Once upon a time, in a decade not our own, a young “emerging” historian wrote a thesis paper for his master’s degree at Norwich University. The paper examined the eastern theater and the western theatre and asked, “Where was the Civil War won?”
In 2013, that thesis served as the basis for an extended blog series at ECW: “Eastern Theater vs. Western Theater.”
Today, that historian, Kris White, now the education manager at the American Battlefield Trust, tapped into that same discussion for a workshop at the Teacher Institute. “This is what I did my thesis on,” he tells the full house that’s crammed into Salon D to hear him. “So, I’m being lazy,” he adds, chuckling.
His presentation, “Eastern Theater vs. Western Theater: Where was the Civil War Won and Lost?” offered a case study as an inquiry based lesson that stressed critical thinking over a more traditional straight-up lecture.
“Good historians, when they come up with a thesis statement, they critically think the question through with other historians,” Kris explains. “They often do it with cigars and beers.” From the back of the room, I let out a small whoop.
In a classroom, teachers and/or students engaged in inquiry-based learning can develop questions to answer. They then research the topic during class, and teachers have students present their answer to the question. Finally, to cement the learning, they ask students to reflect on their work.
In this case, Kris invites teachers to ask not just where the Civil War was won or lost but how? Why? When? What are examples that go along with it?
To test his research question, Kris asks for two volunteers who don’t know much about the Civil War and two volunteers “who think they know a heck of a lot about the Civil War.” The first two volunteers come easy, then comes the third. Finally, a woman from the back gets up to complete the quartet. “Ah, a little caffeine got her going,” one of her neighbors says.
First, Kris gives each team two minutes to write the names of as many battles as they can think of. Then he flips the charts to a new sheet and asks them to list “Events of the Civil War,” meaning “anything event-wise that are non battles.” Finally, he flips to a third sheet: “Leaders or personalities.”
“Why is this important?” he asks. “This is going to tell us a lot about popular culture, about memory, and about where power sources were militarily and financially.”
For context, he outlines some of the military theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini—base of operations, momentum, mass of force, strategic points, interior and exterior lines—and Carl von Clausewitz—critical analysis, strategy and tactics, centers of gravity, imposing your will on the enemy. “What are the objectives at the beginning of the war?” Kris asks. “The South needs only survive; the North needs to break the will of the South—what’s known as ‘the western way of war.’”
Next, he moves his audience through a series of maps, newly developed by the Trust, that show the evolution of the United States from the War of 1812 through the eve of the Civil War. As the nation evolves, he discusses a list of “Trigger Events” that affect everything from politics to demographics to geography. The list includes the 3/5 compromise; the Compromise of 1820; Nat Turner’s rebellion; the Mexican-American War; the Wilmot Proviso; the Compromise of 1850; the Kansas-Nebraska Act and “Bleeding Kansas”; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Dred Scott; the Lincoln-Douglas Debates; John Brown’s Raid; the election of 1860; and finally Southern secession.
“The war was not inevitable,” Kris points out. “Right up until they fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, they didn’t think things would go there. The South had threatened secession before and had come back.”
With his context laid out, he returns to the flip boards. “In my thesis, I said there was an eastern bias,” he reminds us. Time to test the theory.
“Events” include the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th amendment, Lincoln’s assassination, secession, and “digging trenches.” “Not where I thought that was going,” Kris laughs.
“Battles” include Gettysburg, first and second Manassas, Antietam, Shiloh, and two different spellings of Chattanooga/Cattanuga. Chickamauga also shows up. “The Gettysburg of the west,” Kris says. “Even today, they can’t escape the comparison. I don’t know why they don’t call Gettysburg ‘the Chickamauga of the East.’”
“Leaders” include Lincoln and Davis, Grant, Lee. “A lot of people love to focus on Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee,” Kris says. “The other thing that comes out of this is that we get Grant the drunk. He’s a dunderhead who only made frontal assaults. And Lee is ‘the anointed one.’” In reality, though, he points out that Lee has far greater casualties than Grant overall—“by far.”
As Kris mentioned earlier, most of our perceptions of history are shaped by memory, not actual history. He calls out Edward A. Pollard’s The Lost Cause as a foundational text that skewed the story. “For instance, we focus on Lee’s surrender and ignore Joe Johnson’s surrender, which was bigger,” Kris explains. “We do that because Joe Johnson was a loser. James Longstreet was a loser. We blame them.” Lee, meanwhile, gets ennobled.
Sherman takes a lot of flak, too. “He’s portrayed as angry guy who’s going to burn the South,” Kris says. “We forget Sherman loved the South. He taught in Louisiana. He offered terms to Joe Johnston that were so generous he was accused of being a traitor and was threatened to be relieved of command.” The facts, he says, don’t support the generally remembered story.
Overall, the flips charts are fairly balanced from the “experts,” but the novices, shaped more by pop culture and memory wars, show more of an eastern-centric bias. He also blames such factors as population distribution, wealth distribution, and technology. “There were more newspapers in the east,” he says. “There were more telegraph lines in the east.”
The biggest battles also happened in the east. Lists of casualties, topped by Gettysburg, are all eastern heavy. Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Stone’s River all appear in the top ten, but the central Virginia battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania weigh heavy with a combined 100,000 casualties alone. Antietam and Second Manassas also appear.
By exploring assumptions and perceptions, and tracking down data to support or refute them, lead to informed—and sometimes surprising—data. He shares a number of resources teachers can use in their own inquiries, including a series of maps that breaks down census data, available free online from Bowdoin College—“home of ‘Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, our Lord and Savoir,’” Kris quips.
“Get your students in front of primary documents,” he pushes. “Read these primary documents.”
In the end, Kris doesn’t actually answer the question he posed at the beginning of the session. “Where was the Civil War Won and Lost,” he had asked? The answer, he cleverly suggests, is “Don’t rely on what you think you know—find out for yourself.” There’s plenty of information to help you find the answer.