Saturday, July 20, 2013


Attached here are the pictures from my trip to Boston last weekend.  I had the opportunity to attend a Group Leader orientation with EF Smithsonian Student Travel and get to experience Boston and the surrounding areas.  This was such an enjoyable trip and I was so impressed by EF Smithsonian!  They have such a remarkable staff and every part of the weekend was well planned, well executed and quite fun.  I am very excited for taking my first group of students on tour to Washington in April with this great company.

For more on the trip to Washington in April 2014, click here.


Monday, July 15, 2013

The Gilded Age

When I first began my teaching career, if I were to pick one time period where I had the least amount of knowledge, it would have been the "Gilded Age" from 1877 to the turn of the century.  While I had studied some related topics in college, such as U.S. foreign policy and the "New South," I never developed a depth of knowledge for this period as I had for other time periods in United States history.  Since then, however, it has become one of my favorite time periods to study mostly because of its importance in bridging early U.S. history to the modern age of the twentieth century.  A couple weeks ago, I finished reading The American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism by H.W. Brands.  Brands presents an excellent analysis of the time period and the conflicting themes of democracy and capitalism in the decades following the Civil War.

I have found that my early trepidation with teaching the Gilded Age is fairly common among history educators because the period is complicated and often confusing to students.  As I tell my students, almost every textbook on United States History presents this era differently and usually breaks from chronology favoring a more thematic focus instead.  However, the importance of that thematic focus cannot be overlooked.

I begin the era by asking students to imagine that we are getting into a De Lorean.  Then, I have to explain what that is - I suppose that illustrates our generational divide (okay, for those who still don't get it - click here).  Once I get through that explanation, I ask students to go back in time and look at what life was like at the end of the Civil War.  Native Americans and buffalo still freely roamed the Plains, it took a wagon to get to the Pacific, dirt roads and horse travel defined transportation in American cities.  Further, the South was destroyed and African Americans now freed from bondage were hopeful for what free life would bring.  Industry was beginning to expand due to the war, but businesses were mostly local affairs where the business owner still directly managed the business and worked hard to make a living.  

Next, I ask students to "kick it up to 88" (still, they don't get it) and fast forward to 1900.  By the end of the century, just a short 35 years, life in America was dramatically different.  Native American culture was almost gone from the Plains and so were the buffalo.  Several transcontinental railroads stretched across the Plains reaching to the Pacific, along with the "golden wire" of the telegraph - America's first "Internet."  Many farmers who had fled to the Plains with the hope of opportunity and free land offered by the Homestead Act found themselves broke from mounting debt caused by overproduction, deflation and a multitude of other challenges.  Major industries now dominated the national economy and the industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were the most influential men in the country, not the presidents or politicians of the Gilded Age.  Cities grew up and out with the development of skyscrapers, streetcars, suspension bridges and mass transit, with automobiles coming soon.  Pollution and poverty followed with the massive surge of immigrants pouring into the cities in the last decades of the century, along with an emerging labor movement now influenced by socialism and radicalism.  A more modernized culture developed in urban areas with spectator sports and amusement parks, while the rural South moved to eliminate the gains made by blacks during Reconstruction and create a segregated society defined by "Jim Crow" laws.  Though the frontier had been declared "closed" in 1890, Americans now looked outward on the world and became a global power following the territorial and political gains of the Spanish-American War.  A truly different America existed in 1900 than 1865, an illuminated and connected national economy and culture ready for the dynamic twentieth century. 

Resources to share:

The Men Who Built America - outstanding series by the History Channel, short clips available online are good supplements for classroom discussion.

Best of History Websites - The Gilded Age (this is always a good EdTech site to look at for teaching U.S. History)

For fun, two students in my summer school class found this video of a teacher singing a jingle about the Gilded Age.  The whole class started singing along!

Monday, July 1, 2013

A New Birth of Freedom

Battle of Gettysburg from Harper's WeeklyAs the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, Americans also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the two key turning points of the Civil War - Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Lee had planned his second invasion of the North to be a "Yorktown" for the Confederacy's war for independence.  Striking a major blow in Pennsylvania and possibly capturing its capital would have sent shock waves in the North and may have forced Lincoln to negotiate, possibly even accept compromise.  However, Lee's plans were thwarted at Gettysburg and those final charges from Seminary Ridge on July 3rd represented the "high tide of the Confederacy," the subtitle of historian Carl Smith's book on the battle.  Never again would Lee command such a force and never again would he have such an opportunity to win the war making the secession of the southern states permanent.  The losses at Gettysburg were staggering with casualty numbers approaching 50,000 lives.  While devastating to both sides, the Confederacy had more to lose.

Though Gettysburg remains the more famous of the two turning points, especially because of Lincoln's immortal address there four months later, the capture of Vicksburg also on July 4th, 1863 is just as significant in turning the tide in favor of the Union in the Civil War.  Vicksburg was the Confederacy's last stronghold on the Mississippi and after months of a difficult siege, General John C. Pemberton saw no other option but to surrender the city to Ulysses S. Grant.  With this capture, the Union now firmly controlled the Mississippi River, surrounding the Confederacy and literally starving it into eventual surrender as control of the waterway severed the cattle supply from Texas.  As Lincoln later remarked, "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea" undoubtably noting the importance of the river to the commerce of the entire region (Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 2005).Surrender of Pemberton to Grant

These two Confederate losses culminating on such an important day of heritage for both sides delivered a crushing blow to southern morale and effectively doomed any realistic hope for southern independence.  More importantly however, these two federal victories brought about a change in Union tactics that would ultimately lead to victory, a victory that secured a "new birth of freedom," the ending of slavery, and proved that our republican form of government would "not perish from the earth."

A century and a half later, Americans are learning about these key events in a variety of ways.  On Twitter, I followed a lecture delivered at Gettysburg by my former Civil War professor, Dr. Aaron Sheehan-Dean now of the University of West Virginia.  I shared several quotes from his lecture with my followers this past weekend.  With the advent of the History Channel, social media and other sites, more Americans are easily able to engage in history and examine artifacts that a few decades ago were only accessible to a small number of historians.  This makes for a very exciting anniversary and one in which ordinary Americans can gain a better appreciation for the consequential decisions of the Civil War that brought the nation from the brink of schism and on a path of dramatic growth in the years to follow.


Twitter hashtags: #CW150 #Gettysburg150 #Vicksburg150

Recommended to follow: @prologuepast, @gettysburgNMP, @SmithsonianCW, @CWTrust150

Technology on the Gettysburg battlefield

A Cutting Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg

Photographs of the Civil War from the Library of Congress

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