The Civil War is always my most popular class. It’s the one I can count on filling up very quickly, and it was that way long before I began teaching it. I suspect it has always been a big ‘draw’ at Wofford, from the late 1900s on. But I often find myself wondering why this is. What is it about the Civil War that makes it a course students want to take?
There are many possible answers to that question. Lots of students prefer American history because it is more familiar and comfortable to them. A few will say that they want to know more about the war because of a family connection: they may have great-great grandpa’s military records or great-great-grandma’s tattered diary. Some just like learning about battles and bloodshed—let’s face it, if it wasn’t for violence in human nature, we historians would be out of our jobs! Young people say they want to know more about the central issues of the nineteenth century, and a few students will confess to being drawn to the war because of modern controversies over things like renaming parks or flying the Confederate battle flag. One student told me that, as a recent migrant from the North, she has yet to comprehend the Southern fascination with the ‘late unpleasantness’ and hoped that by learning more about the war she would develop a better understanding of her adopted region.
This afternoon, as I was lecturing about the common soldier of the war, I felt like I had a new insight into what it is that attracts so many students, especially our young Wofford men. While looking at an image of a quartet of soldiers, I was stuck by how easily they could have been a group of Wofford guys. Shave off the big mustaches, change the clothes, and it easily could have been my HIS 314 troupers sitting in that picture. They are exactly the right age cohort for the largest number of men who fought and died in the American Civil War. Something about the image was haunting, and looking at my class I sensed that they felt it as well and were (I hope) pondering history’s biggest questions—What if I had been there? What would I have done? What choices would I have made?
There are many wars, of course, and many soldiers who are reflections of my students. What is it that makes this conflict different or special? Perhaps it is because the Civil War is the first American war to be covered with photography. These images, so high-tech for their time, still speak with pathos and clarity. And perhaps because most of my young men and women are from the South, with its romantic attachments to a ‘lost way of life,’ and yet are also intellectual creatures of the 21st century, with the ability to think critically and look back on slavery as the moral evil that is was, that they are so intensely caught in the paradox of time and so willing to question what they would have done had they lived within the daguerreotype’s lens.
I suspect few of us ever think deeply about the power of pictures in drawing us to a particular historical era. Yet the carvings of Ancient Egypt, the tapestries of the Middle Ages, and the paintings of the Renaissance all work as these photographs do, grabbing the imagination and transporting us to other places and times. I’m not much on technology, but I am grateful for powerpoint, because of how easily I can show my students what how people envisioned themselves and, later, how they actually appeared. I’ve always held that the historian’s most important tool is his or her imagination, and pictures enable us to cast the movies in our minds.
Perhaps this helps explain the intense and often moving empathy that students develop for the soldiers of the Civil War—and for the slaves, the women, and the leaders as well. Looking at these early photographs, we can see—for the first time—how very much alike we are to our ancestors, and how little mankind has changed. The camera is history’s mirror.