Keeping Up with the Conversation: An Update

We have been deeply involved in our Civil War study at school, focusing thus far on the events of 1861 and 1862, through the lenses of the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg).

We began by creating a bulletin board introduction to the topic. Do come by and see it, if you haven’t already! We also went outside to do some marching and drills along the lines of what soldiers of the time would have learned.At the same time, we began reading a Gary Paulsen novella of the war called Soldier’s Heart. This story is vivid and honest, and has presented us with some sobering (but not gratuitously violent) portrayals of the reality of war. We are about 2/3 of the way through, and expect we will finish it this week.
In studying Bull Run, we did a reader’s theater-style read aloud of Paul Fleischman’s novel in voices, Bull Run. Each of us read aloud the sections of a particular character — northerners, southerners, soldiers, slaves, journalists, bystanders, commanders, enlisted, etc. We also listened to the very moving letter by Sullivan Ballou, famous to historians and made known to the public by Ken Burns’ series, Civil War. As we have repeatedly told the children, we do recommend taking the time to watch that PBS series, even though we do not have enough time for it in school. Consider watching it together this summer, perhaps. Her is a link to the reading of Ballou’s letter:
You can readily find the audio of the letter from Ken Burns’ series on youtube as well.
In hearing and reading about this battle through all of the media described above, the children were struck by the tragically incorrect assumption by both sides that his would be a war quickly fought and won, an impression supported by the events at Fort Sumter, during which one horse was the only life lost. They also began to appreciate the huge cost of the mismatch between the rapidly evolving technology of the day and more dated battle plans, as they combined to create tremendous brutality and casualty numbers.
While the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) marks a change in mood and expectation of a longer, more protracted war, the next major battle, Antietam, becomes the bloodiest single day ever faced by this country — a fact that hold true to this day. The strategic victory of the Union encouraged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st of 1863. (We will read it together tomorrow.) We studied maps of the land and watched a brief video that outlined the strategy and events of the battle very clearly.The first photographs of the aftermath of war came from this battle as well. On Friday, we looked at a number of photographs from Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and others. The public was confronted by these images as well, and the romantic idea of battle was challenged while the horrors were made much more clear. (We are looking at our schedule for time to share these photos with the several children who were out sick on Friday.)
This week we will enter 1863, and after reading the Emancipation Proclamation, turn our attention to the Battle of Gettysburg. Our primary approach to this will be through viewing the 1993 film, Gettysburg, which is adapted from the historical novel, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. This more than four-hour long movie will be seen in chunks, and we’ll be stopping for discussion and looking at other resources as we watch. We are also planning a visit on the subject from Rich Murray, who is joining us on our trip next month as a teacher and a Civil War buff. At some point — perhaps next week — we hope to get in some more light-hearted, but historically appropriate, 1864-era baseball!
All the while this has been happening, each child has been organizing independent research on a Civil War topic of their choosing. We’ve been forming lists of resources, doing preliminary reading, and creating a structure of topics and subtopics. Note-taking should begin in earnest this week. The product of this research is still being discussed by us as a group, and will likely culminate in late May, after our trip (which includes trips to Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry).
Our work together is rich, sometimes quite serious, and often moving. Your children have been deeply engaged, and we wanted to offer you more of a window into our work so that you might better enter the conversation as well.