad, to me was the fact that Booker seemed truly upset that the letters from family and friends did not arrive often enough.

I am sure there is nothing that affords me more pleasure than to receive a letter from any of my friends or relations at home. But it's seldom I get a letter. I had been expecting a letter from you two or three weeks before I received it.

I take this opportunity of responding to your most kind and interesting letter of the 10th of last month which was so long coming to hand I had begun to think that you had given out writing to me anymore or had written and I had failed to get your letter, though I suppose your letter were on the road longer than it ought have been.

This point would not be lost on our students given that American men and women are serving in Afghanistan and all over the world. There are many opportunities for them to send their thoughts, well-wishes, and even a few tokens of gratitude to these people who make great sacrifices.

Students might draw from these primary source documents that participation for an individual can change over time. Booker is a hero, but is story is not an ideal one. It would be a great way to show students how true heroics are achieved.

Please Note: This reflection was completed as part of the author's participation in the History Connected program. Please see the History Connected Wiki or the History Connected Official Website for information on the federal grant that provided the opportunity.

Louis XIV Podcasts from Freshmen Students

My freshmen are studying 17th Century European absolute monarchs. In an effort to keep them on task before the much-anticipated winter holiday break, they are recording podcasts about Louis XIV of France.

Click the link below to hear what they wrote and recorded. I think they did a pretty decent job with both the history content and writing. Feel free to comment. They would love to hear from you! Thanks for listening.