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Civil War Songs & Stories — Some Video Clips

I received DVDs of our Civil War concert over the weekend. I was devastated to learn a few days after the program that, due to some technical difficulties, we lost a large chunk of the second half. There were some important scenes and beautiful solos in that half that together constituted much of the show’s emotional heft, so I’m sad I only got to see it once and don’t get to share it with anyone else. We may attempt to record some of it later (at least audio, in case the soloists want to use the recordings in their portfolios, but I doubt we’ll recapture the emotion of the full live performance).

Anyway, I attempted to break the parts of the program we did get into smaller pieces so I could share them here. The embedded clips here are from an early version of the video — my colleague in Mass Communication (on top of everything else he has already done) was able to uncompress some of the audio, so I may post updated clips later.

Things move largely in order below.

Part 1: An imagined debate among the Presidential candidates in 1860. With Dr. Scott Billingsley as Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Bruce DeHart as Stephen Douglas, Dr. Jeff Frederick as John C. Breckinridge, and Dr. Weston Cook as John Bell. The lines here come from a variety of documents, including the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and Howell Cobb and Alexander Stephens arguing for and against secession. Followed by the men of the University Chorale (conducted by Dr. Jose Rivera and accompanied by Dr. Seung-Ah Kim) singing “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”

Part 2: History students reading excerpts of letters and diary entries by soldiers and their wives, followed by the women of the University Chorale singing Ron Nelson’s arrangement of “He’s Gone Away.”

Part 3: A sequence of readings designed to present the “emancipation as military necessity” argument emerging in the summer and fall of 1862. This sequence opens with history instructor Anthony Johnson portraying Alexander Stephens giving his famous “cornerstone speech,” and then attempts to present the contraband theory, featuring Dr. Ryan Anderson as Benjamin Butler, theatre major Kayla Cox as Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Billingsley as President Lincoln. Our guest musicians, members of the Huckleberry Brothers Band, play “Darling Nelly Gray” as the choir re-enters, and they conclude with William Dawson’s “Aint’a That Good News.”

Part 4: A student brass quintet plays “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother.”

Part 5: The program’s finale. The very beginning of this piece got cut off, so it opens mid-line for soloist Fabian Griffith, who portrays Frederick Douglass in this ensemble from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown. The University Chorale joins him.

What’s missing? Well, the Huckleberry Brothers Band played a full set between parts two and three, but I didn’t want to post the video of that without their permission, so I may add it later. The brass quintet opened the second half of the program, and from there we had a number of elements that got lost. Kayla presented a monologue she wrote herself, drawing heavily in Sarah Bradford’s Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, 1869. A student soloist sang Harry Burleigh’s setting of “Steal Away.” Three of the history students from the earlier scene came back to read letters and diary entries from later in the war, followed by another student soloist, this time performing Jon Kander’s “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou.” Drs. Billingsley and Anderson returned, this time with Ryan portraying General Sherman (allowing him to play two of the most hated men in the south in one night!), to move us toward the end of the war. The choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then another student gave a fantastic solo performance — this time, Kurt Weill’s setting of “O Captain! My Captain!” From there, we concluded with the John Brown excerpts you see above.

I really do appreciate all the hard work everyone put into this program. Any images you see on the screen behind the performers were put together by our two student assistants, who also did a great job. Thanks are due as well to the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Blumenthal Foundation for the Arts, who provided funds for the costumes and guest performers.

My Last Sesquicentennial Hurrah

Deon Megan Ian
three history students participate in a scene drawn from letters between soldiers and their wives

Last night, we presented Civil War Songs and Stories: Commemorating Emancipation, a concert I organized and designed with a friend and colleague in the UNCP Music Department, Dr. Jose Rivera. This was a big production for a school our size — Jose’s choir, the University Chorale, with about 50 members, plus a student brass quintet, a guest band, a slideshow of period photographs and images, and twelve speakers drawn primarily from History Department students and faculty (although we brought in one ringer from Theatre). I’m guessing we had about 250 people in the audience.

four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860
four of my colleagues imagine what a presidential debate might have looked like in 1860

I did enjoy watching my colleagues yell at each other. Even better, our students really stepped up and did a tremendous job. All the speakers inhabited their characters quite well — and most managed to do their lines from memory. The vocal soloists were fantastic. They sang difficult repertoire (Kurt Weill’s setting of O Captain! My Captain!, Harry Burleigh’s Steal Away, Jon Kander’s A Letter from Sullivan Ballou) with both precision and emotion. The choir was wonderful as well. And everyone was pleasant to work with — even if I probably drove them nuts at some point in the proceedings.

General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy
General Butler (my good friend, Dr. Ryan Anderson) contemplates his contraband policy

We closed the concert with a big chorus from Kirke Mechem’s opera John Brown, featuring a baritone soloist as Frederick Douglass, with text compiled from his speeches in England in 1846. It may seem strange to end with an antebellum text, but it culminates in the choir quoting the Declaration of Independence:

Douglas: “What do we ask of America? We only ask that it complete its own Revolution! That revolution which declared to all the world — We hold these truths, to be self evident …” And then everyone repeats the early lines from the Declaration, concentrating heavily on “all men are created equal.”

I thought it was a nice counterpoint to the segment from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural we had just used. In both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of unfinished business, and subsequent generations of commemorative speeches at Gettysburg have taken their cue from Lincoln as well, defining that “unfinished business” as the persistent problem of inequality in American society. Different speakers have highlighted different types of inequality, but the theme has remained consistent, and I thought it was a good one to highlight at the end of our program.

This concert was UNCP’s last sesquicentennial event. I started the Civil War series in the fall of 2010, and I certainly plan to continue it, but I don’t plan on doing anything this large or complex for quite some time. But it was a great evening, and I can’t wait to see the video.

Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom
Jose conducting as the male singers make their entrance to The Battle Cry of Freedom

Fort Fisher & the “Anemic” Sesquicentennial

I spent Saturday, January 16, at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, attending some of the 150th Anniversary Commemoration events. According to the NC Guard and the MPs who handled parking and crowd control at the state park and nearby Air Force recreation area, approximately 15,000 people attended over the course of two days. I know that number is easily dwarfed by the nearly 250,000 who showed up to some portion of the Gettysburg commemorations, but that battle is just a wee bit more famous. And I do think there is a difference between National and State historic sites when it comes to advertising, resources, and the likely reach of its popularity. Besides, the two parks are vastly different in size — 7,000 people or so per day on the remaining grounds of the Fort Fisher site felt pretty crowded, and was complicated enough from a logistical standpoint. There’s really only one road in and out.

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After giving my little talk, I watched the formal “opening ceremony” at the Battle Acre. VIPs were seated in front of the monument, with the rest of us milling around behind. Participants for the battle re-enactment to take place later that day lined up in formation at the back of the grounds. The governor spoke — full of praise for the military, but saying little, if anything, about the Civil War, its legacy, or what happened at Fort Fisher — and then Ed Bearss delivered the keynote address. Most of his speech was predictable and forgettable, from my perspective, although delivered with admirable energy. But toward the end of his address, he ventured to compare the day’s events and crowds with the 100th anniversary of the second battle of Fort Fisher.

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According to Bearss, the sesquicentennial far exceeded the centennial. Certainly, we are well aware that celebrations flamed out after the Gettysburg Centennial, for a number of reasons, and Sesquicentennial organizations have proclaimed their intentions all along to finish stronger than their commemorative predecessors. So I’m not surprised to learn that the Fort Fisher commemorations were more robust this time around. Bearss proposed a potentially controversial reason, though: he said that the Sesquicentennial outlasted the Centennial because it was directed by the states rather than a national commission, and thus better reflected the hearts and will of the people.

Last spring, public historians and bloggers (see Kevin Levin, Craig Swain, etc.) vigorously denied Gary Gallagher’s assertion that the sesquicentennial had been “anemic” compared to the centennial. Gallagher specifically cited the lack of a national commission as one of the factors limiting sesquicentennial events — but Bearss’s opposing view is intriguing. I’ve been very impressed with the North Carolina sesquicentennial commission’s events and programs, especially their ability to bring together groups that reflect the current state of North Carolina. The sesquicentennial events I’ve attended have generally reflected greater racial diversity than we often see at Civil War commemorations, although that diversity wasn’t particularly on display at Fort Fisher. But the turnout for the program, and the range of activities available for the participants, demonstrated substantial continuing interest in sesquicentennial commemorations among the population and leaders of North Carolina, for which I’m grateful.

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Editing Anxiety

Over the summer I agreed to edit a new encyclopedia on the Antebellum United States. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I wasn’t prepared for how nervous it makes me. This is not a job for people with a tendency to second-guess themselves.

The encyclopedia will eventually have about 300 entries. I started assigning them in November, and right away I entered panic mode. What if these people aren’t any good? (You can only tell so much from a CV.) What if the perfect scholar to write an entry contacts me three days after I assigned that entry to somebody else? What if I go over budget?

So far, I’ve assigned nearly one third of the entries, and several people have sent them in either on or before their deadlines. I’m grateful to these early authors — although I haven’t read most of the entries yet, so that gratitude may not last. But I now have 10% of the work in draft form, which is great because I have to send 25% to the press in two months.

I’m putting it aside for the next 48 hours so I can go give a presentation at the Fort Fisher 150th Anniversary Commemoration. But if anyone needs me on Monday, you can find me alternating between editing encyclopedia entries and curling up in a chair with my cat, who does not demand historical accuracy, originality, or clear writing.

When Teaching = Getting out of the Way

The ten middle-school kids sat in a circle on the green carpeted floor outside the lecture hall, glancing nervously at each other. It was the second day of the second week of camp, and they had already ascertained their place in the hierarchy — they were the kids who didn’t participate in class, or if they did, they were the kids who never said anything particularly smart. The teachers seemed thrilled if they even spoke, and they didn’t use big words like their classmates did. Except now they had to talk, because the other kids — the smarter ones, the ones who knew how to speak the teachers’ language — were in the auditorium waiting for a decision.

I, too, was nervous. Today’s activity was one of my most anticipated classroom simulations, the one that our site administrators frequently brought visitors from the main office to watch. Because we had an audience, I always choose my best talkers — the students I could count on to be eloquent, or at least audible — to play the characters in the trial. My quiet kids, my as-yet-unknowns, filled the jury. And now these kids, the ones who were smart at their regular schools but felt totally out of their league at gifted camp, had to wrestle with concepts that most American teenagers had never even considered, much less debated: habeas corpus, free speech, treason, sedition, executive power, constitutional interpretation, and the definition of war. Were we crazy to expect this of them?

This trial was a joint activity between my Civil War class and the Great Cases in American Legal History class. I had helped design it several years earlier, and I’d had good and not-so-good experiences using it in the classroom. The worst — though notable for its passion — was when a student had to leave camp after physically assaulting a classmate who interfered with her cross-examination. Most bad outcomes were more prosaic, involving witnesses whose portrayal of their assigned roles could have served as examples of really bad acting for our colleagues teaching drama, lawyers who failed to ask the right questions, or jurors who just couldn’t move beyond the “Lincoln mystique” to consider the possibility that he might have done something bad (gasp!). On the other hand, I’d had numerous spirited conversations with my students about this trial over the last four years, most memorably with a young man playing Lincoln who was absolutely convinced his classmates should have impeached him. Yet this group of ten terrified jurors would turn out to be the most surprising success story out of twelve consecutive Lincoln trials.

With almost no guidance from either teacher, they held a free-flowing, inclusive discussion, slipping between the questions, exploring their connections. Did Abraham Lincoln overstep his constitutional authority by suspending habeas corpus in Maryland? To whom, exactly, did the Constitution grant the power to suspend habeas corpus? Could Lincoln order generals and armies into position without a Congressional declaration of war? Did you need a declaration to invade your own country? Was the Confederacy actually a country? Did the Commander-in-Chief have the power to dispense War Department funds if Congress hadn’t actually declared war? Could Congress retroactively grant the President permission to do things if he had acted when they were out of session? Did the President have the right to ignore the Supreme Court? Does the answer to that question change if the Chief Justice is a senile racist?

Two things about their discussion truly impressed me. First, they managed to deal with all of these questions in the context of our trial simulation — not what they read in their textbooks, not what was going on in 2004, but what their classmates had presented to them about events in 1862. Second — and perhaps the second was dependent on the first — they actually listened to each other. Sometimes they even changed their minds — and nobody called anybody a flip-flopper. Periodically they stopped to hold a vote on the charges, and each time the vote count changed. I became their cheerleader, refusing to let the lack of a clear consensus discourage their debate.

I’ve found, in previous and subsequent discussions, how hard it is for people to leave behind their preconceived notions and react to new material, whether it’s a trial simulation or a primary document. But this is so important in studying and teaching history — it’s always a great moment when students can forget everything they know now in order to understand the experiences and opinions of people who lived 150 years ago, people who didn’t know how things would turn out. I’m also routinely frustrated in class discussions when students fail to listen to each other, to react and respond in their statements rather than just saying what they had intended at the beginning of the discussion, or just talking to the teacher. In this case, they almost seemed to forget that there were teachers in the room. And while some wanted to give up early in the process, others actually enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say, looking for places of agreement and disagreement, conflict and consensus.

They did this for forty-five minutes. Jury deliberations in previous trials had rarely lasted more than ten, and the end of the class day was rapidly approaching. The other instructor and I looked at each other in amazement, furiously taking notes so we could quote the students in our evaluations. It never even occurred to me to worry about what our teaching assistants were doing to amuse the eighteen kids waiting in the auditorium. We only stopped deliberations when we literally ran out of time. A few of the jurors volunteered to forego activity period in order to keep working, but this was against camp rules. So, at 2:59 we took one final vote on each charge.

The final results mirrored conclusions reached in previous classes — they failed to convict Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus or waging an undeclared war. The only charge on which they managed to come to a unanimous decision was misappropriation of funds. For sending War Department money to Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana (so that he could run his state without calling the legislature into session), the 10 jurors recommended that Congress impeach Abraham Lincoln. It is perhaps one of the more interesting legacies of the Reagan Revolution that the only offense for which an elected official can never be forgiven is to waste the taxpayers’ money. But I digress.

Because it was the process that made me so proud. Each one of those ten students found his or her voice that afternoon, and even more amazing — given their potential role models in the world of talk radio and cable news — they had acknowledged that the other students in the circle also had voices worth listening to. I wish I’d had a video camera to sneak into the hallway, so I could show the whole class, or even the whole camp, this impressive discussion. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was the democratic process in a nutshell: time-consuming and somewhat fruitless in terms of actual results, but still thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and full of surprises.

Ups and Downs in Campus Programming

This past Saturday I took some students on a trip to Fort Fisher. Things didn’t quite go according to plan. It rained on and off during the drive there, and then we had about 40 minutes of windy, overcast partial sunshine before it began to pour. We waited for a while to see if things cleared up, but eventually had to cancel the rest of our planned tour. All the trip participants were very good sports about it, but it was a huge disappointment. I did get one group picture in relative sunshine.


I guess we can’t have huge successes at all times. I had a great turnout for Dr. Jacqueline Campbell’s guest lecture last Tuesday, and then History Movie Night was packed, so two very successful events out of three in a week isn’t a bad record.

First time I've seen it on a real bookshelf!
First time I’ve seen it on a real bookshelf!
Some of us took a quick walk over to the beach when we arrived.
Some of us took a quick walk over to the beach when we arrived.

Abe Lincoln, Colombia, and Cognitive Dissonance

Last week, my younger sister went to Colombia with her choir, Cantigas. She sent me this picture from their first performance venue, the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium at Centro Columbo Americano.


It got me wondering about the ways that Abraham Lincoln and the US Civil War might be remembered in South America. I did a ridiculously quick google search and discovered that there are many schools named Colegio Abraham Lincoln throughout Colombia, Peru, and other South American nations. Most of them were founded about 60 years ago. Lincoln certainly has a very positive image in Colombia. I am reminded of Scott Hartwig’s comments during the concluding panel at the 2013 Gettysburg Civil War Institute Summer Conference — he noted the many international visitors who come to Gettysburg out of reverence for Lincoln, the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the ideals that he therefore represents.

At the same time, I was setting up assignments for students in my introductory African American history course — we are entering the early twentieth century, often called the “nadir of American race relations.” It’s very clear that the violence that plagued the U.S. as an integral component of maintaining white supremacy was not unique. Things were pretty bad for Afro-Latin Americans as well. The story I tell to encapsulate all the trends of this era is Colombia’s 1928 Banana Massacre. The image of the United States in commemorative artwork related to the Banana Massacre is decidedly less positive.


I have to wonder which version of US leadership Colombians really think of first. Do people hate U.S. economic and military power as it was projected through much of the twentieth century, but revere American ideology as represented by Lincoln? Or do different people focus on different things — I wonder who attends the various Colegios Abraham Lincoln, and if they are specific to one class or race in Colombian society. The timing of their founding is significant as well, I think, which makes me wonder who created those schools. For a U.S. government eager to win South American hearts and minds in the midst of the Cold War, Abraham Lincoln was definitely a better image than the United Fruit Company. And the 1950s and 1960s were a period of black civil rights activism in Latin America as well as the U.S., so if they were created by Afro-Colombian activists — or by governments looking to make at least some improvements — the name could reflect some idea of Lincoln as a human rights icon.

So the fall semester is well underway…

Is it really almost October? Last Monday we hit the 1/3 mark, which for me means really truly starting the Civil War (with armies & battles & stuff) in my Civil War era course — and that students in the course submitted proposals for their research papers this week. I assigned a set of three “progress reports” on the way toward their paper, this semester timed to coincide with Fridays I must miss class for conferences. So they are posting their proposals on the class blog (a private Blackboard blog — I didn’t feel like setting up something new for three blog posts over the course of the semester), and then were assigned commenting roles for their classmates’ posts. They posted on Friday morning and I immediately skimmed each proposal to match them with appropriate commenters, but I just now read their comments.

I’m really impressed with the quality of their work and their willingness to help each other out. I’m also excited about the breadth and specificity of their proposed research. Collectively, they have proposed a wide range of topics; individually, they seem to understand the need to focus their attention. Not one person has proposed a paper in which they will tell me everything that went wrong for the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Gettysburg. Instead, they want to write about foreign policy, the war’s impact on universities, and the origins of the Black Codes. Several have proposed papers related to women or children. The topics with a more military bent are creative as well: how communities coped with the aftermath of a nearby battle, soldiers’ responses to the Gettysburg Address, desertion, guerilla warfare, etc.

In this first assignment, they proposed a topic and summarized the primary source material they’d found so far — mostly so that I know they have enough to work with. Next, they will locate and summarize secondary sources, to demonstrate their understanding of the scholarly debates related to their topics and craft a strong research question. They’ll then go back to the primary sources to put their arguments and examples together. The third blog post they share with the class will actually be a research poster summarizing their papers, which will be in draft stage at that point. At each stage, they get comments from me and their peers, which should help them write better papers. The paper itself is due a week after the research poster.

One of the things we’re trying to emphasize in our revamped methods course is the collaborative nature of good historical research and writing. The research process — especially revision — is another, which is why I want them to share their posters before submitting their final drafts. It will give them a chance to test their arguments and best examples. I’m curious to see how things go this semester. I think we are off to a good start so far!