“I wanted to go to war and I did go”: an investigation of Civil War primary sources and United States history textbooks
Scullane, Amy Reichgott
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In this study, I examined the presentation of the Civil War within U.S. history textbooks and primary sources. The textbook has been a significant element of the history curriculum (Apple, 2009; Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991). However, it is problematic to expect that these books alone are enough to achieve educational goals. Primary source use in classrooms has become increasingly important. When used properly, these sources engage students and help them develop critical thinking skills and historical empathy. I used a research design that relied upon a combination of materials to attain a representative sample, using major history textbooks and primary sources produced by and for eight demographics of people. The end goal was to determine if the “lived” experiences of primary source subjects aligned with the portrayal of experiences of similar demographics in the textbooks. This study included the creation of an evaluation instrument (Appendix A) to analyze and interpret narrative features and themes. From my analysis, there was evidence that Civil War primary source documents and U.S. history textbooks’ chapters on the Civil War represent the nature of war differently. Although primary source sets and textbooks contained some of the same content, the textbooks were organized chronologically around major themes that emphasized shallow content coverage and generally, authors neglected or only superficially addressed events or people that might have been relevant to students. The problem of covering a large, complex topic in a small space was evident throughout. War was presented chiefly through battles, impacted or noticed mostly by well-known men. Few paragraphs prompted questions about the morality, conduct, or nature of war. Although they presented many facts, they did not engage students with content in a lively way or through multiple and complex perspectives. The textbooks were relentlessly neutral in that they rarely made any value judgements that weren’t obvious. The primary source documents humanized the war in a way the textbooks did not, and conveyed details about gender, race, and social and economic positions of regular people, including charming anecdotes and relatable circumstances. They contained often-overlooked perspectives about conflicts and demonstrated that the war greatly impacted all segments of society. They showed there were profound and complicated social, economic, and political repercussions to the Civil War.