Let's Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War

Let's Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War

Let's Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War is a series of five reading and discussion sessions moderated by Jeff McClurken, chairman of the Department of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Participants read three books: March by Geraldine Brooks; Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James McPherson; and an anthology of key documents, America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries, edited by Edward L. Ayers. Each session prompts conversation on a different facet of the Civil War experience: Imagining War, Choosing Sides, Making Sense of Shiloh, The Shape of War, and War and Freedom. Read this well-crafted overview by Ed Ayers that "makes sense" of the structure of the series.

After each session, we are archiving the related discussion questions and discussed Web links.

Part One: Imagining War | Part Two: Choosing Sides | Part Three: Making Sense of Shiloh |

Part Four: The Shape of War | Part Five: War and Freedom

Part One: Imagining War
• Geraldine Brooks, March [2005]
  Selection from the anthology America’s War [2011]:
• Louisa May Alcott, “Journal kept at the hospital, Georgetown, D.C.” [1862].

Discussion Points for Conversation #1

Questions for CRRL Discussion of March  and Alcott text discussion - Jeffrey McClurken

  1. Why did Louisa May Alcott keep a journal?  What is the context?  Why would the first two questions matter for us?  Who is her audience?  What story is she trying to tell?
  1. Why is Louisa May Alcott working as a nurse?  What is her goal?  What does this journal suggest about women’s views of the nation?  Of the War?
  1. Alcott’s job as a nurse is different from what we think of as a nurse today.  Find examples illustrating that from the reading.  What is her role as a nurse?  What does she do?  What is her relationship with the soldiers like?  How class or gender play a role here? 
  1. Why did Dr. Edward L. Ayers, one of the nation’s leading Civil War historians, choose to start a CW book discussion with a novel?  What does that say about his approach to history?  To this project? [And why this novel?]
  1. Who is Geraldine Brooks?  Why did she choose to write March based on just a few lines in a classic American novel?  Who is her audience? What advantages are there in using fiction to talk about the past?  What are the dangers? 
  1. The following Questions for Discussion are also located in the back of this edition of March.
  1. Throughout the novel, March and Marmee, although devoted to one another, seem to misunderstand each other quite a bit and often do not tell each other the complete truth. Discuss examples of where this happens and how things may have turned out differently, for better or worse, had they been completely honest. Are there times when it is best not to tell our loved ones the truth?
  1. The causes of the American Civil War were multiple and overlapping. What was your opinion of the war when you first came to the novel, and has it changed at all since reading March?
  1. March's relationships with both Marmee and Grace are pivotal in his life. Discuss the differences between these two relationships and how they help to shape March, his worldview, and his future. What other people and events were pivotal in shaping March's beliefs?
  1. Do you think it was the right decision for March to have supported, financially or morally, the northern abolitionist John Brown? Brown's tactics were controversial, but did the ends justify the means?
  1. "If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it," says March (p. 65). Do you think that March still believes the war is just by the end of the novel? Why or why not?
  1. What is your opinion of March's enlisting? Should he have stayed home with his family? How do we decide when to put our principles ahead of our personal obligations?
  1. When Marmee is speaking of her husband's enlisting in the army, she makes a very eloquent statement: "A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what war has broken apart" (p. 210). Do her words have resonance in today's world? How are the people who fight our wars today perceived? Do you think we pay enough attention to the families of those in the military? Have our opinions been influenced at all by the inclusion of women in the military?
  1. The war raged on for several years after March's return home. How do you imagine he spent those remaining years of the war? How do you think his relationship with Marmee changed? How might it have stayed the same?
  1. Was the Civil War heroic?  Did you think it was before reading this?  Does this novel, with its unflinching look at death and destruction in war challenge a heroic interpretation of the war for you?
    1. Asked in a different way: Is this an anti-war novel? 
  1. How does the novel match with Alcott’s hospital journal? What about Alcott’s Little Women?
  1. How “true” is this story?  How does “truth” mesh with the reality that historians often disagree about the past?  Even if there are multiple interpretations, are there things that we can know for certain to have happened (or not to have happened)?
  1. On p. 3-4 of the AW collection, Ayers mentions a number of fictional works about the Civil War.  Have you read any of them?  How are they different than March?


Part Two: Choosing Sides

Reading Selections from the anthology America's War:
• Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" [1852];
• Henry David Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown" [1859];
• Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address [March 4, 1861];
• Alexander H. Stephens, "Cornerstone" speech [March 21, 1861];
• Robert Montague, Secessionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 1-2, 1861];
• Chapman Stuart, Unionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 5, 1861];
• Elizabeth Brown Pryor, excerpt from Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters [2007];
• Mark Twain, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" [1885]; and
• Sarah Morgan, excerpt from The Diary of a Southern Woman [May 9, May 17, 1862].

Discussion questions for Conversation #2
Those marked with * are based on recommendations by NEH/ALA Project Scholar, Dr. Edward Ayers.

  1. *These authors disagree with each other over fundamental issues.  Consider the important areas of congruence that are revealed.  Think about how we decide whom to believe.
  1. What in the documents before us this week suggest that Civil War was inevitable?  What in these readings suggests room for compromise and/or coexistence?
  1. Discuss Ayers’s choice for us to start this discussion with six speeches.  Who would have been the audiences for each of these?  How would that have affected what these speakers said and how they said it?
  1. Where does the Revolution fit into these various conceptions of the conflict in the 1850s and 1860s?  In what different ways do these authors use the legacy of the Founding Fathers to support their perspectives?
  1. *Based on the readings, what might Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau have thought of Lincoln’s inaugural speech?  Discuss Lincoln’s stance on slavery in his 1st inaugural.
  1. *In his 1861 speech, Alexander Stephens asserts that slavery and white supremacy are cornerstones of Southern greatness.  Concepts associated with America’s identity change with the times and vary among regions and individuals.  Share your concept of what contributes to national or regional identity.
  1. *Discuss the fundamental disagreement(s) at the heart of the speeches from Virginia.
  1. *Robert E. Lee is a highly regarded historical figure.  Talk about how Lee’s uncertainty at the start of the crisis might undermine or contributes to that respect.
    1. What perspective does modern scholar Elizabeth Brown Pryor have on Lee?
  1. Why does Ayers include Mark Twain’s wry account of his time as a soldier and Sarah Morgan’s diary in 1862?  How do these accounts fit with the theme of “Choosing Sides” for this session?  How do they complicate our understanding of the choices available to Americans?
  1. Which American voices are muted or absent in this selection?  Why aren’t they included?

Links discussed

Part Three: Making Sense of Shiloh 

Selections from the anthology America's War:
• Ambrose Bierce, "What I Saw of Shiloh" [1881];
• Ulysses Grant, excerpt from the Memoirs [1885];
• Shelby Foote, excerpt from Shiloh [1952];
• Bobbie Ann Mason, "Shiloh" [1982]; and
• General Braxton Bragg, speech to the Army of the Mississippi [May 3, 1862].

Discussion Points for Conversation 3 – Making Sense of Shiloh
Those marked with * are based on recommendations by NEH/ALA Project Scholar, Dr. Edward Ayers.

  1. Why does Ayers choose to focus our main discussion of military history on just a single battle?  What do we gain from that focus?  What do we lose?  Why does he, with the exception of Bragg’s letter, only choose sources written later?  
  1. What is the historical and literary context within which Ambrose Bierce is writing?  How trustworthy is his account of the battle by 1881 when he writes?  Who is he writing for?  How does Bierce describe the impact of the battle on the land, and on the men? 
  2. *Is Grant’s perspective truer than Bierce’s or Bragg’s?  What gives an account veracity?  How reliable are these memories?
  1. What is Grant’s take on the battle of Shiloh?  Given the criticism that he received afterward, is he defensive of his role in the battle in memoirs?  Why do you think that is?  What is his goal here?
  1. Are the historical narratives heroic?  Gritty realism? How do they challenge conventional accounts of battle as heroic?  Where do they fit in the narrative typically told about Civil War soldiers?
  1. What do these works tells us about courage and manhood?  About cowardice on the battlefield?
  1. How does Shelby Foote’s account of the battle of Shiloh or its meaning differ from those of Grant, Bierce, and Bragg?  What is Foote’s view of battle?
  1. *What responsibility do writers of fiction have to historical accuracy?  What is gained (or lost) through the use of historical fiction?
  1. *Does Bobbie Ann Mason’s story trivialize the memory of Shiloh or honestly connect us to the emotions people today would feel?
  1. In the end, whose version of the battle do you buy into?  Which vision is the most accurate?  The most useful?  The most revealing?

More information about the battle of Shiloh

Part Four: The Shape of War

• James M. McPherson, Crossroad of Freedom: Antietam [2002]
Selections from the anthology America's War:
• Drew Gilpin Faust, excerpt from This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War [2008];
• Gary W. Gallagher, “The Net Result of the Campaign was in Our Favor: Confederate Reaction to 1862 Maryland Campaign” [1999].


Discussion for Session 4 – The Shape of War: Antietam

1.      Why does Ed Ayers choose these three readings?  Why does he choose to focus on Antietam?  What do you think his goals are for this discussion?

2.      McPherson stresses contingency in his narrative of Antietam.  What do you think of the idea of a key “turning point”?  What does he say is at stake in the battle?

3.      Gallagher challenges McPherson’s sense that the battle of Antietam was “the event” of the Civil War.  What is his reasoning?  Do you agree?

4.      McPherson and other historians have also argued for other key turning points in the Civil War: the choice in 1861 of Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy, Union victories in 1st half of 1862 and Confederate counteroffensives in summer 1862, the twin Union victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, the election of 1864.  Why do you think each of these moments might have been turning points?  What are other moments in the Civil War that might have been turning points?  Other moments in history more generally?

5.      Some historians are reluctant to talk much about alternative possible outcomes (“what if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t died before Gettysburg?”).  What do we gain by considering such alternative histories?  What are the risks we take in exploring them?

6.      What role do the personalities of the military leaders such as McClellan and Lee, Pope and Jackson, Burnside and Johnston play in McPherson’s account?  How much of a difference do individuals make in battles and in wars?

7.      Why do McPherson and Faust place a great deal of importance on the role of homefront morale and its effect on the waging of war?  What comparisons can we make with other wars?

8.      Drew Gilpin Faust’s take on the significance battle is very different.  What does she mean when she writes, “The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking” (191)?  How does this excerpt add to our understanding of Antietam and its consquences?

9.      What effect do you think the sheer scale of death in the Civil War had on soldiers?  On civilians? 

10.  What effect do all of those deaths have on our perception today of the importance of the Civil  War? Do we view military deaths differently today?  If so, why (or why not)?

11.   How do the writing styles of these readings compare to those we’ve seen before?


Track the battle action with the animations found at http://civilwaranimated.com/

Part Five: War and Freedom

Selections from the anthology America's War:
• Abraham Lincoln, address on colonization [1862];
• John M. Washington, "Memorys [sic] of the Past" [1873];
• Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation [1863];
• Frederick Douglass, "Men of Color, To Arms!" [March 1863];
• Abraham Lincoln, letters to James C. Conkling [1863] and Albert G. Hodges [1864];
• Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address [1863];
• James S. Brisbin, report on U.S. Colored Cavalry in Virginia [Oct. 2, 1864];
• Colored Citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, Petition to the Union Convention of Tennessee Assembled in the Capitol at Nashville [January 9, 1865];
• Margaret Walker, excerpt from Jubilee [1966];
• Leon Litwack, excerpt from Been in the Storm So Long [1979]; and
• Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.

Discussion for Session 5 – War and Freedom

1.  Why did Ed Ayers choose these readings? What do you think his goals are for this discussion? How do the style of writing of these readings compare to those we've seen before?

2.  How do we make sense of these various statements by Abraham Lincoln? Did any of his comments surprise you? After reading these, does he still deserve the title of the Great Emancipator? What factors shaped his thinking? How did he shape his arguments to the audience he was writing for? In what way do we see Lincoln's perspective evolving?

3.  Compare Frederick Douglass's call to arms in 1863 to his rejection of the nation in 1852 ("What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?") that we read for the second discussion. What had changed for Douglass? Why?

4.  What does John Washington's account of his wartime escape from slavery tell us about the ideas, beliefs, and concerns of Southern slaves during the war? What does it tell us about the war in Fredericksburg? In Virginia?

5. In what ways do the brief military reports of Col. Brisbin and Col. Morgan reflect the role of African Americans in the Union army and their experiences and treatment as soldiers?

6.  How do our two secondary sources this week (Walker's fictional account and Litwack's historical monograph) discuss the coming of freedom for African Americans? Which one does a better job in bringing the complexities of the experiences to life for the reader? Why?

7. What were the post war opportunities for ex-slaves? What did they hope would happen? What did Northern whites think would happen? What do Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, as well as the petition of black Tennesseans in Nashville tell us about the potential for the post war period? How does this potential mesh with what you know of Reconstruction as it happened?

8.  Why does Ayers end our discussion with Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address? What does that suggest about his goals for this discussion and for the whole experience? Where do Lincoln's words from March 4, 1865, just a month before his death, leave those of us who read them 150 years later? Have the lofty goals, the now famous rhetoric of his final paragraph been attained in some way?

About the series:

The series is made possible by a grant from The American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. CRRL is honored to have been selected as one of fifty libraries around the country to host this program, which probes meanings of the Civil War that are "hidden in plain sight" behind the key questions and main characters so familiar to us. Program participants may be surprised to encounter in the readings such a large cast of characters, so broad a range of perspectives, and so dense a web of circumstances. After considering the vast sweep and profound breadth of Civil War experience, readers will understand that the American Civil War was not a single thing, or a simple thing. And yet they will also see emancipation-the end of the most powerful system of slavery in the modern world-take its place as the central story of the war. The library will provide participants with their own copies of all materials.

About the Moderating Scholar:

Jeffrey W. McClurken is Associate Professor and Chair of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington where he has taught since 1999. His research areas include the history of the Civil War, veterans, families, the Pinkertons, mental institutions, the 19th-Century American South, and the digital humanities. He teaches classes on a wide array of US History topics, including Civil War and Reconstruction, American technology and culture, digital history, women's history, and history & film. His book, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing the Confederate Veteran Family in Virginia, was published by UVA Press in 2009. He is a member of the Fredericksburg-Stafford Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and the moderator for the Years of Anguish Civil War lecture series sponsored by the Fredericksburg Area Museum, the National Park Service, and the University of Mary Washington.