Using National History Day to explore the Civil War

by fifer1863 on September 17, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following post is contributed by Beth A. Twiss Houting, Senior Director of Programs & Services, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  It talks about Civil War related topics for the National History competition.

With a new school year upon us, it is time to begin planning for National History Day (NHD). If you are unfamiliar with this program, I encourage you to visit This program for secondary students encourages research with original documents leading to group or individual presentations in exhibits, websites, papers, performances, and documentaries. A series of regional, state, and national competitions spur student motivation. Each year students must choose a subject that fits into the broad theme of the year. This year’s theme – Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History – coincides beautifully with the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

All three aspects of the theme can be examined through topics related to the War. NHD defines revolution as “a sudden momentous change in a situation.” One of the ways in which the War has been described is as the “second American Revolution,” but it just as easily can be seen as a reaction to the institution of slavery. Reform movements and reformers likewise are looking to change something. Would an abolitionist be a reformer, a revolutionary, or a reactionary?

These big questions are fascinating ones for students to debate, but NHD projects need to be more narrow in scope so that students can manage the research and presentation. At the Pennsylvania National History Day competition this past May a group of educators discussed what those topics might be. To help jump-start your students in topic selection, here is a partial list.

There were many “revolutions” occurring within the spectrum of the full war. Consider innovations in the warfare, such as ironclad ships like the Monitor and Merrimac, weapons like the 3-inch ordinance rifle, and new tactical methods. Changes in communication advanced the war effort as well as created a demand for mass media post-war. For example, the telegraph was the Internet of the day, and photography and newspapers such as the Harper’s Weekly and Forney’s Press, bought the war into people’s homes on a regular basis. Medical innovations in treatment, nursing, and hospitals also benefited the public long-term.

Reactions to the War were immediate but also extend into today’s culture. For example, students can study political reaction during the war (such as by Copperheads and through draft riots ) to the ramifications for people after the War due to the 13th-15th amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and Jim Crow. Commemorations of the War led to the rise soon after the end of fighting of veteran’s groups and the establishment of Memorial Day but today include ongoing debates about the causes of the War and use of the Confederate Flag. And just like today, there was a public emphasis on the soldiers’ condition by citizens banding together to form Refreshment Saloons and Sanitary Fairs.

Many of these revolutions and reactions also could be viewed as reform given their long-term consequences. For example, reforming how soldier wounds were treated, including the rise of treatments for mental disorders, truly reformed how the public considers the consequences of war. The creation of soldier’s homes and pension systems are a social and political reform.

To explore any of these subjects, historical societies can provide a wealth of primary resources. For example, where I work, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, we have collections relating to the ways in which our locale participated in these national movements. Camp William Penn trained United States Colored Troops; The Great Central Fair of 1863 raised money for the troops; and diaries portray the work of women like Susan MacManus who visited soldiers at Tuner’s Hospital to the conditions of camps and prisons in soldier journals. All three illustrate reaction to living in wartime, and could be an entrée in reforming how today’s students view history.


Guest Post: Living the Civil War With Technology

by BRabkin on September 8, 2011

EDITORS NOTE: This is a guest post about a website that I recently found and thought was very interesting.  Let me know what you think and how you can have your students create a newscast from a part of the Civil War.

A casual study of history teaches our students one indisputable fact:

Kids today are much smarter than all those guys who lived in the past.

And they can prove this by reading a couple of chapters of any history textbook. A quick study and they’ve got a clear understanding not only of what happened, but why. They know the cause behind every effect and the pattern binding together incidents that once seemed random.

They couldn’t do that back then, could they?

Because our students are so much smarter than those old-timers, they can look back and see that the invention of the cotton gin led to an increase in cotton cultivation, which led to a need for more cheap labor, which led to an increased reliance on the institution of slavery, which exacerbated the cultural and political divide between North and South, which eventually brought about the Civil War.

Or maybe the experience of living through a period of time is fundamentally different from that of looking back on it from a distance.  And maybe any historical presentation, by virtue of its own necessary organization, removes essential qualities of human existence.  History, like other great art forms, seeks to turn chaos into order – and order is the last thing we see in our own lives.

I think this is one reason why so many high school students have such little interest in history. They can’t make a connection with the people who the books tell them lived lives so completely different from their own.

That disconnect is what led Steve Ecclesine and me to create our original web series, The Mason Dixon Report. We wanted to strip the History out of the Civil War and give our viewers the sense of what it’s like to live in a time when no one knows if the country will survive another day.

The concept of our web series is simple: Cable news existed in 1861, and this was the flagship series. And it turns out that 19th century cable news looks a lot like today’s. We’ve got a host who gets the news of the day from our regular reporter, and then turns to a rotating panel of pundits, politicians, and consultants to explore the meaning of what just happened. This is how we’re used to hearing the news, and the contemporary format strips away many levels of historical varnish.

What’s most important to us on The Mason Dixon Report. is that we never know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know who is going to live or die, which side will win or lose, which tiny detail will turn out to be a crucial turning point. Mostly what we hope to show is what it’s like to live through historical events before they become History. We want the passionate engagement you only get from people whose life or death depends on what’s going to happen next week and next month and next year. We want our audience waiting breathlessly on July 2, 2013 for the next day’s report to find out who is going to win this massive engagement at Gettysburg, and we want them to feel the horror two days later when they realize how many men have died there.

We are just rolling out the “pilot” episodes for our series now, and we’re excited to find out what people who teach history think about it. But while we’re waiting for feedback from teachers, we have faced what I believe will be our toughest audience – a group of teenage boys. And what we heard from them were the three words that told us we had succeeded:

“Then what happens?”

 The Mason Dixon Report

William Rabkin, formerly executive producer of Diagnosis Murder, Martial Law and Missing is the head writer and (with Steve Ecclesine) executive producer of The Mason Dixon Report.