Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The 2016 Civil War Teachers Institute in Richmond, Virginia

I've just returned from a great educational opportunity.  The annual Civil War Teacher Institute is an event run by the Civil War Trust, and they really respect and appreciate educators.  Attendance is actually free — when you register you pay a deposit of $100, but it's refunded after you attend.  They just want to make sure you're serious.

The institute is targeted primarily at K–12 teachers and museum professionals, but educators and historians of all types are welcome.  When I told people that I taught family hyistory, that seemed to fit right in.  And even though the approach for the workshops and tours was from big-H history, it was not difficult to see family history aspects of almost everything I learned.

The 2016 institute was held in Richmond, Virginia.  Things started Thursday night with a reception and buffet dinner.  One of the speakers was Reggie Harris, a performer who has created dialogs and songs to educate people about the Underground Railroad and other aspects of the historical conditions of black people in this country, particularly around the time of the Civil War.

We had Friday morning to ourselves (breakfast that day being the only meal not provided).  Instead of sightseeing, I headed over to the Library of Virginia for some on-site research (and I am now the proud owner of a Library of Virginia library card!).  Then everyone met at the host hotel for a buffet lunch, where the speaker was author and former teacher Kevin Levin.  He subject was that, no matter what people say, the Confederate flag is and always has been a symbol of racism and white supremacy.  By extension, notwithstanding high-minded speeches about states' rights and sovereignty, from the Southern perspective the Civil War was about maintaining the institution of slavery, pure and simple.  He made his points passionately, giving several excellent examples to illustrate them.  (It was a shame that the keynote speaker for the Saturday night banquet resorted to the jaded claim of "Federalism versus states' rights" as the cause of the war, but some people will always cling to their rationalizations.)  Levin is currently working on a book about the black "body servants" (i.e., slaves) that many Confederate officers brought with them to battles and the persistent myth (many, many times disproved) that these men "fought" as armed soldiers.

In the afternoon six different workshops were offered in three tracks.  I passed on "Richmond in the Civil War" and "Using Art to Teach the American Revolution."  I first chose "Teaching Civil War Military History by Accident", which ended up being about using simplified miniatures rules to get students interested in studying military history.  The instructor, John Michael "Mike" Priest, uses 54 mm figures becaue they're easier for small hands to maneuver, and cards because they're a little easier than dice and less of a swallowing hazard.  (I participated in the demo later in the day and led the winning side.)  The same person taught the second session I went to, "Locating and Evaluating Civil War Primary Sources for the Classroom", on online sites for historical primary sources.  He listed several sites I am familiar with, such as Fold3.com and Chronicling America, but some on the list were new to me, such as War Papers of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) and Pennsylvania Volunteers of the Civil War.

For the third session I seriously considered going to the talk about "Civil War Navies:  Brown and Blue Water Warfare" (I'm a sucker for a Navy man), but fortuitously I chose instead to go to Jesse Aucoin's presentation on "Journey through Hallowed Ground."  This is a project to plant a tree within a designated National Heritage Area for each of the more than 620,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, whose deaths were caused by the Civil War.  (Men who died after the war due to injuries or illness from the war are eligible.)  As part of the project, research done on each man is added to his public page on the Fold3 "Honor Wall."  Currently the organization has been reaching out to schools and having students research soldiers as class projects, but I thought this looked like something a lot of genealogists would be interested in.  I'm going to be talking with Jesse about modifying her presentation to target genealogists, and I hope to start speaking about the project in the Bay Area next year.

Battery 5 of the Dimmock Line
On Saturday, after a lovely breakfast buffet, we had our first day of field trips.  The choices were "The Bloody Battles for Richmond", "400 Years of History on the Peninsula", and "In the Trenches at Petersburg", which is what I opted for.  The first half of the day was spent at Petersburg National Battlefield, where at our first stop National Park Service Ranger Grant Gates demonstrated how General Ulysses S. Grant cut off General Robert E. Lee's supply lines to Petersburg by creating a human map on the grounds.  He asked for volunteers and designated them as Grant, Lee, the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, and the five railroad lines coming out of Petersburg.  The rail lines were represented by strings held on one end by each of the rail heads and on the other by Petersburg.  Gates had Grant and Lee bounce off each other in a circle around Richmond, with Lee between Grant and Richmond, to show how Lee was able to block Grant from his original goal of taking that city.  Then Grant walked about the perimeter of Petersburg, stopping at each rail line and cutting the string.  (I was Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad.)  It was a clear illustration of how Grant stretched out Lee's men and slowly cut off his supply lines.

photo courtesy of 
Jean-Marie Bronson
This location has some surviving earthworks and interpretive displays, including one board explaining that earthworks were created with slave labor.  This area was owned by the Josiah Jordan family.  Their house was destroyed, and a small depression in the earth is what remains to mark the spot.  A small family cemetery is fenced off from the main grounds; the rangers don't include it in their talks.

The next stop was "The Crater."  I had never heard of the Battle of the Crater, but now I know it was where, in July 1864, Union forces dug a tunnel underneath and blew up a Confederate battery, Elliott's Salient, leaving a sizable hole in the ground.  It was where USCT soldier Decatur Dorsey earned a Medal of Honor through his actions as the color bearer of the 39th Regiment.  Unfortunately, it was also where about 200 USCT soldiers were massacred, most by Confederates but some by their own Union comrades.  The Union lost this engagement, and Lieutenant General A. P. Hill paraded the intermixed black and white prisoners of war through the streets of Petersburg to horrify the populace.  We were told this was the first time Southern troops had actually faced black soldiers in combat.

William Mahone, the Confederate general in command at the Crater, surprised everyone during Reconstruction by creating a mixed black and white political party, the Readjusters.  While it appears he did so for purely pragmatic reasons, not because his opinion of black people had actually changed, it forever tainted Virginians' views of him.

The latter part of the day was spent at Pamplin Historical Park/Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  This is an educational complex with two museums; reconstructed models of a plantation big house and slave quarters; reconstructions of Civil War era earthworks, so visitors can get an idea of what it was like to behind a bunker; antebellum homes; even a soldiers' camp.  The large plot of land was donated by Robert B. Pamplin, Sr. and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin, Jr., descendants of the slave-owning family that owned the original plantation on whose grounds the complex now stands.  It looks like the family came out pretty well after the war.

After a buffet lunch in the museum dining room, we had an hour in the main building, the Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  This has a unique audio set-up.  You choose one of thirteen historical soldiers, and a docent programs your choice into your audio player.  On entering each room in the museum, the audio kicks in automatically and gives you a two- to three-minute overview of the subject, e.g., camp life, hospitals, etc.  In each room are several numbered cards for different subjects.  You punch in a number, and you hear a short piece about your soldier, in his own words.  At the end you find out if your soldier lived through the war.  I chose Alexander Heritage Newton, the only USCT soldier on the list (there were no Jewish soldiers available).  He survived the war, became a minister, and wrote an autobiography which included information about his USCT unit.  One of the choices is a young drummer boy, intended for use by school children (he also survived the war).

After this museum, we went outside to the big house and slave quarters area, where the foundation is now growing a garden similar to what the slaves would have had.  Then we headed to the soldiers' camp, where a reenactor described some of the daily life of a Confederate or Union soldier.  After a short rifle demonstration, he rounded up some volunteers and marched them around in the sunny 95/95 weather (95 degrees and 95 percent humidity) while the rest of us watched from the shade.

At the Saturday evening banquet, former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley was one of the speakers.  Dooley earned a Master's degree in history and apparently has maintained an interest in the subject.

Sunday we had another lovely buffet breakfast (did you notice that all meals but one were included as part of the program?) before the last field trips.  This time the options were "Lincoln in Richmond" and "Hollywood Cemetery."  I'm a genealogist, so of course I chose the cemetery.  I shouldn't have.  The program gave no warning about the amount of walking up and down hills that would be required, and I couldn't keep up.  Before I gave up and headed back to the cemetery entrance to wait for everyone else, I did see some of the cemetery's sights:
• Confederate graves as far as the eye can see, many of which had faded flags next to them, probably still there from Memorial Day
• A massive memorial pyramid, built in 1869, dedicated to the more than 18,000 Confederate enlisted dead buried in the cemetery
• The famous iron "black dog", a guardian over the grave of a little girl
• A large memorial to Jewish Confederate soldiers
• A monument to George Pickett, of Pickett's Charge

The description of Pickett reminded me a lot of George Armstrong Custer.  Pickett was the last in his class at West Point, had a huge ego, was very proud of his shoulder-length hair, and was extraordinarily devoted to his wife.  In addition, after he died, his wife wrote glowing, heavily exaggerated stories about him.  He was the Confederacy's version of Custer!

This was a wonderful program, and I am very happy I was able to attend.  If you teach history, if you are fascinated by the Civil War, I encourage you to consider going next year.  At the Saturday night banquet, it was confirmed that the 2017 institute will be in Memphis, Tennessee, though the dates are not yet posted.

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