Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Retired Teachers Never Quit: Teaching about Gettysburg

I retired in 2008 but still have teaching in my blood. So I putter around with fresh materials even now.

It beats golf.

If you’re interested in the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, there are easy ways to put together a slide presentation for students.

(Feel free to borrow any that follow.)

First, I always made sure, when we did a unit on the Civil War, that students knew what the Rebel flag looked. 

Of course, we talked about what it can mean today. And I was always surprised when African American students didnt know what the flag was about.

If you’re interested in using the photo above, this is a barn that not far north of Cincinnati, as you head north on I-71. 

The roof has been painted the same way since at least 1972. Until recently a burned cross, symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, stood in a nearby orchard.

Okay, I admit it: I did sneak over a fence one day and plant an Obama-Biden campaign sign next to the cross.

My wife thought I was stupid.

(She may be right.)

The map of Gettysburg above shows the position of the two armies on the second day of combat. Long ago, I learned you could cut out black and white art from old history books. You can pick up old books at antique stores and use their work without fear. Almost everything printed before 1930 is out of copyright. Most black and white art can be scanned into handouts for students to read.

This might be a good example. I love the story:

Like any good teacher, I brought my own experiences to discussion. True, I taught before everything had to be standardized and a teacher might be horsewhipped if they didn’t teach to the test. At age twelve, I developed an abiding interested in the Civil War, which had much to do with my later decision to become a history teacher. But I had an unrealistic view of what war might involve.

Still naïve, in 1968, I enlisted in the United States Marines and twice volunteered to go to Vietnam. I was both dumb and lucky never shipped out. During my teaching  I was able to bring in all kinds of combat veterans to talk to my kids. It wasnt hard to convince them to come in and spend an entire day, as Ive previously discussed on this blog. And in all the years the veterans came to talk I never heard a word they said that made me wish I had been personally shot at.

One veteran of Iwo Jima told me, after he talked to my classes in 2005, that he had nightmares for a month.

My old school still continues a program we started in 2003 to bring out veterans to talk to all our kids in several classroom settings. (SeeThe Veterans Come to Loveland Middle School.) We’ve had as many as twenty veterans come on one day. Some today are former students, who once heard other veterans speak, who have now served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their tales are sometimes harrowing, sometimes make you proud of what these young men have done. (We haven't manged to find any young female veterans to visit; but we aren't giving up.) 

At least one young man, who was seated in my class on 9/11, told students in 2014 that he, too, had constant nightmares as a result of what he saw.

Because of my own background, and because of what veterans have told me (one Vietnam vet broke down in tears during his talk) I tried to make it clear to students there was no glory in war.

The two pictures above serve that essential purpose. The doctor’s kit from the Civil War (it’s a little blurry; I took it in 1978) includes a very noticeable saw—for amputating hands, feet, arms and legs. I chose not to mince words when talking about the carnage in any Civil War battle, or any battle before or since. The picture of the belt buckle struck by a Minnie ball was taken through the glass of a display case at the Gettysburg National Park Visitor’s Center museum in 2011. 

If I was teaching today, I’d ask students what the man who was hit by the ball must have thought. I assume he got knocked out and bruised badly, of course. That would get students talking, I think.

Today, if you go, the battlefield at Gettysburg is quiet, even picturesque. The stone statues and monuments, the polished cannon in museum displays, have nothing to tell us about the great contest waged there in July 1863. (See above.) Of course, the job of any good history teacher is to put flesh and blood back on the bones of those who lived in the past, to breathe life into the story.

I never used many of these pictures myself, having taken them or reproduced them since retiring. But the examples of shot and shell (above) might help a class understand the destruction artillery wrought on every battlefield.

Another great way to assemble pictures for your class involves nothing more taxing, albeit time-consuming, than checking images available on the internet.

Yes, I remember: “time-consuming” sums up the endless work required of every teacher every day, every week, and every year.

Several artists produced excellent work. Winslow Homer would be one, and anything he has is long out of copyright and can be used in almost any way. You can also look for the photographs of Matthew Brady. Two painters still working today also stand out, Don Troiani and Mort Kuntsler. To assemble some of the images below, I purchased one of Troiani’s books at a used book sale, cut out the photos that seemed useful, and scanned them through my printer to my computer.

It cost me $3. You can make use of them if you like for free!!! Hey, I’m retired. I have an excellent pension!

This painting by Troiani shows members of the Iron Brigade, fighting on July 1.
The 19th Indiana, pictured here, suffered terrible casualties, losing 210 out of 308 men.

Troiani captures the drama of the battle on July 2.
General Barksdale, leading his Louisiana troops (shown waving his hat here) was killed.

I can't remember what unit this is, clearly Zouaves.
Scene by Troiani from the fight on July 2

If you go on vacation you may get some useful pictures yourself.
Here we look down from Little Round Top, a key point on the battlefield, particularly on July 2.

From this spot you look toward Little Round Top.
A Confederate sniper took post behind the stone wall and went to work picking off Union soldiers.
That sharpshooter himself was killed.

At a key moment on July 2, the 20th Maine, holding the line atop Little Round Top
ran out of ammunition.
Their colonel, Joshua Chamberlain, ordered a desperate bayonet charge and they held the position.
Mark Maritato's work, shown here, is also good.

Naturally, if you can weave more women into the story that’s wise. At least two female soldiers took part during Pickett’s Charge, one of whom was killed, the other wounded. (They Fought like Demons by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, about women who disguised themselves and served might interest teachers as well.) And the only civilian to die during the fighting was Jenny Wade.

Here’s how I told her story in a piece I prepared for my class:

Wesley Culp grew up in Gettysburg. Later he headed south to start a new life. In the summer of 1863 Culp, now a member of Lee’s army, returned to his hometown. On the evening of July 1 he visited his sister’s house. He mentioned a message he had for Jenny Wade, a childhood friend. By chance Culp had seen her Yankee boyfriend, Jack Skelly, in a Confederate hospital. Skelly was badly wounded but hoped to return home soon.

Culp told his sister he would deliver the message personally in a day or two. Instead, he died fighting, July 2. Jenny Wade was also killed—while baking bread—the next day. The 20-year-old was hit when a stray bullet ripped through the front door of her home, passed through a small inner room, cut a second door, and struck her in the back. Wade collapsed without a sound, never knowing what hit her. She was the only civilian to die at Gettysburg. Skelly never heard the news. He died on July 12, as a result of his wounds. Whatever message he had meant for Culp to deliver, Jenny Wade never had the chance to hear it.

High fashion in 1863.

The key event at Gettysburg—and likely the key event of the war—was Pickett’s Charge, a heroic but doomed effort by 15,000 men. There are all kinds of good details that you can use to bring the moment alive; but to keep this post shorter, I’ll just add a few of the pictures I’ve found.

Longstreet opposed ordering Pickett's Charge but was over-ruled by Robert E. Lee.

Climbing a fence in their path, Pickett's men take punishing fire.

Scene of Pickett's Charge from the Gettysburg museum.
At center a caisson blows up.

Were these  three Rebel soldiers lucky to be captured?

Finally, if I may, I would emphasize the need to introduce the human element into discussions about war. 

In most textbooks, the death toll at Gettysburg is duly and dully noted. It’s just a number to students today. Try asking them how they’d feel if a father, brother, cousin or loved one was killed fighting for our country.

Make sure they feel.

The quote, above, comes from the battlefield museum.

The picture of the three young children was found after the fighting ended. Here’s the way I told students the story behind it:

Sergeant Amos Humiston, a Yankee from New York, was killed on the first day of battle. Soldiers rarely carried identification in 1863 and when Humiston’s body was found later no knew who he was. In his hands, however, he held a picture of three young children. Northern papers ran it under the headline: WHOSE FATHER WAS HE?

The children were recognized.

The photo was returned to the family. 

Anyway, if this material is of any use to any young teachers, then I’ve done my good deed for today.

Since Im retired teacher, I think Ill go take a nap.


  1. Joel Lahrman, a star student from the past commented on Facebook when I posted this: I would recommend reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, the battle of Gettysburg told from the imagined first person viewpoint of many of the main characters. Fantastic as far as how the battle would "feel". The book is responsible for much of the reevaluation of Longstreet's actions and reputation.

  2. Chad Russell, another great young man from the past, quickly concurred. Via Facebook, he said: Actually I read The Killer Angels recommended by non[e] other than John.

  3. Joel promptly added this: It had been on my list for awhile, finally got around to reading it a year or two. It was fantastic. Obviously it's a novel, not exactly nonfiction, but the mix of historical accuracy of the book and the imagined feelings and conversations of the participants made it great reading. The Longstreet-Lee exchanges were my favorite part, with many of them making it into the 1993 Gettysburg movie.

  4. So, I went with this: A great memoir by a Civil War veteran is Co. Aytch, easily found at most book stores. Of course, everyone should read MY BOOK. Ha, ha. No, wait, I'm dead serious. Required reading for every man, woman and child.