Friday, May 15, 2009
How I teach history.
For a third year now, I have helped out at the local high school with a living history presentation on the War Between the States. This year, I chanced upon a method of getting even the most recalcitrant student's attention.
My re-enactor buddy lines the class up, all in a row (this takes place behind the school at the edge of a small lake) and has them count off, "1," "2," "1," "2," to split them up into groups. The ones rally on him to be given instruction in the life, weapons and accoutrements of a Federal cavalryman of Croxton's raid that passed through Pinson. The twos rally on me, where I tell them stories they never heard before.
I am standing behind them as they finish counting off, and I then discharge both barrels of a twelve gauge muzzle-loading shotgun in the air. This causes shrieks, shouts, people jumping about, and general dismay and disorder. I then shout, "ABOUT FACE!" And, if necessary, "SHUT UP! LISTEN UP!"
Their teachers dare not address them like this and it gets instant silence. Then I proceed in a low tone so they have to strain to hear it: "All right, children, how many of you were surprised by that?" Some of them are offended by me addressing them as children, but no matter. Enough of them indicate that, yes, they were surprised, I continue:
"The FUTURE comes as a surprise to 95 percent of the people. This is because, A. They do not know their own history; B. They do not pay attention to what goes on around them; and C. thus they cannot compare what goes on around them to the patterns of human history and conclude what the future is going to be in time to prepare for it. I am certain that this applies to at least 95 percent of you. You THINK that what goes on in that building behind you is real life. It is not. You are pampered, protected and live in an artificial cocoon. But that will soon end. YOU will have to deal directly with real life YOURSELVES, and I guarantee you that you 95 percenters will end up hauling the water and chopping the wood for the 5 percent who know their history, pay attention to what goes on around them and thus are able to predict the future and MAKE THEIR OWN FUTURES BY MANIPULATING THE REST OF YOU INTO PROVIDING IT FOR THEM. If you don't like that, then only you can do something about it. You can start by paying attention to what we teach you about the unknown stories of your own history. All right, fall out. Ones on Eric and twos on me."
When I get them settled on improvised seating, I begin quietly.
"I don't know what a civil war looks like. My son does. He's done two tours of Iraq and he knows what it looks like up close. I CAN tell you however from long study what a civil war IS. A civil war is a dead baby, torn in half, bloated and laying in a ditch. A civil war is the smell of burning corpses. A civil war is a fire in the night down the street that you don't dare investigate lest you be killed yourself. A civil war is butchery worse than you can possibly imagine. That is civil war. Now, let me prove that by telling you some incidents from the civil war in Alabama that they don't put in history books."
It is usually smooth sailing from then on, although every now and then I get somebody with an attitude, usually some smart ass black kid who is convinced that anybody getting good grades is trying to be "white." I stop my delivery, look the kid dead in the eye and ask him, "Aren't you embarrassed that some fat old white man knows more about YOUR history than YOU do?"
I cover stories from the war in the mountains (Aunt Jenny's soapdish is a perennial favorite) and then I dispel the "Beneficent Emancipator Father Abraham" crap by pointing out what a racist the Railsplitter was and how it wasn't that the federal government "freed the slaves" as much as they freed themselves, transmogrifying by their own efforts from property to contraband to refugees to soldiers. I point out that it was only when the federal government in its desperation allowed black men to have guns that they changed the equation by taking those weapons and conducting themselves like men.
I tell the story, largely unknown, of the valiant rear guard action of the 55th and 59th United States Colored Troops at and after the Battle of Brices Crossroads, when Federal General Sturgis arranged for them to be offered up as sacrifice, a la Fort Pillow, so the white troops (with Sturgis in the lead) could get away while Forrest took his time butchering the blacks. The only thing is, the black troops refused to be victims. They fought a rear guard action, first back to Ripley, then to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad where relief was supposed to be.
They armed themselves by picking up the nice new Springfield rifles the white troops had dropped and stuffed their pockets with ammunition from abandoned supply wagons. By the time they got back to the railroad, they were out of food, water, the men had walked out of their shoddy brogans and were barefoot and bloody. Some of them hadn't slept in days, yet still they fought the pursuing Confederates, inflicting more casualties on Forrest's troops than the white troops had done during the battle.
As they formed up one last time with bayonets fixed, most of them now without ammo, the Confederates made to surround them and finish the business once and for all. Then they heard heard a whistle of the train carrying their relief, white Missouri Unionists who had no love for black troops and had proved it on many occasions. Yet when Forrest's troops faded away and the Missourians debouched from the train, they were so moved by the accomplishment of the black troops and by their condition that they gave them the contents of their haversacks and canteens. There is no higher tribute that one soldier can pay another.
There is more to the story, and one day I will write it, but my concluding point is this: miserable creatures thought subhuman by many (including Abe Lincoln) and treated like property, freed themselves by taking up arms that were provided them reluctantly and only in desperation. These men who marched against Forrest when they believed after Fort Pillow they would likely be massacred; men who were only considered by Sturgis to be worthy of guarding the wagon train; men who were denied water by Sturgis' order on the approach march in the hot June Mississippi sun because secessionist planters objected to black troops drinking out of their wells, so the USCT's had to make do with what they could find in ditches and swamps; men who were left for dead by a faithless, cowardly, incompetent commander -- these MEN freed THEMSELVES. I finish by pointing out that a man without a weapon is someone else's servant, slave, or subject, but a man with a weapon, who knows how to use it, is a citizen whether the larger society fully recognizes that or not.
I left them, most of them, quiet, subdued, and reflective. Frankly, I think I scared the excrement out of some of them. And that is all to the good.
That is how I teach history.