In the wake of the tragic shooting in Charleston this past summer, the shadow of the American Civil War Era hangs over the nation like a heavy cloud. More than a century and a half removed from Appomattox the war has never left the collective national consciousness even in spite of the disparate and conflicting narratives of causation, conduct, and meaning. With another calendar year of teaching before us, the burden of our Civil War will be brought inevitably into our classrooms. How should we engage this tortured topic? Can we ever spark in our students the historical awareness with which the period should be treated? Students are undoubtedly exposed to and even intimately engaged in the national conversation about the place of Confederate emblems in American society. We as instructors play a crucial role in that dialogue, holding a unique position to open minds and pique curiosity. Although I plan to teach my upper-division Civil War course in the same manner as I normally do, I also aim to bring immediate relevance to the subject in hopes that my students can contribute to the on-going debates with which we are all confronted.
As part of these efforts I aim go to go local, peppering my historical narrative with images, stories, personalities, tragedies, and ironies that happened in the immediate region of my university and state. History—in many ways through no fault of our own—is sometimes presented with too much distance, governed by the latest professional trends. While it is crucial to teach a course that expands and collapses boundaries, complicates chronologies, and integrates complex and conflicting narratives, sometimes our most effective teaching tools are those that are right outside of the classroom. If the proximity of your teaching institution permits it, I encourage everyone—not just those teaching the Civil War Era—to frame your courses around local conditions, relating what happened on the ground to the broader historical conditions to which are accustomed to emphasizing.
Teaching in Mississippi brings rewarding opportunities to help students see how the problems of the past inform the conflicts of the present. And while our courses should not be governed by presentism, they should illuminate why, for instance, the Confederate flag is such a controversial topic, what its roots were, what it stood for, who fought for it, and who opposed it. Thus, in “going local” I will offer several examples that I have found worked unusually well. First, in discussing the antebellum era and the coming of the Civil War, I infuse my lectures with the evolution of Natchez into one of the most profitable slaveholding districts in the world. I explain how a place along the banks of the Mississippi River—a region where some of my students probably grew up—could grow so politically and economically powerful, fostering national and international relations. The role of race and slavery, of course, fits squarely within this narrative in which I offer vignettes and perspectives from the enslaved, slaveholders, and non-slaveholding whites. Then, in talking about the war itself, I move my attention much closer to home, telling the story of Wallace Turnage’s quest for freedom. An enslaved young man in Alabama, Turnage sought freedom in the “contraband” camps at Corinth, Mississippi. Using David Blight’s wonderful A Slave No More, students can read Turnage’s own narrative, confronting the meaning of freedom to someone who was nearly the same age and lived in the same region as themselves. Then, we compare Turnage’s words and experiences to those of Confederate president Jefferson Davis as well as non-slaveholding volunteers from Mississippi who served in Confederate armies.
I try to demonstrate that the Civil War Era was rife with competing perspectives, narratives, and worldviews, especially in the tortured memory of the period. This is where “going local” holds the most significant implications. All too often, students pass through our courses viewing the study of history as box they must check on their way to graduation. Our challenge as instructors is to awaken in our students the realization that the large themes of history still matter and hold resonance for many of the most controversial topics dominating today’s pressing national debates. One of the most powerful ways to awaken this realization is through the localization of the study of history and helping students realize that history may not be as far off and dusty as they’d assumed. The study of history can come vividly alive in exciting, and sometimes troubling, new ways when students are able to connect their familiar surroundings with larger historical narratives, and then link those narratives to current debates. Tools such as visits to nearby monuments or battlefields and reading accounts from residents of past eras add local flavor and resonance to the teaching of history. When students are able to connect the big themes of history to their own surroundings, they gain a new perspective that strengthens the linkages between past and present.