Sesquicentennial visitations

This week I am co-leading a group of teachers on a tour of Civil War battlefields at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I am also reading through a few books here and there including some texts I will be using in a summer course that begins the week of July 1. Yesterday was a special privilege as I was walking the grounds over which my great-great grandfather passed 150 years ago last month.

Readers of this blog will recall that in teaching the American Civil War to high school students, I would somewhat playfully emphasize the deaths of two important commanding officers at Chancellorsville – my students had heard of Stonewall Jackson for the most part. They had not heard of the former theater manager from Detroit who helped recruit company A of the 5th Michigan, and then rose to lead the regiment.

By April 1863, Sherlock had been wounded at least once, promoted to Major, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and become commander of the 5th Michigan for Daniel Sickles’ III Corps. Of course Jackson’s mortal wounding at Chancellorsville holds the balance of Confederate hopes more so – was the battlefield a great victory for the South or did the loss of over 20% of fighting effectives and Jackson harm the Army of Northern Virginia irreparably? Walking yesterday over the ground was enlightening and, for me, seen through different eyes than my last visit here in 1984.

Our park guide, Beth Parnicza, was excellent and helped us understand the flow and confusion of the battle, as well as making us think about it’s consequences (both immediate and long term). One can readily see that if you ever had the chance to take students to a battlefield, it can clearly make a deeper impression about the event.

We took only partial steps over what was a wide space, but walking at Catherine Furnace, Hazel Grove, and Fairview in particular was eye opening. The 5th Michigan was placed into 22 different positions during Chancellorsville and we covered only perhaps 5 of them yesterday. I was fortunate to also be traveling with a colleague whose great grandfather was also in the III Corps, was an officer in Berdan’s sharpshooters, and whose unit was often attached alongside that of Edward Sherlock’s. His letter describing the battlefield near Catherine Furnace and Fairview in particular is detailed and revealing – “The bullets began to whistle uncomfortably close but in a few minutes I got so excited I did not think of them” (George A. Marden, letter courtesy of Rob Wilson, but also in Special Collections at Dartmouth College).

In the heat of June, seeing scattered cicada shells about, I wondered about the temperature in May 1863, whether the whirr and buzz of insects and chirping of birds was the same then in the few quiet moments as what we experienced. When our guide stopped at Fairview and we cast our eyes back to the higher ground we had occupied at Hazel Grove I thought Sherlock was lucky to not have been killed on the orderly withdrawal from that hill. Of course, Sherlock was not so fortunate at Fairview, as a shrapnel burst took his life, leaving friend John Pulford in charge.

I stood at the lunettes near the cannon monuments at Fairview musing on that fact and wondering whether anything would have changed had the shrapnel clipped Sherlock’s arm rather than his chest. Hard to say obviously, but in the years after the war, the family, like so many across the United States must have struggled. In addition to losing a husband and father, Mary Sherlock and her children never received the body for the resolution of that “good death” of nineteenth century culture.

Making history personal for students is not always as possible as the example I offered above, but sometimes the space itself can speak to students. Chancellorsville can be made to speak as you walk the trails, marvel at the insanity of establishing lines in an open field of artillery fire, or pass through the confusion and disorientation of the woods north and east of the park visitor center. A site visit, combined with judicious readings from documents and letters, studying campaign maps, and examining photographs can all enrich a student’s understanding of the past.

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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

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