The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Teaching Through Turning Points with Kris White

Kris in TI workshopWhat is a turning point?

That’s the question Kris White asked the assembled room of teachers in Valley Forge. They’d come to his Teacher Institute workshop to hear him talk about “Teaching Through Turning Points.” As co-editor of ECW’s Turning Points of the American Civil War, part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press, Kris has had turning points on the brain for well over two years. He has a little experience with the topic.

“This isn’t a book talk, though,” he promised the assemblage. “I used to hate professors who would make us buy their books, so I’m not going to do that. But Mackowski in the back might have some.”

“I do,” I chirped up from a corner—although, by that point, I’d already nearly sold out. Turning Points turned out to be a hot commodity. 

“Let’s start by coming up with a definition,” Kris suggested. That would give us all a common point to work from. He offers the following: “An event marking a unique or important historical change of course or one on which important developments depend.”

He admits, though, “That’s an awful glossary term.”

After all, what’s an important historical change?

He suggests that one way to examine that criterion is to ask, “What came from it?”

There are any number of milestones through history. Pick a point and dissect it, Kris said. To get students involved, he suggested working in gamification—using the typical elements of game playing to increase student engagement in the learning process.

“Take Gettysburg back to Chancellorsville,” Kris offers as an example. “Go into the war room with the Confederate high command. Debate the pros and cons of the different options available.”

For the Cold War, split the class into two teams: the U.S. and Soviet Union. Pull names out of a hat so that every student gets a person. Students then research their person and explain how he/she would react in specific situations.

“I’ve done this in my own classes,” Kris said. “They would bomb each other within the first class.” He shook his head while the audience laughed. “I had to rethink the options I made available to them right away,” he chuckled.

Kris's TP SlideDoes a turning point have to be a military event, Kris asked? No. “People sometimes focus too much on military events,” he said. He lists a number of non-military turning points in the grand flow of history: the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the printing press, the invention of the wheel, the invention of vaccinations.

He pointed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as an event that brought about major social reforms for workers, for instance.

“But because I’m a military historian, that’s what I focus on because that’s what I like to talk about,” Kris admitted, smiling.

He used the battle of Waterloo and D-Day as two examples. In both cases, he outlined ways you can start with the event and work your way in either direction: How did you get there? Where did it go? By looking at before and after, you can explore the impact of the turn and tie it into the flow of history.

“Work your way to it,” he suggested.

“You can tie the battle of Waterloo to the American Revolution easily,” he suggested. “Revolution in America gets the attention of everyone in Europe wearing a crown.” As a result, how did events in France unfold?

Turning points can be turning points in personal lives, too. “Can one person really change history?” Kris asked. Look no further than right there in Valley Forge for an example: George Washington.

“George Washington is a fantastic leader,” Kris said. “He’s a terrible general.”

You can also tie turning points together. For instance: the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Crossing—“Both take place in that glorious year of 1776,” said Kris. “But the Declaration means nothing without battlefield victories.”

Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing without battlefield victories. “It’s like trying to impose a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on Canada—you can’t do that,” Kris explained. “At that point in the way, the Confederacy is essentially a different country.”

He urged teachers to compile a class list of turning points. When he invited the assemblage to do so as an example, only four hands raised for Gettysburg as a turning point. Many more for Vicksburg. None for Tullahoma. “Ever heard of it?” Kris laughed? The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant, the Election of 1864, and Antietam—“tied into the social end of things with the Emancipation Proclamation”—also made the list, as did the Merrimac vs. the Monitor as an example of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the war, and “improved medical advances.”

“Test preconceived notions,” Kris said.

But, most importantly, “I’m trying to give you ideas that will let you talk about cool things in your classroom that really interest you,” he said.

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Dan Welch’s Music Lesson

ECW’s Dan Welch has joined us in Philadelphia for the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute. He’s offering a fun session this afternoon that takes advantage of our location: “At the Hop” to “Love Train”: The Philadelphia Sound & Philly Soul.

Dan Welch Philly Sound

Civil War Echoes: The Greatest Raid of All

One hundred years ago today, construction began on USS Buchanan (DD-131), a destroyer named for Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and later first admiral in the Confederate States Navy. She later played a role in one of the most famous raids of World War II.

Buchanan served a routine career in the U.S. Navy from her commissioning in 1919 until World War II’s outbreak in 1939. After a period on the Neutrality Patrol, on 9 September 1940 she was part of the 50 destroyers given to Britain in exchange for basing rights in the Western Hemisphere (also known as the Destroyers for Bases Agreement). The British renamed all 50 ships for towns both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Buchanan thus became HMS Campbeltown. In her new guise, and with British and Dutch crews, she fought German submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic until early 1942.

Meanwhile in London, British authorities were concerned about the threat of German surface ships operating in the Atlantic. Chief among these was the battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the famous Bismarck sunk in 1941. Only one drydock in France could service her: the Normandie Dock at St. Nazaire. The British decided to destroy the drydock and thereby restrict Tirpitz to Norway. While a commando force went ashore to destroy machinery, an expendable destroyer would ram the dock gate. Explosives in her bow with a time fuse would then explode after the raid. The destroyer chosen for this mission was Campbeltown.

On the night of 27 March 1942, Campbeltown led 16 gunboats into the mouth of the Loire River. Aboard the group were 611 Royal Navy sailors and British Army Commandos. Campbeltown had been modified to resemble a German destroyer, and flew the German naval ensign. At 0122 on the 28th German shore batteries challenged her, and for six crucial minutes Campbeltown bluffed them into holding and ceasing fire. The Germans finally opened up, and Campbeltown’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, ordered the British ensign raised and increased her speed to maximum.

German fire ripped into the bridge, killing the helmsman and wounding others. Beattie took over, and personally directed her toward the dock gates. He signalled everyone to brace for impact as the ship surged toward her objective. At 0134 Campbeltown smashed into the dock, her momentum carrying her up and partially over the dock gate. Beattie looked at his watch and turned to a colleague. “Well, here we are,” he said. “Four minutes late.”

Over the next minutes commandos leapt out of the destroyer and demolished many of the working mechanisms of the dock and gates. Other commandos landed downriver at the Old Mole, but German fire drove off most boats. It soon became clear that no more could be done and that those ashore were marooned. The commando leader, Lieutenant Colonel A. Charles Newman, ordered a breakout; only 5 made it, the rest being captured. Of the 611 men in the raiding force, 169 were killed, 215 captured, and 228 returned home.

As dawn broke, Campbeltown became an object of interest for the Germans, who seemed to believe the British sought to destroy the dock gate by ramming alone. German soldiers and sailors, and a few French, started boarding the ship to gawk at it or hunt for souvenirs. An estimated 250 were aboard when Campbeltown’s time fuse ticked down  at noon on March 28. The explosion killed all aboard, destroyed the lock gate and the destroyer’s bow, hurtling water and the remains of the ship into the drydock.

The dock was not repaired until 1947, and the remains of Campbeltown were scrapped. The destroyer’s bell is in the city hall of Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, a gift from the Royal Navy and a nod to her American origins.

Despite British losses, the raid on St. Nazaire succeeded in its object. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the raiding force, including Beattie and Newman. Today, the operation lives in British military history as “The Greatest Raid of All.” Its success was due in no small measure to HMS Campbeltown, the former USS Buchanan.

Top: USS Buchanan (DD-131) and another destroyer just after transfer.

Center: Stephen “Sam” Beattie.

Bottom: Campbeltown on the dock gate before she blew up.

Below: An aerial view of the Normandie Dock after the raid. The remains of Buchanan/Campbeltown are visible in the center. 


Civil War Echoes: Manila Bay 1898

Today in 1898, 120 years ago, the Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey entered Manila Bay seeking to destroy the Spanish flotilla anchored inside near Cavite. Dewey’s ships sailed past Corregidor, an island that would mean much more in U.S. military history later. Shortly after dawn, the Americans opened fire and by lunchtime had wrecked the Spanish ships. Spain’s power in the Far East was broken, and Dewey had scored the first American victory in the War With Spain. (An excellent overview of the battle can be found here.) USS_Olympia_art_NH_91881-KN

Dewey’s victory carries two significant Civil War Echoes. 

The first is Dewey himself. As a young officer, he was second-in-command of USS Mississippi during David G. Farragut’s expedition to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River in 1862. Farragut’s planning and leadership impressed Dewey, and ever after Dewey took Farragut as his role model – even at points of decision asking himself “What would Farragut do?”

Dewey later admitted that passing Corregidor evoked similar feelings as the lead-up to the night battle for Forts Jackson and St. Philip in 1862.

To open the battle, Dewey gave a famous order to Charles Gridley, the captain of his flagship USS Olympia: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Captain Gridley was a young officer about USS Oneida in 1864; distinguishing himself during the Battle of Mobile Bay. That ship had run a passage of Confederate forts and then helped subdue a Confederate squadron in the bay itself. His and Dewey’s experience running forts helped steel their nerves for the passage into Manila Bay past Corregidor and neighboring islands.

These two officers, who cut their teeth in Farragut’s greatest victories, combined to produce another of the great victories in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Image: a U.S. Navy print showing Dewey’s ships engaging the Spanish. USS Olympia is in foreground.

Artillery Sketches of Alfred Waud

Talk about being in the right place at the right time . . . our own Meg Groeling wrote a series of posts for ECW several years ago called “Drawing the War.” It featured the newspaper artists who were embedded with the various Civil War armies and sent sketches to the large newspapers of the day. The piece concerning Alfred Waud has gotten a lot of traffic.

However, the piece, with some rewriting, got a new life from The Artilleryman magazine. The spread is simply beautiful, with copious illustrations of Waud’s work pertaining to artillery. Editor Jack Melton headed up this effort. Check it out!


A Conversation with Caroline Janney (part four)


Janney, Carrie(part four of four)

We’ve been talking this week with Dr. Caroline Janney, author and past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. Currently on the history faculty at Purdue University, she’ll take up a new post next fall at the University of Virginia as the John L. Nau III Professor of Civil War History and the director of the Nau Center. “It’ll be Gary Gallagher’s former position,” she said, quickly adding, “I can’t fill his shoes.”

Like Gallagher, one of her mentors, Janney has spent a lot of time bridging the divide between the academy and the public. ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski asked her about that part of her work.

Chris Mackowski: I want to go back to something we talked about a minute ago: the public speaking you do. When I’m out talking at roundtables, I hear your name come up often. The audiences you’ve spoken to rave about your presentations. You’re someone who comes up often when people are talking about their highlights. How does that compare to the academic part of what you do? 

Caroline Janney: There are many ways in which they have a lot in common. Trying to explain the hows and whys of whatever topic I’m addressing to a public audience is not all that different than in a classroom, at least an upper-level classroom where students have chosen to be in that class. Both respond well to energy and excitement. It’s just the way I talk—I couldn’t do it differently if I wanted to.

Being receptive to questions is important, too. I try not to be the professor that just stands there and lectures on stage, but an interactive experience, where I’m asking them questions and they ask me questions, so I feel like the learning goes in both directions. I truly believe that.

On the other hand, I admit that there is a certain writing style that I have to use for academic audiences, but I also want my writing to be accessible for the general public, so that’s something I try to be very conscious of in the way that I write.

I think that both reinforce one another: talking to people and visiting places. One of the things I like about roundtables is getting to visit places like Austin and Kansas that I might not otherwise get to visit. The opportunities have been learning experiences for me, so it’s really a two-way street.

CM: Do you see a disconnect between public history and academic history—between the academy and people that are working in the field at historical sites and national parks and places like that?

CJ: I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t because I’m sure there are many people that think that there is. For me, the park service is especially important, not just because of my own time there, but important because of the colleagues and friends that I have in the park service, and I know I couldn’t do my job without them. They are an invaluable resource and overwhelming generous with their time. I know how much hard work they do on the front lines and I’m very conscious of that and grateful for what they do. That’s not exactly the answer you’re really looking for.

CM: I’m not really looking for any answer in particular. What’s so refreshing about this is that you’re just so optimistic and so forward thinking. It’s just a pleasure.

CJ: Perhaps I’m not being realistic; I know there are budget concerns and things that hamper what people on the front lines can and can’t do, such as not having resources. And I’m not unaware of the disconnect that public historians often feel from academic historians and vice versa. But I truly believe that we are better off when we collaborate and work together. 

CM: I feel the exact same way. For me, when Joe Q. Public walks through the door of a historical site, at the end of the day, he has to have some sort of way to connect with history or find it relevant to him in order for them to take that story away with him. The more ways historians can help to facilitate those stories, the better.

CJ: And in that way, I do see the parallels. I understand why someone on the front lines might not see it the same way, but for me, it’s the same challenge with a student in a general survey course. There are students that have to be there and don’t necessarily want to be there. How do I convince them that there are things you can get out of the class if you think about history in a slightly different way—ways that you can then connect and see your world in a different way. I tend to take it as a challenge to try to help them open that door much in the same way that those at public history sites do every day.

CM: As you move forward with your writing and your teaching, do you have any particular goals or aspirations?

CJ: There’s always the next book or project, and wanting to continue to speak or write in a way that sheds new light on what we think are familiar topics. I think I’m just so grateful for all of the opportunities that I have had, I just want to be able to keep doing what I’m doing and having those opportunities.