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.

Having “A Moment” at the Turning Point of the War

Brock Road-Plank Road Intersection at NightI thought if I waited until dusk, I might be able to stand at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection in the Wilderness and have a “moment.” During the day, the intersection almost always has traffic passing through, and in the early evening, it’s crammed with commuters heading home to Fawn Lake or Lake of the Wilderness or any number of other destinations. The Wilderness is none too wild these days.

Waiting until dusk would also get me closer to what I think of as “the moment” in the Wilderness: the moment when Ulysses S. Grant changed the very nature of the war by shifting his army southward around Robert E. Lee instead of eastward away from him. 

I’ve written before that I think of this as the turning point of the war—none of that Gettysburg nonsense!—because the back and forth was finally over. The Army of the Potomac remained on the inexorable offense from then on out. Lee might have scored tactical victories on the defense, but Grant, not Lee, called the shots.

My teenage son, Jackson, rode along with me into the Wilderness this evening. It was, he said, “an adventure”—a reason for father and son to spend a little time together before winding down the day. A ten-minute ride through the gloaming brought us down Plank Road from the east to the intersection. As we neared, a red-lit communication tower stood over the road like a robotic science-fiction sentinel guarding a fire station on the right side of the road.

We passed through the intersection and turned into the parking lot, pulling into a space in front of a sign that said “No parking from dusk until dawn.” It was still dusk by only the most generous of interpretations, and only then if someone was very high in a tall tree looking at the fading line of light blue on the western horizon toward Culpeper. Fortunately, we weren’t going to walk far or be away from the car long.

Jackson and I walked to a small greenspace near the intersection. Cars from north and east dutifully stopped at their respective stops signs and took turns passing through. Less often, a car would come from the west or the south, but always there was someone passing through. For being 8:45 at night, the intersection was surprisingly busy—as busy as I’d ever seen it, really.

“Did you have your moment yet?” Jackson asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

It was hard to conjure an image of the dust-covered man riding down the road from the north and arriving at the intersection, not to lead his men eastward out of the Wilderness but southward toward Spotsylvania. But as I recounted the moment to Jackson, I began to feel it just a little: the busyness of the intersection, the cheers from the men as they realized there really was no turning back, the cool of the evening after the heat of the day, the fires in the forest, the noise.

My modern perspective, with its benefit of hindsight, also allowed me to feel the weight of the moment. The turn. The shift in momentum. The forward motion. The road to Appomattox.

It all happened for me in just a flash: the moment I’d come here to have. Headlights cutting through the intersection prohibited any real reverie, but I’d found what I’d come for.

One hundred and fifty four years ago, right now, in this spot.

Jackson and I returned to the car and headed out of the Wilderness, passing through the intersection as just one more in a long line of headlights in the dark. We went northward, away from Spotsylvania where the army marched. I’ll visit there tomorrow.

For now, it’s enough to relish the moment.


TurningPoints-logoRyan Longfellow explores the Wilderness as a turning point of the Civil War in his essay “’Oh, I Am Heartily Tired of Hearing about What Lee Is Going to Do’: Ulysses S. Grant in the Wilderness,” part of Turning Points of the American Civil War, available as part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press. If you haven’t already, order your copy today!

Symposium Preview with Rob Orrison



Rob Orrison

by ECW Correspondent Jordan Vollmer

More than 100 people are already registered to attend the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge slated for this summer. Rob Orrison, co-organizer of this year’s event, gives the credit to this year’s theme.

“Turning Points of the American Civil War” ties into the book Turning Points of the American Civil War published late last year by Emerging Civil War as part of its “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press. The book contains essays from ten different ECW historians.

“Civil war history people love to debate,” said Orrison. “One of the biggest arguments that Civil War buffs seem to have is deciding which certain point the war became a guaranteed advantage for the North.” 

Orrison believes that this is the reason so many people are already signed up to attend the symposium on Aug. 3-5. The three-day weekend includes a speaker series with eight different authors and a different keynote speaker. (See here for the full schedule of speakers.)

Orrison wrote one of the essays in Turning Points of the American Civil War, titled “Confidence Renewed: Surviving Bull Run and the Birth of the Army of the Potomac.” The essay is about the defeat of the northern army at the battle of First Bull Run in July 1861. After the battle, the army had to totally reorganize itself under its newly appointed commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

“The army went from weak and defeated to a powerful military machine,” said Orrison. When the army became a professional organization, that was their turning point, he explained.

Orrison wrote this essay about a year and a half ago. Chris Mackowski, editor and co-founder of ECW, picked Orrison to write about the topic. “I think he wanted me to write about it because I live in Manassas, Virginia, which is in the area, and I know a lot about the battle of Bull Run,” said Orrison.

Orrison has worked in the history field for more than 20 years. He currently serves as the historic site operations supervisor for all Prince William County-owned historic sites.

Orrison’s piece is not featured in this year’s symposium mainly because he felt he already had his work cut out for him, being one of the select few who are running the event.

However, he admits that the work has been fairly easy so far with picking out the topics and getting guest speakers. “The easiest thing is getting speakers,” he said. “Civil War historians love to present and they love to get in front of a crowd and answer questions and share their theories.”

This year’s keynote speaker is Scott Hartwig. Hartwig is the former Gettysburg National Battlefield Supervisory Historian. “Scott is great,” said Orrison. “He’s worked in national parks around here for a long time. . . . It makes a difference when the person who is delivering the message is engaged and they know what they are doing.”

Orrison said the hardest part of organizing the symposium will come the week before the event. “I know something will break or happen and I’ll have to fix it,” Orrison joked.

More seriously, according to Orrison, the key to this position is staying organized. “I will say that the hardest challenge so far has just been getting everyone on the same page,” he admitted. He said it’s sometimes difficult to communicate mainly through email. This is due to the fact that ECW is so spread out, with different authors living all across the U.S. “It’s hard to explain what’s going on to other people who aren’t on the same page if you aren’t organized—you always have to know what’s happening,” he said.

Orrison has been a part of ECW for the past four years now, and has seen the symposium grow a lot since it began.

“It’s easy to see the growth in the symposium, and think that’s because it’s really aimed at the general public and people who are interested in this topic and don’t want to read a 600-page book,” Orrison said. “The point of the symposium is to essentially to get people hooked on the topic.”

As an organizer, Orrison has been able to see the event in a different light and hopes that attendees will feel appreciation for all it has to offer.

“The point of the symposium,” he said, “is for people to go in there with an open mind and learn new things so that they can continue to learn more on their own.”

Symposium Spotlight: Rea Andrew Redd

Certainly there were turning points during the war that occurred off the battlefield. Returning to a political turning point, this week’s Symposium Spotlight features Rea Andrew Redd and his preview of the 1864 election. If you still have not purchased your tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, they are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.

During 1864, emancipation, reconstruction and Copperhead issues swirled throughout the North. The Republican Party’s 1860 victory had been followed by the decidedly mixed results of the 1862 mid-term elections. During the presidential campaign, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania was burned. Maryland was invaded a third time. Confederate agents used terrorism in Vermont and agents plotted to burn New York City, and other cities during the week of the election. These were attempts by Jefferson Davis to provoke from Lincoln another military draft. Even during August, Lincoln doubted that he would be re-elected. Would a George B. McClellan victory would ensure the Confederacy’s existence under the terms of an armistice? Would a Lincoln victory ensure a crushing defeat for the Confederacy? Did the doom of the Confederacy ever become obvious?

Rea Andrew Redd is a native of Washington County, Pennsylvania. He holds baccalaureate degree in history and English from Waynesburg University [1974] and a masters degree in American history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania [1976].  His Pennsylvania certification is in secondary education is from Indiana University of Pennsylvania [1982].  He holds a masters degree in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh [1993]. Currently he is the director of Eberly Library, Waynesburg University and serves as an adjunct instructor in American history there.

He is the author of The Gettysburg Campaign Guide: A Study Guide, Volumes One [2012] & Two [2014]. His essay, ‘The Point of No Return: Turning Points Within the 1864 Presidential Election and the Doom of The Confederacy’ appears within Turning Points of the American Civil War edited by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White [2o17] published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Rea Andrew Redd

Currently, From Altars to Amputations: Gettysburg Churches Become Battlefield Hospitals, A Walking Tour and Brief Introduction to Civil War Medicine is forthcoming in 2018.

In 2016 he received permission from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to create  a wayside memorial marker for Major Jonathan Letterman’s boyhood home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.  Letterman was the Medical Service Director of the Army of the Potomac during 1862 and 1863. The marker was dedicated on November 11 2017.

Since 1993, Rea has reenacted the American Civil War as a Federal infantryman, a Federal Medical Service captain and as President Abraham Lincoln.

Symposium Spotlight: Matt Atkinson

Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike have always regarded the battle of Gettysburg and the Union victory there as a turning point of the war. Other campaigns and battles were happening at the same time, however. So what was the more important turning point of July 1863? This week’s symposium spotlight looks at very question with our first afternoon speaker on Saturday, August 4, 2018, Matt Atkinson.

The Gettysburg and Vicksburg Campaigns are seminal moments during the Civil War.  The two campaigns result in Union victories and set the Confederacy’s nationalistic hopes on a downward spiral.  Today, Gettysburg looms larger in the American psyche.  But which campaign had the greater impact in 1863?  Matt will explore this question and more as he looks at the importance of both campaigns.  

Matt Atkinson

Matt, who formerly worked at Vicksburg National Military Park, is a native of Mississippi—or as pronounced down south, “Missippi.” The Civil War has been his passion since he was five years old, and Matt says he considers himself lucky to make this a “living hobby.” In Matt’s private life, he enjoys living out ol’ country tunes.


Tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.

Symposium Spotlight: Chris Mackowski

For this year’s Sunday morning battlefield, Chris Mackowski will be leading us across the very ground where one of the biggest turning points in the Confederate war effort happened, Chancellorsville. In this week’s symposium spotlight, Chris previews his battlefield tour focusing on the death of Stonewall Jackson. Don’t forget you can still purchase your tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018 here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days. 

“No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived,” said David Lloyd George, the former British Prime Minister who knew a thing or two about the fortunes of war. George had helped see Britain through the agony of World War I. On a trip to the United States in 1923, he visited the building where Jackson had died in 1863. “That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy,” George observed.

Indeed, one of the most popular “What If” questions Civil War buffs ask today concerns Jackson’s mortal wounding at Chancellorsville, and how the war might’ve played out differently had he lived.

Was Stonewall Jackson’s death a turning point of the American Civil War? Join historian Chris Mackowski for a Sunday morning tour that focuses on Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville and his last days at Guinea Station. Walk the ground to better understand the circumstances on that fateful May 2nd night, join in a discussion that explores the aftermath of his wounding, and stand in the room where Jackson crossed over the river to “rest under the shade of the trees.”

Chris Mackowski

Chris Mackowski is editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War. With Kristopher D. White, he is co-author of The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon. He has also written on Jackson and his wounding for Civil War Times, America’s Civil War, and other publications. Chris has worked as a historian at both the Chancellorsville battlefield and the Jackson Shrine, and he is historian-in-residence at Stevenson Ridge. He is a writing professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. You can find his full bio here.