By Janet Lyons, Maine Humanities Council’s Consulting Project Coordinator for Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War
Over the course of four weeks students in the “Our Hands on History” class at Spruce Mountain High School have participated in five book discussions. They began with two community wide book discussions at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center and finished by facilitating three discussions for seventh grade students in teacher Janet Ventrella’s class at Spruce Mountain Middle School. In all cases great conversation ensued.
Community members, local historians, retired teachers, the high school principal and the Superintendent of RSU 10 came together to discuss For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James McPherson with the students. McPherson’s book is a scholarly compilation and analysis of letters written by Civil War soldiers.
Bowdoin Professor Patrick Rael challenged participants to think about how historians work and how to evaluate a book written by an historian. Participants came up with three reasons why they found the authors work credible:
- He lets us draw our own conclusions,
- We don’t see him taking sides, and
- In the preface he goes to great lengths to explain his research methodology.
When asked why McPherson wrote his book, one veteran said, “I sense that he wants to get to the bottom line – what goes on in soldier’s minds.” A girl posited that based on letters in the book, at the beginning boys and men went for the adventure and to prove their manliness but after they’d “seen the elephant” their reasons changed. This led a boy to say that the book tries to demonstrate the difference between why you go to war and what sustains you once you are there.
The book raised many questions from participants. One man commented that although McPherson gives voice to many men, there were many men who were illiterate so we don’t have their stories: did these men have different reasons for fighting? Participants frequently referenced the book and their notes to support their thoughts on why men fought.
Two weeks later University of Southern Maine Associate Professor Libby Bischof led a group of students and their teachers in a discussion of This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. Libby led participants through a thoughtful discussion of this “game changer of a book which allowed people to see how modern the Civil War was and how it changed practices and perceptions.”
Participants discussed not just the massive amount of death attributed to the war, but also how dying on this scale changed the rituals of death into a business. Prior to the Civil War 90% of people died a “good death” at home attended by their loved ones. One student brought up the horror of the mass burials of soldiers on the fields where they fell and how townspeople were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead. Other students discussed how nurses and fellow soldiers sent letters home to the next of kin of dead soldiers in an attempt to bring closure to their families and to make sense of the dying. Students engaged in a lively conversation about mourning practices and burial rituals from 1860 to the present.
After successfully participating in three book discussions as part of their studies, seven high school students switched things up and became the discussion facilitators. Prior to leading discussions of the Newbery Honor book, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, students read and discussed the book in class, talked about how to facilitate a book discussion, and developed questions to guide the conversation with three classes of seventh grade students.
Students talked about Homer and his predilection to lie, the influence of other characters on Homer, and what Homer’s motives were. They related all of this to the Civil War and their lives in the 2010s. One boy liked the book because it was “an accurate representation of what the Civil War was like.” A seventh grade girl said she liked the book because, “It made me think about the past and want to know more.”
Students discussed motivating factors of the war including: “Both sides wanted to protect their cultures.” They were reminded by one of the facilitators that “there’s definitely more than one reason why everyone was fighting.” Each class of students walked away from the discussion with something new to add to their understanding of the Civil War thanks to the extremely well prepared facilitators.
On Monday May 18, at 7:00PM, there will be an unveiling of the Maine Memory Network exhibit, “The Washburns of Livermore,” at Norlands, followed by a student-written and performed dramatization of the family’s story. All are welcome!