by JN Fenwick, author and former American History teacher

In the spirit of the history teacher I am and always will be, this current climate of unrest, of the attempts to dismantle our nation’s past, both literally and figuratively, of the current threat to the very life and breadth of all we are, all we strive to be as Americans, I offer the only weapon I really have, knowledge.

JN Fenwick

When I was teaching middle school American History, the Civil War was probably the most difficult and the most rewarding period of history to cover. For me, anyway. I had grown up researching this period of our nation’s past, largely because of my father’s interest in it.

My Dad was a huge fan of Shelby Foote, American writer, and journalist, who authored The Civil War: A Narrative, a three-volume set that covers the war from Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox.

After reading these volumes and then listening to Foote narrate Ken Burns‘ 11-hour PBS documentary of the war between the states (The Civil War, 1990), I also became a fan. Largely due to the fact that Foote considered it his “mission to tell what he considered America’s biggest story as a vast, finely detailed, deeply human narrative.”

Foote’s three-volume narrative was two decades in the making perhaps because he was not simply chronicling a war. Instead, he focused on “broad shifts in strategy as well as moments of poignancy.”

“He made the war real for us,” Burns remarked upon hearing that Foote had died at the age of 88 in 2005.

For me, Foote made the war, and the people living it come alive. There were so many defining moments, turning points, and instances of human beings rising up, becoming so much more, that I was forever transfixed.

There is just so much history there, both good and bad; so many lessons learned. And for me, that is what our history is, what it should always be.

The collective events, people, documents, and images that define who we are at any given moment in time, but that also, and perhaps more importantly, that inform our future. Our history provides us with the tools and wisdom earned from experience that we need in order to bring us ever closer to the ideals and principles this nation was founded on.

We have never been perfect, but by God, we try. And as long as we continue, even during times of turmoil and divisiveness, to hold on to these ideals, then there is hope. And more importantly, acknowledgment, that all the sacrifices that have already been made on our behalf, have not been made in vain.

Abraham Lincoln at Antietam, (l-r) Col. Alexander S. Webb, Gen. George B. McClellan, Scout Adams, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, October 3, 1862. | Image by Everett Collection | Courtesy of Shutterstock

In teaching this period of history, I relied on so much more than just the narrative included in the history books. I included first-hand accounts, found in the diaries and letters provided by descendants of soldiers on both sides of the fight, as well as journals kept by leaders, generals, and citizens. There were newspaper accounts, photographs, publications, documentaries, video collections, and historical documents I collected over the years.

My husband even contributed, providing me with actual Civil War artifacts including pieces of the Spanish moss woven blankets the Southern soldiers created and used as both a covering for sleeping, as well as a rucksack in which to carry their meager belongings.

Anything I could do to bring history to life for my students; to make it tangible and therefore relevant. For me, it was not about glorifying the past, it was about understanding it. That meant understanding the very human, and very flawed men and women living it. It also meant placing these events in the context of the times in which they were occurring, always with the goal of learning from them.

We engaged in hard discussions. We debated the issues. We focused on the facts and engaged in critical thinking exercises. For my students, it was history class, for me it was empowering them with research tools, critical thinking skills, and the desire to seek knowledge for themselves. If they walked away with nothing else, I fervently hoped they walked away with the ability to form their own opinions and to think for themselves.

When teaching the Civil War, I discovered that the question of slavery as a cause, even THE cause, was foremost in the minds of my students. I never tried to disabuse them of this, but rather to allow history to reveal itself.

There were, in fact, many causes that led to the South’s secession and the formation of the Confederacy. Many events that preceded the initial battle at Fort Sumter. And it must be noted that not all southerners supported secession, even up to the moment the war began.  

ROBERT E. LEE, General for the Confederacy. | Image by Everett Collection | Courtesy of Shutterstock

It always surprised my students that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was one of them. “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union,” he wrote in a letter to his son in January 1861. “It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.”

However, once his native Virginia voted to leave the Union, Lee felt himself honor-bound to fight for the Confederacy. “A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved and government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense, will draw my sword on none,” Lee wrote in a letter in 1861.

Like all historical figures, Lee was not one dimensional and by war’s end understood more than most, the great sacrifices that had been made, but also the necessity of the conflict and the changes it wrought.

In his memoirs, which were published in 1888 after his death, Lee wrote, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”

For President Abraham Lincoln, the most important goal of engaging in the war was always to save the Union. However, as the battle continued, Lincoln dedicated himself to the abolishment of slavery and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  

By the time of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Union had indeed prevailed, slavery had forever been abolished in the United States, and the long road to Reconstruction began. A road that took years to travel, more conflict, and more sacrifice to uphold.  

The Civil War was history running on all cylinders. It was the most important event in the life of our nation, and its importance continues today. The blueprint of the America we know was drawn up then, and whether we know it or not, we are still walking around in the shadow of that war.

Ken Burns, filmmaker, THE CIVIL WAR

In light of the current crisis in our country, I find it important to acknowledge this part of our history. Even more important, to look beyond the generalizations so erroneously made about the events and people that endured this most grievous conflict. To see them as the individuals they were, both light and dark, and not with the short-lens of our own standards or agendas. When we do that, we not only fail them, we fail ourselves. When we discount their existence and their contributions, we discount our own heritage and history.

If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Ulysses S. Grant, Union Civil War General

It has been 155 years since the Civil War ended. Is that contest Grant described upon us now? If so, I pray that patriotism and intelligence prevail. For if we allow misguided ambition and willful ignorance to destroy our past and consume our future, America will fall. And with it, the greatest bastion of freedom and liberty on this earth will fall with it.