The 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg

As I will not be scheduled to post again prior to the actual anniversary, I felt it appropriate to blog about one of my favorite topics of study.  I still remember my high school history teacher describing the Battle of Gettysburg as the “-est” battle of the American Civil War.

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The “biggest,” the “bloodiest,” and had the “greatest impact” upon the history of America.  While this statement is contentious it is significant to remember this event for a variety of reasons that I think is important to make sure our students know about the battle, and the Civil War in general.

  1. It made us, instead of Virginians and Pennsylvanians, Americans.

Author Shelby Foote, who wrote perhaps the greatest narrative of the American Civil War, made this point in the Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War.  Prior to this point in our history, individuals identified themselves as members of their respective state.  While it took a brutal conflict and the subsequent painful healing to reconcile our country, it promoted an understanding that we were in fact a unified state, with a great deal of influence and power in the world.

2.  The Battle of Gettysburg is ripe with opportunities to explore deeply and intensely about history.

The fact that the battle is the “-est” battle of the American Civil War, and that the war itself is the most written-about battle in American history, there is a plethora of material that a resourceful teacher can draw from to engage any student in exploration.  Have students that like horses, engage them in looking at cavalry.  Have students interested in technology, they can explore a multitude of new developments (telegraph, submarines, or rifles).    Have students interested in economics, study the effects of a blockade upon a nation.  There is literally hundreds of ways to have students explore through primary and secondary sources the outcome of an event.

3.  The Battle of Gettysburg is ready made for experiential learning.

One of the greatest components of the American Civil War is the collection of the Official Records which are available online in several places ready to be tapped.  By combining the movie Gettysburg (a brilliant and well done cinematic production) with wonderful primary sources, students can delve into an historical investigation with sufficient background knowledge to parse out what truly happened in those fateful three days.  In particular, a great text is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s battle report.  His narrative is brilliant and lucid in its writing and provides a vivid launching point with the opportunity for student research.

4.   The American Civil War allows for all of the intelligences to be explored.

As noted above, not only is historical inquiry a relevant part of exploring the American Civil War, but you can maximize student learning through engaging all parts of the student experience.  Kinesthetic learners can be taught how to drill and march.  Musical learners can explore the songs of the period.  Intrapersonal learners can explore the multitude of individual accounts of the war for insight into how people behaved.  There isn’t any limit of means to explore through a teacher’s and students’ creativity.

5.  It is a great story.

The whole period of the American Civil War is a great story with so many avenues to study the period that there is literally something for everyone to embrace and study.  It is a fascinating period of history and the narrative of the war contains something for each person to be interested in the period.  With a teacher possessing a basic knowledge of the war, they should be able to pair each student with some component of it that is fascinating for student engagement.

With these basic reasons in mind, teachers can spend A LOT of time on the study of this period.  I myself typically spent 7-10 weeks studying the period in depth.  I encourage you to follow up this post with comments about what you do to teach the American Civil War.

3 thoughts on “The 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg

  1. Brad,
    I might be the one teacher who dreaded teaching the Civil War. It was never particularly interesting in school–it didn’t help my history class in high school was taught by an English teacher who saw it as penance. College wasn’t much better. And then …
    …A few years ago I was privileged to walk Gettysburg with UVA’s Dr. Gary Gallagher. Two full days in 100+ temperatures literally seared ideas and images into my conscienceness. Two days of listening to a masterful sotryteller tell a pivotal story. Gettysburg is now central in my teaching. Add to that the Address and I spend about ten days of my year exploring it.
    One suggestion for other teachers. Looking at Chamberlain is an excellent start, but I also have my charges look at David Ireland and the 137th New York. Ireland and Chamberlain serve on the opposite ends of the fish hook on Day Two but their stories are strikingly similar. One idea we wrestle with is … why do we know more about the 20th Maine than the 137th New York? I’d like to claim credit for this idea but it is Dr. Gallagher’s in Causes Lost Won and Forgotten and James McPherson’s in Hallowed Ground-A Walk at Gettysburg.

    1. Dave,

      I love the idea of asking kids why one event is remembered and others are not. Thanks for the suggestions! (I also have fond memories of walking around the battlefield with expert historians and rangers, hearing the stories as we hiked the hills. Wish we could take every kid there for a similar experience!)

      glennw

    2. I love Gary Gallagher’s works…brilliant stories, great historical work…excellent comments Dave! The concept of collective memory is essential to teach kids about I believe.

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