Backyard Civil War: Cinematic Blues


Let me flash-forward a bit: today while conferring with a student, we were talking about reading and what makes it interesting, and I confessed that when I was her age I wouldn’t have been that interested in some of the same things I am now. She asked if I really like “this stuff” [history], and I said, yeah, I really do. But that’s how reading and inquiry work: once you start learning about things, the knowledge expands exponentially, and it’s fascinating for me.

And it’s fraught with potential harm. History, when done right, lays out the facts, graphically, painfully, and with an attempt at objectivity. Considering my own woeful and anemic history instruction in high school, and it’s never too late to learn, my time is spent reading as much as I can about key moments in history. Okay, and an occasional Drunk History episode.

But I can’t show Drunk History to middle school kids. (Although one kid told me he had seen the Robert Smalls episode -I just smiled.)

Trying to create a meaningful Civil War unit that’s engaging, informative, and inquiry-based and squeezing it in between wonky testing schedules, end-of-year ennui, etc. has been a prickly challenge. I scoured documentaries, Crash Course videos, etc. and the only things I’ve found are Glory (I know–I know–just wait) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reconstruction series. (If this link doesn’t work look this up on PBS and make a donation!)

Glory has a lot of issues, primarily the White Savior trope.

And for teachers, it’s also rated R.

Before I go on: please — if you know of any Civil War documentaries or films that are good, not a snooze-fest (I love you, Ken Burns, but remember, these are 13 and 14 year olds), please–tweet @mrskellylove.

Most Civil War era films are incredibly violent, (as were the times), and determining at what age is appropriate to show visual representations of war is my question. I don’t want to inflict harm: reading about a violent past is not the same as a visual/audio one sometimes. Film does do something for students that is part of the comprehensible input piece for students, especially ELL students. When done well, it can help build context. When done poorly it can destroy all relevance and credibility. Anachronisms and gratuitous violence/magical realism (looking at you, Tarantino) abound in poorly made films.

Now perhaps Lincoln@Gettysburg (what the heck, @ symbol?!) might be good. I don’t know. But try to find movies or well-paced documentaries on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and I’m coming up short. For real, film makers. You’re blowing it here, big time! Students need well-made movies that show the broader scope of American history versus the current fair of white-centered narratives.

And this is a great historical narrative:

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.
The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception. Questions were raised as to the black man’s ability to fight in the “white man’s war.” Although Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew believed that black men were capable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was simply too controversial; Andrew needed all the support he could get. The commissioned officers, then, were white and the enlisted men black. Any black officers up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned and reached their positions by moving up through the ranks. On 28 May 1863, upon the presentation of the unit’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, spectators lined the streets with the hopes of viewing this experimental unit. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.

Adding a curated collection is past and present images helps contextual history. Shared this the other day:

But a big mistake I made was not keeping my admin in the loop. She came in when I was showing a clip of Glory for context, and long story short, it’s a no-go, and she also banned us from showing Unbroken, which is our current novel study. (Going to be a long few weeks.) Oh well.

A request — any thoughts you have about Civil War films and resources would help. What I did in 2015 with 7th grade humanities isn’t working with this group. Monument debates, curated content, films and documentaries — nothing is sparking them. I might read Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen or have them listen to Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (one of my favorite all-time Civil War female protagonist zombie books!)

And if your advice is to just stop, let it go, run out the clock of the year…I can’t do that.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a great resource while planning curriculum, CoP has you covered:

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