The Sound of Distant Cannons

 

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“Are you hot in that uniform?” “Well, some women think so…..”

Dear Readers,

Whenever I teach about the Civil War in class, it makes me a bit nostalgic. Not for the war, but of the sixteen years I spent as a Civil War reenactor. Yes, I spent four times as long reenacting the war than the war itself was. I guess my reason for getting this way is because I was younger then, of course. And it was before I suffered a serious injury which ended my public safety career and left me in constant pain. Also, I miss my friend and comrade of all those years, Robert, who passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. The laughs we shared, the funny incidents we witnessed, the people we met and the places we saw are just as fresh in my mind today as they were back then. You can see the post I wrote upon learning of his passing here.

Since I now dwell in an academic world and not one filled with fires and arsonists, I have come to understand that many (I dare say, most) academic historians look on living historians (my preferred term for what I did) with barely disguised and often open disdain. I’ve heard them claim that all reenactors are racist, Lost Cause types. I’ve heard them claim that reenactors are all gun freaks or super right wing nut jobs. People who proudly boast of how “open” and “tolerant” they are quickly lump all reenactors into one category. Are there people within the ranks who are all those things? Of course! But most are not. They are men and women who love what they do and try to bring history to a wider audience.

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The 13th US Infantry on the field at Liendo. 

Apart from those criticisms, the other major one I’ve heard over the years is that “Reenactors get too bogged down in details and don’t care enough about the big picture.” Maybe that is a valid criticism. However, the majority of them portray humble privates in the ranks and NEWSFLASH: they didn’t know much about the big picture either. Grant and Lee were not in the habit of discussing grand strategy with enlisted men. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things what the specific thread count of a Union sack coat was? Probably not. Another criticism is that reenactors don’t care enough about the cause of the war. Honestly, I’m not quite sure why professional historians often fixate on this. Reenactors are not reenacting the secession crisis. I think this might touch on why it seems like over the past several years, academic historians have all but removed the battlefield from the teaching of the Civil War, preferring to talk of other things. Which, by the way, need to be discussed, but the question of slavery was decided ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

How did my time as a reenactor help me become a better teacher? At most events, there would be a school day on the Friday before the reenactment opened to the public. Schools would bus in students who frequently had to complete a scavenger hunt. They’d come by in groups of 10-15 or so and we’d talk to them and answer their questions. Some reenactors looked on this as a bit of a bother and would show up after the kids left, but I came to enjoy it. I was talking to students long before I ever thought of being a teacher myself. It gave me better insight which helped explain the decision making process on Civil War battlefields. I’ve marched ten miles (which was nothing for a Civil War soldier) as part of a preservation march and did it barefoot and on an empty stomach just to try and see what it was like for the men who did it for real. Yes, I can load and fire a rifle, work a cannon, and explain how to perform “by files right into line”. None of that really helps in the classroom, but one of the things my students enjoy the most is when I teach them how to move from a column of fours to a line of battle and back. I’m enthusiastic when teaching about the Civil War and I hope that transfers over to my performance in the classroom.

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We ran a Civil War “boot camp” for high school and junior high teachers. Here I am performing a cursory examination to declare them medically fit for service.

Now, I want to tackle one subject which was kind of the reason for my post to being with. As a Southern boy who wore “the blue suit”, I want to address a statement that people (other reenactors too) frequently made. Yes, most (though not all) of my family who was in the United States at the time fought in the Confederate Army. I don’t apologize for that, nor do I feel the need to. I’m proud of the bravery they exhibited on many a field. I’m also glad they lost. Anyway, the one thing that people said to me all the time was “Your ancestors are turning over in their graves seeing you dressed as a Damn Yankee.” Here is my answer to that. First of all, I think our ancestors would be a little amused that we dress up like them and reenact something as horrific as the Civil War. Second, assuming our ancestors approved of what we do, I would think they’d want us to get it right and in the South, Rebel reenactors outnumber Yanks by 4-5 to one at most events. Since when did the odds ever favor the Confederacy that way? Third, I would occasionally switch over and portray a Confederate surgeon rather than a Union surgeon every now and then. Fourth, and most important, if you don’t like my choice of impressions, you can kiss my Irish a$$. Truthfully though, at events in the South, the Yankees are the “bad guys” and sometimes people boo as you march out to the battlefield. To be honest, it was kind of nice to be the bad guy.

So there you have it. My humble musings on my time as a reenactor. Here are some of the regiments that my ancestors served in (all Irish immigrants, by the way).

8th Ohio Infantry

160th New York Infantry

1st Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

48th Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

6th Louisiana Infantry (CSA)

4th Texas Infantry (CSA)

Hutch

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A Union Surgeon treats a wounded Confederate drummer boy.

 

Some Small Victory For Humanity

Horace Mann once said “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some small victory for humanity.” I think most people who teach can relate to this statement in some way. I taught my first college course in the fall of 2004. Here we are over a decade later and a lot has changed. I think I do a better job now, but I’m no expert. I’m not Jaime Escalante or the Freedom Writer lady. No, I’m just a washed up ex cop with a serious physical injury and a body racked by an incurable disease. Some days are better than others both in and out of the classroom.

I suppose on some level, all of us who teach wonder if it is worth it. After all, how useful is history really to a person who is a math or science major? Students come to class and go through the motions. As professors, so do we. I’ve been stuck in a rut the past couple of years. I’m a part time faculty member who wears the Scarlet “A” of being an adjunct. I’ve given up hope of full time employment. It’ll never happen. I left one institution because of the increased rules and regulations that singled out adjuncts for “special treatment” such as forcing us to sign a civility oath (seriously). I barely make enough money to pay the bills and many of my medical bills go unpaid. So why do I do it?

Honestly, I don’t know anymore. But sometimes I think back over the course of my teaching career. I don’t always remember names, but I can remember faces. I think back on all the fun times I’ve had in the classroom. I’ve had classes I loved and fortunately only a couple that I’d rather have run backwards naked through a cornfield than to have taught. I think about all the students I’ve had pass in and out of my classroom doors and thus, my life. I wonder where they are now and what they are doing. I hope they all go on to make their mark on the world.

When I was a police officer, I got used to instant gratification. Saw bad guy. Arrested same. Someone committed a crime. I arrested them. End of story. Teaching isn’t like that. You never truly know (and indeed, may never know) how much of a difference (if any) you make. The impact might be years down the road. All you can do is hope for the best. It isn’t simply teaching. Sometimes a friendly word to a troubled student or allowing them to vent about some problem in their life is what makes the difference, not the causes of the Civil War. I always say I teach students, not a subject, because some of the biggest lessons deal with life rather than Warren G. Harding’s underwear preference.

And sometimes, I learn from my students. In fact, I learn as much from them as they do from me. Not about history, of course, but about myself. Yes, they teach me about myself. They force me to evaluate what I do and why, how I do things, and how to teach when I’m so racked with pain that I’d rather be in bed. For this I’m eternally grateful to them all. Being in a classroom allows me to forget for a while my own issues. The semesters pass with the speed of lightning these days. One turns into another in the blink of an eye. It seems just as though you truly get to know your students, they are gone only to be replaced with a new batch.

Have I won some small victory for humanity? No, I don’t think I have. But I’m not ashamed to die either. Then again, I don’t know what qualifies as a small victory for humanity. Maybe I have. But I do know this. All the students who have touched my life over the years can rest assured that they have made a difference to me. If the true measure of a person is whether or not you are better off for having known a person, then I can say without question that I am certainly better off for having known them all. I sincerely hope they can say the same about me.

P.S.: Any teacher who ever doubts what they are doing must watch the Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Changing of the Guard”. It aired in Season 3 and Season 1-3 and 5 are currently on Netflix, so I recommend you watch it ASAP before Netflix removes it, as they seem to do with all their good programming these days.

L.H.

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Why History?

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Anyone who has a history degree will be asked numerous times in their life why they majored in a subject seen by many as quaint and irrelevant. I’ll resist the temptation to wax poetic (or maybe wane) about they myriad of skills one masters in pursuit of such a degree that would be invaluable in many career choices. Did my two history degrees make me a better detective? I like to think so. If anything, I was comfortable writing and much of police work, unlike the television shows, takes place in front of a computer writing endless reports that may never be read. But I digress. That is certainly not the reason I majored in history. What follows is:

First of all, I suck at math. Terribly. Anything more complex than simple addition and subtraction (and perhaps division and multiplication) is beyond the capabilities of my oft rattled brains. When I was a child of 6, I checked out my first book from the library in my hometown. I cannot recall the name, but it had a red cover and was about the Civil War. As I gaze around my 900 square foot house filled with 2,000 book and five cats, I tend to blame that book. Growing up, I suffered from a speech impediment which caused painful shyness. This drove me to seek comfort between the covers of a book. Thankfully, my parents encouraged my reading.

I never saw history as being about dead people. I fully believe the spirits of those who’ve gone before are never far away, not in a ghost hunter way, but rather in an inspirational way. Students in my classes are taught to view these figures as living, breathing people with the same hopes, fears, and dreams that we have. Though our time periods change, human emotion doesn’t. Did love feel somehow different 200 years ago? Did fear? Or hunger? The past is, quite simply, the greatest reality show ever made.

As I teach survey courses, I do not expect to convince my students to suddenly love history and major in it. What I do sincerely hope is that they at least take away an appreciation for it, that’s all. I wouldn’t say I’m a great teacher and probably not even a very good one. What I am, however, is a decent storyteller. While many professors focus on all of the “isms” that go along with history, I prefer to focus on the people. The lives they led, the deaths they died, and the dreams they fulfilled or lost. For as Kipling said, “I have eaten your bread and salt. I’ve drunk your water and wine. The lives ye led I have watched beside and the deaths ye died were mine.”

I like to think I did not choose history, but rather history chose me.

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