Getting More Young People Interested in the Civil War: Some Suggestions

My daughter, Steph, has been in love with the Civil War since she was four.

During a recent panel discussion at the Gettysburg Heritage Center, several of us from ECW pondered a question we all hear these daysL “How do we get more young people interested in the Civil War?” My colleagues offered a lot of good advice—everything from “get students onto the battlefields” to “focus on great storytelling.” I heartily endorse such sentiments! (The full discussion will appear on C-SPAN in a few weeks; we’ll let you know when so that you can tune in.)

I hear this same lament a lot when I’m on the road speaking to roundtables. Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch: “We need more young people.” And it’s true—we do! With everything competing for their attention these days, and with so many teachers forced by state testing to boil things down to names/dates/places, Civil War history can seem downright boring compared to the entertaining multimedia immersion students can otherwise experience.

Since the panel discussion, I’ve tried to think of several specific suggestions I can offer as ways to get more young people interested in the Civil War. I offer these suggestions specifically with roundtables and historical societies in mind. I warn you in advance, the list is not exhaustive; in fact, I would encourage all of you to chime in with specific things your group successfully does. But here, at least, is a stab: 

Reach out to young people through the media channels they’re most apt to engage. A notice in the local paper is great for people in the traditional roundtable demographics, but how many teenagers—or even twenty-somethings—are reading the local newspaper? Instead, what are you doing with social media—and not just Facebook (which has become kinda uncool for teens) but Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, and others? You have to keep current, too. After all, remember a crazy little thing called “MySpace”? Most teens today don’t remember it, either. “Vine” was a big thing for a while, too, but that seems to have withered. You have to know what social media young people are using today, and then consider how you’re actively using it to reach them. For example, are you sending out tweets about your meeting times? Is that all you’re tweeting, or are you retweeting links to interesting news stories and blog posts you like, too? If that social media stuff all sounds like work, it is—but that’s what it will take if you want to reach young folks.

Beyond social media, what other ways do you have to reach them? Through their social studies teachers at school? Through the history clubs at their schools? Through Scouts? Through church youth groups? Reach out to people and groups that have influence with them. Expand your net and think creatively.

Be sure your meetings are inviting to younger people. Sure, you might think the atmosphere of your meetings is welcoming, but the people who’ve been going for years and years are used to the routine. What’s it like to show up as a new person? What’s it like to show up as a new young person? Is the room full of old fogies? Are people friendly to strangers, or do people hang with their own cliques?

And then there’s the larger question of getting younger people in the door in the first place: Is the meeting time convenient for younger people? How about the meeting location? Dress code? What about the cost of dinner, if any? A $35 sit-down meal isn’t too much for most of us, but for a teenager, that’s a day’s wages at their part-time job.

Get involved with National History Day, the Civil War Trust’s National Teacher Institute, and other organizations that promote history education. The more you can do to partner with groups that already focus on history education—particularly Civil War history—the more you can build off of each other’s efforts. For instance, sending a local teacher off to the Trust’s annual Teachers Institute is an excellent investment in someone who’s working on the front lines with young people. Not only are you helping that person better kindle an interest in the Civil War in his/her students, that teacher is also far more apt to funnel interested students in the direction of your roundtable. For National History Day, offering a special prize for the best Civil War-themed project in the regional competition might encourage more Civil War projects. Aside from offering the prize, you can also show off the projects at one of your meetings, which gets students in the door.

Solicit volunteers to go into schools to talk with students. This is more complicated than it sounds, though. First, you need to find the right person/people to contact at the school. Then you need to talk with them about ways you and your group can interact with students most effectively. Because of state testing requirements, the amount of time teachers can devote to the Civil War is limited, so that classtime must be used as effectively as possible. Going and “talking about the Civil War” might not be enough. Find out what your teachers need and then work with them to develop programming that helps them.

Similarly, it’s not enough to send just anyone into a class. Be sure your volunteers aren’t just passionate about the subject but that they’re also good public speakers. It’s a mistake to think passion alone will carry a speaker. Students today have a billion and one things vying for their short attention spans, and they get bored easily, so guest speakers need to be dynamic and engaging, not just passionate about the Civil War.

Urge your state legislators to support more Civil War education in schools. So much of what teachers teach today ties back to standardized state curricula. Write to your state legislators and ask them to support more Civil War education as part of the state’s curriculum. Get each member of your roundtable to write a letter, and have the roundtable itself send a letter, too. Provide form letters or offer letter-writing workshops for anyone who needs help. If you conduct a campaign in conjunction with other Civil War Roundtables in your state, you’ll amplify your voices.

This is, of course, fraught with political landmines. Battles and leaders are usually the most attention-grabbing hooks for getting a young person’s interest, but in the context of the overall curriculum, those things are not as important as talking about the causes of the war, the impacts of the war, and the long-term ramifications of the war. And, of course, the issue of slavery remains thorny, although it’s absolutely central to any discussion.

Some of what I’ve suggested is apt to raise some hackles, I’m sure. It’s tough to take an honest look at what you’re doing, sometimes, and admit, for instance, that perhaps Chris isn’t the best guy to go speak to a room full of eighth graders. Or, by gummy, we’ve had our meetings on Thursdays at the Good Old Boys Club downtown at 5:30 p.m. on the dot for forty years, and their dress code has worked just fine. But if you want to attract more younger people, some folks are going to have to be open to change.

You’re also going to have to work at it a little bit. You have to meet them on their ground and then, from there, you can invite them over to your “hallowed ground.” And remember: younger people love interactivity and engagement–so what can you do to get them involved?

I’m sure other folks have suggestions beyond the five I’ve offered here. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you!

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16 Responses to Getting More Young People Interested in the Civil War: Some Suggestions

  1. Joe Owen says:

    I believe it is needed to relate the Civil War to younger generations one must be carful not to cloud the history with an overbearing personal viewpoint that can easily be North=Good, South=Bad. I have a war art and sad feeling that younger generations are being taught that those who served in the Confederacy were a bunch of evil, slaving owning racist monsters and that the Union Soldiers were “true angels” set to punish the southern stars because of secession and to uphold slavery no matter what.
    Look at any social media, Facebook, Twitter and others and the overwhelming discussion is not historical discussions but historical discussions that paint the overwhelming view that younger generations should view the Civil War with the opinion that the Southern Starss from 1861-1865 were plain evil. Any other form of discussion or opinions is not desired or revelant.
    In the last two years since the tragic shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Civil War history is second to “take down those evil monuments and flags and everything else” that is Confederate related.
    This is the unfortunate facts about teaching younger generations about the Civil War. And if that continues, historical viewpoints will not be included, just that North=Good, South=Bad.

  2. Joe Owen says:

    Sorry for the grammatical errors and weird words in the post. Typing from my cell phone and auto correct is the cause for the errors.

  3. fundrums says:

    It is difficult. Having four children, living in the center of four battlefields, (Fredericksburg…) and being a routine author and speaker you would think I was able to raise an interest in my own kids. I FAILED. They were too interested in other things. That said my oldest daughter is a history major at the local college (Mary Washington) so there is hope yet. My advice is to take advantage of giving tours to younger people. That has worked for me with other peoples kids.

    – Michael Aubrecht

    • John Foskett says:

      It depends on age and what you expose them to. For example, my assistant and her family went to the Tidewater area of Virginia for Spring Break. She has three boys age 10, 8, and 6. I steered her to an artillery demo at Yorktown for one activity. The kids loved it and the re-enactors allowed them to touch the gear, explained what it was used for, and had them go through a mock drill.

  4. David Corbett says:

    History nerds are born, not made. A love of history requires a love of reading and that eliminates the major portion of the current United States population.

  5. Matt Kenney says:

    I would agree with all the ideas Chris put on the table, esp about the social media aspect. I would add a couple more: (a) free membership in groups such as Roundtables for students (to include college/grad school students) and their teachers/professors; (b) use back to school nights at schools (middle and high schools esp) to have a table for the local Roundtable or similar organization to provide information as well as promote reading and the study of history (my guess is that tables might get adults and their kids interested), The equivalent for a local college or university might be to register your organization as a club that students can join (and get publicity on campus as clubs do; (c) develop relationships with history teachers/professors at local schools and colleges providing information about your organization and its activities; (d), funds permitting of course, sponsor a scholarship funds for high school students to apply for in the name of your organization; even a small amount of money might help an interested kid to go to college.

  6. Sam Smith says:

    Great post, Chris! I’ll add a few thoughts of my own, in no particular order, followed by suggestions.

    1) Joe Owen is absolutely right that the range of acceptable discourse about the Civil War has narrowed dramatically. The fault lies with historians who have cast the Confederacy as a racist farce, rather than a “Lost Cause.” The historical facts are more of a mixture of the two (and more), but middle of the road doesn’t sell books or draw clicks. Long-term, however, modern historians have sold out the subject by removing its dramatic and ideological tension.

    > A new intellectual framework for understanding the conflict is needed.

    2) The current administration of battlefield touring is stifling. NPS Rangers and Licensed Guides are an extremely mixed bag when it comes to appealing to broad, diverse, young audiences. I would go so far as to say that most are bad at it. And yet they are protected from competition by ossified legal statutes.

    > Remove legal strictures regarding battlefield guiding. It’s not 1913 anymore–consumers are better protected and served by Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc. than they are by mega-nerd gatekeepers.

    3) Young historians are running out of new material to study and write about.

    > If we can find a new framework, this problem will be substantially mitigated. Also, there’s an incredible amount of largely unexplored material to work with. Young historians need to broaden their horizons and relentlessly experiment with new approaches to historical storytelling.

    4) Money in Civil War education is often poorly leveraged.

    > Quit throwing cash into social video production and the propping up of systemically broken curricula. It’s not working. I’ve seen it not working. It doesn’t move the needle. Pick something huge and bold and see it through to the end.

    5) As great as ECW or any other Civil War history organization could be, the route to most hearts and minds travels through feature films and novels. However, due to point 1, the Civil War has become less and less attractive to movie studios and publishing houses.

    > Again, we need to be more honest and factual when dealing with the differences between Union and Confederacy. We also need better scripts than we got with Lincoln and Free State of Jones.

  7. John Foskett says:

    These are generally good points but I respectfully submit that the following are examples of exactly the kind of one-sided focus that actually turns off the group we’re trying to attract:

    “The fault lies with historians who have cast the Confederacy as a racist farce, rather than a “Lost Cause.”

    “We also need better scripts than we got with Lincoln and Free State of Jones”

    .Who are these unnamed “historians” who apparently are not dealing in facts? And the fact of the matter is that the CSA was premised on racist principles – one only need read the secession ordinances/articles, the CSA Constitution, the letters and speeches of the secession commissioners, etc. We also need “better scripts” than a lot of the junk put up on the Internet by Flaggers, proponents of Black Confederates, etc. The answer isn’t to falsely sanitize facts or to ignore in an increasingly diverse population reasonable perceptions that, for example, the battle flag became a weapon of choice as a symbol of racism and oppression. It’s to get kids to understand that, as in many instances in our country’s history, behaviors and beliefs that may have been acceptable or debatable at the time no longer are but that there is interest and value in understanding that history and all of its aspects, resisting the urge to evaluate 19th century individuals with 21st century standards. In other words, we need to get them interested in exploring and learning history and not in trying to sell them on things that they’re too smart to swallow. Lincoln is no less an interesting or even in some ways admirable figure because he was also a man of his time/region/culture in terms of his racial views – which would not be acceptable today but were fairly “progressive” in that context. Too many adults today feel some need to “justify” the fact that great great grand dad fought at least in part to defend an institution which was reprehensible. That is far from an effective way to lower the average age of Civil War enthusiasts. Make it honest and find ways to make it interesting and even, in a sense, entertaining. Keep in mind that our younger population is increasingly more diverse ethnically and racially and fewer and fewer can trace ancestry to the Civil War or can readily “identify” with its participants.

    • ssp24 says:

      Hi John, Sam again. Thanks for your reply. I’ve enjoyed those of your reviews that I’ve seen around the internet. To add a bit of context to my reply: I’m 27 years old and formerly managed the education programs of the Civil War Trust, which ECW editor Kris White does now. I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time with students and teachers of this generation and my suggestions are sourced in that experience.

      I of course agree that slavery was “the cornerstone” of the Confederacy. However, atop the cornerstone were built blocks of states’ rights, agrarian interests, economic protectionism, nativism, etc. The Confederate Constitution very clearly indicates this and I would encourage you to read my previous article on this site for further detail.

      Out of professional respect I am not going to name names in a public forum, but I maintain that many historians overlook or rush through this otherwise rich source for historical contemplation and discussion.

      Regarding the scripts, is there really a vast trove of pro-Confederate feature screenplays floating around that I am unaware of? If so, please direct me to them! But I’m not trying to say we need more Confederate focus on-screen. I’ve long argued that we need more Union heroes. We just need better movies.

      Also not trying to bring the flag issue into this. I generally agree with you, though. Again, I’ve written about it in more detail on this site. Also not trying to “justify” what ancestors did (on either side). Like Lincoln said, “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

      As I mentioned, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching this subject. Generally speaking, the modern approach is not winning students, except through the efforts of extraordinary teachers I know. All too often, the lasting impression is of an awkward little dust-up, a growing pain with an inevitable endpoint. From a zoomed-out perspective, that is scarcely more honest/true/interesting than the old-school Lost Cause perspective, if at all. A course correction is absolutely needed.

      What’s also needed is a lens of history as literature, of the Civil War as a massive and infinitely dramatic story full of parables of citizenship, courage, compassion, cowardice, etc. What do we want to teach when we teach the Civil War? Honestly answering that question and building our framework from there might take us closer to that alchemy we all seek.

      • John Foskett says:

        Sam: Those are fair points. I know from my own experiences with trying to get kids interested in this subject, that fewer and fewer are able to “identify with” those involved in the war or to “connect with” it. My own addiction started because my ancestor Isaac served three years in the A of the Potomac. Today’s kids are much more diverse ethnically and racially and cannot trace any family connection to these events. It’s essential IMHO to present the material honestly; to recognize that views held then by many were fundamentally different from what is acceptable today; and to find ways to make this information relevant, interesting, and entertaining. I concur regarding how Hollywood presents the war – I’d add that junk which Maxwell and Turner foisted on us (especially the God-awful sequel). Of course, we”re looking at this in the context of current movie-making. I cringe every time I watch scenes from Gone With the Wind, as well. The challenge in using film is to keep it entertaining and accurate at the same time. It also is difficult to steer around the fact that some of the alleged “heritage”/”memory” aspects of the battle flag and monuments (those not on battlefields) were actually adopted decades after the war as symbols of something else which is more nefarious. The only thing I know for certain is that it’s not a good thing when I’m doing a CWRT presentation and I’m one of the “younger” folks in the room. This website is an important part of the effort.

  8. Charles Martin says:

    Get the reenactors into the classrooms. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy seeing young eyes light up especially when I bring enough wooden muskets to “drill” the students and give each student the opportunity to be a drill sergeant. The questions come fast and furious. The uniform and equipment become the teaching aids in and of themselves.

  9. Ryan Quint says:

    I’ve said this before at different venues, and I’ll keep saying it: realize that the study of the Civil War can be so much larger than just through a military history lens. If people feel pigeon-holed and feel like they have to know all the Xs and Os of military campaigning, that can be intimidating. And Sam is right, there are bad historians out there, and those bad historians are sometimes the worst gate-keepers, who push potential new faces away. You can study the Civil War’s homefront, social change, etc, and still be as much a Civil War historian as the person who writes those 500 page tactical studies. Personally, I think the greatest historians are those who do a blend of the two; yes, tell me the details of the battle ofFredericksburg, but also tell me why it mattered in the grand scheme of things.

    • John Foskett says:

      There certainly are bad historians out there, nbut “bad” is not “viewpoint-defined.” I agree on your assessment of those who combine “disciplines”. For example, there are several very good unit histories published in the last 15 years or so which don’t limit themselves to events on the battlefield. Some people wrongly brush this with a disparaging “PC” label, but it’s not only highly relevant – it also expands the potential audience.

  10. fundrums says:

    All interesting points. When I lead tours here in Fredericksburg I always focus on the people and the experiences of the town. I talk about the defense of the town, the bombardment, the ransacking, etc. heck I even wrote a couple books that look through that lens. I am not a tactical historian. I can tell you the general location and fighting that took place but I have no clue about specific maneuvers and tactical matters. Sometimes I think folks get bored if you go too far into the weeds. That will definitely scare off young people who simply want to hear stories.

    – Michael Aubrecht

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