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.


Anonymous said...

BRAVO!!! Damn, I wish I'd had a teacher and lessons like that. As it is, I read history, not because I was taught it as you do, but because I have an insatiable thirst for it, and a general curiosity about everything (you should see my overflowing, cheap, disorganized library).

B Woodman

Eleven said...

History SHOULD scare the crap out of people. Real history, the reality of living in those pivotal times, is damn scary. If people aren't horrified, terrified, and pissed as hell when you teach about the Civil War, you aren't doing it right.

Defender said...

History is not just kings and presidents, generals and gross national products, but flesh, bone, sinew, sweat and courage.
Those kids may be thinking and feeling for the first time.

Mike H said...

I will send this to my son the history student. Never seen a more voracious kid!

Do you have any stories about the Black Confederates?

GunRights4US said...

I doubt those kids realize how lucky they are to get such a lesson!

Toastrider said...

In defense of Lincoln, he did say that while the Negro may not be his equal mentally, he still has the right to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow (paraphrasing here).

We tend to build our historical figures into polished statues, forgetting their flaws and magnifying their virtues, though.

Getting back to the general topic, it's disturbing how many people have no interest in history. All they care about is the now and the immediate future, and Santayana's famous quote is often greeted with a vapid stare of confusion.

rexxhead said...

Oh, the schools teach 'feeling' well enough, Defender. It's the 'thinking' part they don't devote much effort to ;-)

Anonymous said...

Mike: Good show.

I am just a bit surprised they invite you back.


Sean said...

Extremely good. I believe the mindset of the current generation of blacks not to be anywhere near their ancestors of that time, and armed, a great many of them will not do good. They do not care for history, and they do not care for anyone besides themselves.

Arlie Hubard III said...


You should really consider making a youtube video or series of videos that include these lessons. Too many people won't find out about this stuff unless it's presented quickly, neatly, and in full color video. Might change a few minds and earn a few more troops.

Brock Townsend said...

"Forrest took his time butchering the blacks"

"The Grand Fabrication"

Johnnyreb™ said...

Awesome post!
Having a teacher that can get AND keep your attention is a treasure.

I'm betting that they will never forget your presentation.Ever

Qi Ji Guang said...

Beautiful post.

The African American slaves would never have been freed had it not for the bravery and determination of these black soldiers.

Lincoln was not just as racist as some of these hardliner plantation kings, he was even more racist.

"Bill Hicks" said...

Excellent post Mike,
I majored in history did quite a bit of digging around in original source material. The books leave about 80% of true history out. They get to the point and then the moral with a dabbling of facts and that is it. They "forget" a huge portion. The world needs more true teachers like you and not what are being produced today.

W W Woodward said...

I sent this column to my son-in-law, a world history teacher in the San Antonio school system.

Hopefully he will find inspiration from your presentation and be able to use it to instill some understanding of what history is all about in his students.