Why do we study war? What is it that intrigues or fascinates us about conflict and battle that keeps us coming back to the events that have shaped our history and our democracy? Over and over scholars, artists, politicians, and students return to the wars that have followed mankind like a dark shadow as he struggles to find his way through time, trying to make sense of the great mystery of life. The American Civil War generated thousands of publications, movies, illustrations and photographs that still fascinate us nearly one hundred and fifty years after the bloody conflict’s conclusion. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is deciphered and recited throughout our schools as Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry is still considered among the classic examples of excellence in American poetry. Thousands of Civil War photos fill books and web pages, libraries and universities, silent monuments to a conflict that reshaped our history and nearly destroyed our fledgling democracy.
And so too this unit will join the plethora of literature, artwork and prose that comprise the study of the Civil War. This unit does not explore the Civil War through the battles and blood spilled on the fields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Atlanta. It does not attempt to decipher the political turmoil that surrounded our nation at the time of this great war. Instead it focuses on this conflict, that took 600,000 lives, touched millions of others, and continues to shape who we are as a nation, through the perspectives of three men; Lincoln, Whitman and Brady.
Although my research has not revealed a close personal tie between these three players, the three men did at least know of each other. Whitman admired Lincoln greatly and writes of catching a glimpse of him during his time in Washington DC. Whitman also attended Lincoln’s second inaugural address. There is evidence that Whitman admired Brady’s work and wrote about it in his early years as a journalist. Both Lincoln and Brady certainly would have heard of Whitman and there is some evidence that Lincoln may have read at least part of one of the early editions of
Leaves of Grass
. Finally Brady was one of the premier photographers in Washington DC during the Civil War and regularly did portraits of politicians and generals in his local studio. Although these connections may seem inconsequential, the passion the three shared in regards to their troubled times is monumental. These three men tried to make some sense of the epic war for the rest of us, and each in his own way, tried to make some good come out of the conflict. With heroic dedication and undying focus on their beliefs, these three men dedicated a large part of their lives to fighting the Civil War without ever picking up a weapon.
My three-week unit will begin with a brief assessment of the background knowledge of my eighth grade students regarding the Civil War. Using the PBS Ken Burns Civil War series, computers, and American History textbooks, I will attempt to “fill in the blanks” and make sure students have a general understanding of the Civil War at the start.
I will then focus on three different perspectives of the war beginning with Whitman’s Civil War poetry including
Beat! Beat! Drums!,
A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,
Captain, My Captain
Hush’d Be the Camps To-day
and others. After examining Whitman we will continue with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and his first and second inaugural addresses, and finally end by using Brady’s photography to add visual images to our discussion on the war. Selections from the three will allow us to mix visual imagery, literary imagery, and prose.
Using graphic organizers, free writes, journal entries, drama, and artwork, students will be encouraged to compare interpretations of a nation divided as portrayed by our three main subjects of study, and will also be asked to draw comparisons between the issues of mid-nineteenth century America and those of modern, 21
century America. Among the assessment pieces of the unit will be a compare/contrast essay, group interpretations of poetry and a power point presentation. Since my school is an Arts Magnet school, students will be asked to prepare artistic presentations throughout the unit.
My hopes are that the unit will allow students to use the literature and photos of the Civil War, not only to understand that era and gain insights into a nation divided, but to make connections and draw conclusions as to how those lessons apply to their lives and their world.