Learning Civil War History: The Pandemic Perspective

On January 18, 2021, I began teaching a Civil War history class at Penn State, where most instruction is currently taking place via the (now) ubiquitous Zoom platform. I have been fortunate to teach the department’s Civil War survey in person previously, so I had my course materials ready to go. I quickly realized, however, that Zoom presents challenges to my style of teaching, which relies heavily on students answering questions that I pepper throughout my lectures, and, more importantly, laughing at my very funny comments about George McClellan and Joseph Johnston.

On the first day of class, I decided to ask my students what they already knew about the Civil War—and had both of my classes make a collage with words and images that come to mind when they think of the Civil War. I shared the collages on Facebook, and ECW’s own Chris Mackowski suggested they might be something ECW’s readers would like to see. The activity also gave me a sense of how best to calibrate and pitch my course. Though my class is meant to serve as an introduction to the Civil War Era, very few students enter without some knowledge of the war or its context.

To me, the collages reveal several tried and true truths about how Americans understand their great national crisis. They also underscore how Civil War scholarship filters down to students—at every level of their education. These students, like me, are products of a sesquicentennial and post-sesquicentennial understanding of the Civil War. As historian Gary W. Gallagher observed in a reflection on the state of the field from 2013, “the importance of slavery and race” dominate narrative of the war’s coming and substantial results. Though some students still gesture toward states’ rights, the collages suggest (and I can anecdotally affirm) that fewer students are leaving their high school courses with the impression that slavery had nothing to do with the war.[1]

Certain phrases in the collages reflect scholarly debates that have helped to define the field—including the question of whether the Civil War was the first modern war, or the degree to which it became a “total war.” These students, who range in age from 18-22, have never lived in a United States that was not embroiled in an overseas military conflict, but, at the same time, many of them do not remember first-hand the events of September 11, 2001; Operation Enduring Freedom; the initial wave of troops sent to Afghanistan and Iraq; or even freedom fries. To them, those wars are as much part of history as the Civil War is. Wars have so defined their cultural and political upbringing, however, that their lexicon for describing conflict leads them naturally to describe the Civil War in terms that were once the source of extreme scholarly controversy.

The list of battles identified by students, meanwhile, suggest that the Eastern Theater remains dominant in how the military narrative of the conflict is understood. Only one Western Theater battle appeared on either list—Shiloh—while Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg received multiple mentions. Sherman’s March to the Sea also received considerable attention Students clearly know more about Gettysburg than most other military engagements, as they readily identified specific set-pieces of the battle—in the form of Pickett’s Charge (having a class full of Pennsylvanians may skew the results, in all fairness).

Four commanders clearly stood out above all others—two on each side of the war. On the side of the Union, the collages suggest that Ulysses S. Grant has regained some of his stature, while William Tecumseh Sherman’s exploits in Georgia and the Carolinas also stand out to students. And woe unto James Longstreet, for it is the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps that my students identified, along with Robert E. Lee. One student referenced a classic trope, claiming the “South had better military leadership.” Popular culture has also clearly permeated what students know about the military side of the war—as they pointed out the participation of African American troops, and many students subsequently affirmed that they had been shown Glory (1989) in school. Fortunately for them, they get to write a paper about it in my class!

For their final project, my students are undertaking ‘UnEssays’ which will explore any topic of the war they are interested in, by allowing them to produce a piece of scholarship that doesn’t have to be put in writing. With their permission, I hope to be able to share some of these with ECW readers in May. For me, the final takeaway from this opening activity was the degree to which the Civil War still speaks to students—and shows me that they have all come to my class for different reasons. Some students clearly care about the social aspects of the war, others know a great deal about technology, many want to learn about emancipation, and there is obviously an interest in Reconstruction and historical memory. I hope I can meet their expectations, but expect, in return that they will continue to have a great deal to teach me.


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “The Civil War at the Sesquicentennial: How Well Do Americans Understand Their Great National Crisis?,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3, No. 2 (June 2013): 297.

9 Responses to Learning Civil War History: The Pandemic Perspective

  1. Please clarify your comment “woe unto James Longstreet”. Until the book, “The Killer Angels” and the movie “Gettysburg” came out, my experience was that few lay people had even heard of James Longstreet, and I live in Longstreet’s home state of GA.

    Also, it would be helpful to know more details about your small class sample. As you pointed out, Gettysburg was mentioned a lot ,which is hardly surprising since most of your students are from PA.

    I enjoyed this topic very much and look forward to future ones. It is always good to know what our young people are thinking, and also where they are getting their information.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks so much for your question. The Longstreet comment was mostly meant as a joke; in my classes I emphasize Longstreet as an important counter-figure to and victim of the Lost Cause, so my students should come out of my class knowing a lot more about him. But all I meant was that of Lee’s corps commanders, people always know Jackson.

      Longstreet is a great teaching figure because he surprises students.

      There were two classes, with 40 students each, so 80 total students. I think most of them are PA, NY, and NJ; but I have a fair number from VA and a handful of international students too. Most of them will also have taken the general history survey prior to my class, either at PSU or in an AP setting in their high schools.

      Hope that helps; and thanks for reading!

  2. Nice article. Hope you write a follow-up. By the way, Zoom has a survey function that might be fun for your students to use.

    1. Thanks so much for you comment!

      Students love the survey function. I used it to poll them on the election of 1860, and Lincoln, Douglas, and Bell all got votes. But not Breckinridge!! Lincoln won, handily.

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