Each August, to prime my mind for the start of the school year, I read a history book, typically one that covers the American founding. I pick major works and I immerse myself in the ideas and the people who gave our nation its start. The project always gets my mind whirring with new ways to teach familiar ideas. This year, for Spring Break I decided to replicate that experience, this time selecting a book about the Civil War, which I will be teaching about in April and May. The book I selected is a history of the major battles of the war written by a well-known Civil War historian, Edwin C. Bearss.
Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War is, in one sense, a traditional military history of the war’s battles. All the familiar famous battles are there: Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Sherman’s march North from Savannah, and many more. The genius of the book isn’t in the battle descriptions and details, though there is an abundance of both. For me, the genius lays in the descriptions of the players, both the generals and the enlisted men. Bearss’ command of the human details of the battles is exceptional and his stories will become the snippets I share with my 7th graders this spring.
It’s important to me that my students’ first go-round with Civil War history help them to learn about the savagery of that conflict. I think that understanding race relations in the United States requires knowledge of the complexities that landed us here. The relentless brutality of the Civil War, a war that is very much about slavery, illustrates the complexities of both the American experience and character. Yes, there are stories of bravery and brilliant leadership. But the story is also one of an epic tragedy; of the devastation of a war fought because we lost sight of the inclusive meaning of the freedom we claimed for ourselves in 1776. That we would only reclaim it through savage destruction of one another speaks to some very painful truths about ourselves.