I began a student-driven project a couple of semesters ago to foster more authenticity in the teaching of History. Now, with a full year of this Civil War podcasting project under my belt, I thought I’d reflect and share upon some of the mid-year improvements that I made, and some of the changes crafted for the upcoming fall term. I’m a believer that the young college freshman learns best by doing. 

But doing history? What is that? Can college freshmen create “public” history successfully?

I come from a long line of pragmatists. Most of my ancestors believed in the axiom of “use value,” that persnickety little phrase that demanded to know “of what use does it have?” (My uncle preferred tractors over Cadillacs, for example) Replace the “it” with “the humanities,” and you are left with “what use does the humanities have?”  Now, that’s a terrific question. It’s a conversation we, as teachers ought to be having with our students. What good does studying “ourselves” produce? How can the learning of past societies provide a useful outcome for us here in the 21st-century?

From this pragmatic perspective on usefulness, I can suggest to my students that history’s utility resides in the sharing of its many stories. True, the method of historical inquiry: asking questions, conducting research, and crafting the story through writing is the meat and bones of what historians do. But what good is it? How useful is history if no one knows of the work? Worse, what good are the stories my students produce if they never make it past the semester’s last day and waning light?

Welcome then to this blog, to this conversation, to this reflection about freshmen students and their abilities to do public history – and my willingness to teach and learn from it.

First there’s the project: students are to craft an original story in the form of a podcast. They are to tackle what all historians have to face: sifting through a mountain of primary data, kicking out most of it, keeping and analyzing what’s important, comparing that data to secondary sources, drawing conclusions, and then – through synthesis – craft a story.

More background: The primary materials are derived from the University of Virginia’s digital archive on the American Civil War know as Valley of the Shadow. In groups, students are assigned a single family from either Franklin County, Pennsylvania, or Augusta County in Virginia. This works out great with an American history class that ends at Reconstruction. The project can go forward beginning about mid-semester (or slightly before) and finish up with a week or two left to go.

Image from Valley of the Shadow website

Image from Valley of the Shadow website

What students learn: The skill set derived from such a product is immense. Students learn the following: research, data mining, document analysis, organization, note-taking, synthesis, writing for effect, editing, working with others, public speaking, and – of course – podcasting. Ultimately, they will have experienced the reification process, taking something that is an abstract (the Civil War claimed 650,000 lives) and turning it into something tangible or real (in this case, a twenty- to thirty-minute podcast). But even more important, students are able to put a human face onto an American tragedy. By studying the Civil War experience through the letters, diaries, and the accounts of just a single family, not only is empathy achieved and made possible (another skill!), but students come to understand that history happened to real people, real individuals, with real problems. History becomes authentic!

What this teacher has learned: It is indeed possible for freshmen college students to produce a podcast on America’s Civil War. Now comes the hard part – coaching students to make that podcast intellectually engaging as well as entertaining. Below is just such a podcast. Though, not without its flaws, the following piece demonstrates that students can produce outstanding work that is informative as it is appealing.

(Transcript to this podcast can be found at the end of this reflection)To the transcript

Second Semester Successes: The Spring of 2015 was the second time I attempted such a project. It’s not that the first semester did not achieve success – some students did well discovering, researching, data mining, and writing a terrific transcript. The first semester gaffs lay mostly in the recording and editing of the of the final MP3 file. Thus, in foisting yet another podcast project upon my new students I made a few adjustments. Here they are, and in no particular order:

  • Students must conduct one “tech check” during the semester – this lets me know if students are able to blend in and out of music and voice without the two competing using free software, either Garage Band (MACs) or Audacity (PCs).
  • Groups must confront their Civil War family’s many choices, hardships, sorrows, and victories with the following in mind – choose just one story and run with it. What emerges then is a much more intriguing narrative, perhaps even an in-depth analysis about how people of the past dealt with certain problems. Students should be able to ascertain whether or not their family represented the historical norms of the Civil War, as the Kersh story podcast did, in addressing the problems of desertion.
  • Groups must confront secondary materials – I strongly suggested to students that in order to make better sense of the primary documents on the Valley of the Shadow website, a good swim in various secondary materials is a must. “Go see your librarian,” I advised, “they get paid to help you.” Additionally, I showed students JSTOR (and how to use it), their textbook (a thing called an “index”), Google Scholar (meh), and also how to use Wikipedia’s footnotes and references to find online secondary sources. The result, for the groups that followed my advice, was a much more nuanced and historically correct podcast – which this embedded Kerch Family podcast is quite indicative of.

Third time a charm?

For the next semester, I have made the following alterations to the project: again, in no particular order.

  • Compare and Contrast three professional podcasting shows from a list of several. This last semester, I encouraged students to listen to podcasts such as Backstory or This American Life. The purpose here was to see how and what these professional podcasters did that then held the listener’s attention. What does a podcaster do, for example, in the first 60-seconds? How long is the longest single-narrative? Do they switch voices a lot? What role does the music play? Are there other audio-driven tricks used to keep someone with a short attention span, well… attentive? Last semester, this “encouragement” was just that – in other words, it was not required. However, the results from students who did the compare and contrast exercise to those who did not was striking. So much so, that this compare and contrast exercise will be required. Listen, study, emulate.
  • Driving questions, or, What are the possible stories? In the early rounds of research; primarily through the Valley of the Shadow website’s census data, letters, diary entries, and newspaper searches – students ought to have whetted their appetites. Some did, but others did not. In fact, some students downright struggled with developing their own internal questions and coming up with a single narrative that would help explain their assigned family’s experiences in the Civil War. Yet questions are the engines that turn the gears of history. Without questions, without a possible story line, the intrinsic need to see the project to the end wanes. Next semester groups will be required to pitch their questions and ideas before the class. They’ll have three minutes to introduce us to their assigned Civil War family, point out that family’s unique set of circumstances, and pitch their possible stories. The feedback they get should push them in the right direction. Sometimes, in just talking it out, the small, tiny epiphany will arrive.
  • That “One Golden Word.” I simply must enforce a rule on quoting: when reading from a letter, diary entry, or nineteenth-century newspaper account – less is better! The short attention span of the average listener is likely less than thirty-seconds. Thus, getting students to think in terms of “less” is an essential. But it should not be difficult. Pulling a tool from the “close reading toolbox” will help. That tool? The “One Golden Word.” Looking at a primary document, if you had to use only one word from that entry that would sum it up the best, what would it be and why? Students, then, should be able to find the golden nugget(s) that made that document shine in the first place. Then they can build their quote around that nugget for listener effect.
  • View the Librarian as a KEY Resource – Though I strongly suggested students to visit their college librarian last semester, it was only that: a suggestion. This year I will bring the librarian to the classroom. Students really ought to understand how valuable a resource a good librarian can be, not to mention what a good librarian can do for them. What better way than to hear those words straight from the librarian’s mouth? Besides, the librarian will become my willing partner in teaching students how to conduct research and make great use of their college library.

Transcript for the Kersh Family Podcast

The following transcript was written and produced by my freshman students. I have not altered their work in any way. Enjoy.

Narrator:

The civil war was one of the most gruesome battles ever fought in American history. With over half a million deaths, there is no surprise as to why the civil war has the most American casualties of any United States war to date. Many Americans that found themselves involved in this war were the same people who didn’t care and wanted to remain neutral in this conflict that turned brother against brother.  If unable to find a paid substitute to take your place in the war, a man who owned no slaves, and cared little about slavery at all could find himself on the frontlines fighting his fellow Americans. This leads one to wonder if there were people who simply refused to fight, or ran and hid, fearing losing their life over a battle they felt unattached to? When it comes to desertion in the civil war, it did exist, and although the consequences could be fatal; some were willing to take the risk if it meant avoiding this great battle. My name is Ken Jackson; along with my partner Nathan Gould, we will tell the story of the Kersh Family, a small farming family from Virginia whom despite not wanting to get involved, end up being entrenched in this brutal war. This is the Kersh family podcast made for Professor Joe Krulder History 008 Spring 2015.

Narrator:

With information gathered from the Valley of The shadows archives created by the University of Virginia we were able to begin understanding the Kersh family. The Kersh Family was a small family from Augusta county Virginia, the property they lived on was owned by the head of the household George Kersh. George was a moderately successful farmer owning a large amount of livestock and produced crops of wheat, corn, and oats. Interestingly enough, the Kersh family cultivated absolutely no cotton. Although unable to find much information on George’s kids, we have gathered through George’s last will and testament that he had children and grandchildren. The first of which being Jacob Kersh, who had died before his father was able to write the will, but he himself had three children by the name of George Kersh Jr., Adam Kersh and Amanda Kersh. Secondly there was Mathias Kersh, whom owned his own fairly large plantation with two slaves in his position. And lastly was his daughter Marry Ann Kersh. George was in the middle to upper class for his area, owning a farm that was 237 acres and worth over $10,000 at that time. Despite having a sizable farm and a significant amount of money and also living in Virginia the Kersh family owned no slaves, and thus were very likely unconcerned with the political battling over slavery that was racking the country.  In fact, George Kersh chose to hire people to help him as oppose to buying slaves. This is evident in one letter he sends out to his brother during the war.

George Kersh:

George P Kersh to Adam Wise Kersh  January 25, 1862

Mount Crawford, VA

“I have a boy now hired by the name of Geo. A. Back son of James sixteen years old he is a great help to me”.

Narrator:

Living on the Farm with George was his brother Adam Wise Kersh, who was a woodworker and worked on a small wood working building located on the family’s farm.  Adam was a few years younger than George but was equally as opposed to going to fight in a war they didn’t feel was their war, especially if anyone knew that he was a wood worker. Carpenters in the Civil War were nearly as valuable as doctors, having a wood worker in your regiment could drastically change the outcome of a battle. With responsibilities ranging from the simple daily maintenance of the wagons, all the way to building signal towers, bridges, and entrenchments it is easy to see why having a carpenter could mean life or death in battle[1]. However being an advantage to your regiment could have been a disadvantage for you as a woodworker. Many carpenters were forced to trade in their weapons for a hammer leaving you more vulnerable in battle. Also there are many accounts of soldiers, who just so happen to be carpenters having their furlough days delayed or revoked altogether. Furlough days were periods of time soldiers were allowed to return home during combat.  The Kersh family seemed to have made a fair amount of money due to their wood working considering all throughout the war letters are written back and forth between the Kersh’s and customers trying to buy their wares. One such example is a letter From Adam to a Mr. A. H. Pirkey, a customer of Adam and George Kersh.

Adam Kersh:

Adam Wise Kersh to A. H. Pirkey Oct 24th 1868

“Sir I received your letter stating that you wished me to keep those chairs till you got time to come after them which I will and will have the other three sets done the first of December And I wish to know if you want any rocking chairs with the last three sets you spoke for If you wait till first of Dec you can make it in one trip I have two sets done now which I will save for you If you wait till the other three sets are done write and let me know if you want any rocking chairs or not”.

Narrator:

With Adam working on the family farm as a wood worker and George tending the fields the family had no want or need for slaves or to be involved in the Civil War.

Narrator:

Once the Civil War breaks out both Kersh brothers eventually join the ranks and take up arms against the Union. However, they lacked the enthusiasm that many Southerners had about this war. The Kersh family way of life was not being threatened, thus the Kersh brothers had no will to fight. Adam was especially against this fight. He was already thirty four years old when the war broke out, and as a non-slave owner Adam was not at stake to lose anything. Adam spent the time before his enlistment attempting to find a paid substitute to take his place; unfortunately Adam was unable to find one and eventually enlisted on July 31st of 1861. Adam served his time in the military despite being generally against the war, but on July 1st of 1864 Adam Kersh deserted his regiment in order to go home, where he hid for five months until December of 1864 when Adam came back and rejoined his regiment. George Kersh ended up enlisting later; the exact date is unknown but due to a draft put into action by the southern states in 1862 we have gathered between 1862 and 1864.  The strange thing about this is that these brothers were put into different regiments. Adam was assigned to the 52nd Virginia Infantry, while his brother George was placed into the 20th Virginia Cavalry, which is extremely uncommon. It was very common for the men of entire counties to be put into the same regiment. Despite being in a different company than his brother, Adam Kersh accepted his duty and continued to keep constant communication with George. The closeness of these brothers can be seen throughout the war as they write letters back and forth and most of the time for no reason other than to check up.

Adam Kersh:

Adam Wise Kersh to George Kersh September 23, 1861

Ottobine Chappel, Highland County VA

Dear Sir

I take this opportunity to inform you how we are getting along I have nothing of importance to write to you there are rumors come to camp every day nearly but they prove to be false as I stated in my other letter that the Yankees were leaving Cheat Mountain proves to be false it is said that they are still there and well fortified Our men cant fight them where they are to any advantage it is their intention. now I believe to surround them and cut off their supplies if they can their provisions must be scarce now as I heard some of our boys say the other day that their rations was one cracker a day for each man I dont know how true it is so many lies are raised The news came to camp yesterday morning that they Yankees fired on the militia at Petersburg with their artillery and scattered them every direction but it is believed to be a false report now they say that the Rockbridge Militia is called out to go to Petersburg Our Colonel Received a dispatch from Winchester yesterday that they want a Reinforcement there They intend to tare up some railroad and burn some Bridges probably we may go there yet in the rounds. the fact is we dont know where we may be called to go as I had stated in the letter I written before this that we started for Greenbrier River and had to change our line of March for Petersburg we Marched ten miles on our way for Petersburg camped and are still encamped at Strait Creek Autobine Chapel some call it forks of waters Autobine Chapel I dont know which is the proper name

The regiment and artillery that was to meet us here from Bedford part which was in Staunton when we left went down to Wises Legions The Danville flying artillery come here on Tuesday evening from Greenbrier River they had [illeg.] artillery they had intended going with us But the two regiments that had started from Greenbrier River to meet us here and were called ordered back again and so they started early this morning for the Allegheny Mountains We had a company of troopers from Monterey Captain Miller intends making an artillery company he is going to Start to Staunton to Morrow to see if he can get cannon We have a very nice camp ground flat bottom between the Mountains Since I written first Some of us have been taken sick Junius R Craun has the yellow Jaundice he is getting well again William Cupp has been right poorly getting better Joseph Goin William vanfossen also went to the Hospital the three some of the boys has got the Measles some the Mumps none but James Craun in our mess sick as to myself I am well as common the boys are all in good spirits and seem anxious for a brush with the Yankees I would like for you to write how you are all at home if you write Direct your letter to Hull in care of Colonel Baldwin 52nd Regiment Virginia Volunteers

Yours Respectfully

Adam W Kersh

Narrator:

This and many other letters between the two brothers allude to the fact that they were very close and loved each other very much.

Narrator:

Desertion is an issue military authorities have been encountering since the beginning of organized militias. Desertion is defined as the act of soldiers deliberately and permanently leaving military service before their term of service has expired. The Civil War was rampant with desertion throughout its time on both sides, but most heavily in the last two years of the battle. The Confederate Army encountered much higher numbers of desertions from the soldiers each year for various reasons from military losses to agricultural preservation. Confederate Virginians fled military service at a rate of between 10 and 15 percent, more or less comparable to the desertion rate among Union troops, which stood between 9 and 12 percent. Prior to mid-1862, desertion was lightly punished if at all, but following the Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862, enforcement was often harsh and included execution. As food shortages and Union incursions deep into the Confederate heartland began to take their toll on Southern morale, desertions increased at an alarming rate, especially among conscripts or those who join the military voluntarily. Virginia soldiers, under the added inducement of being relatively close to home, were especially apt to leave the ranks, if only for spring planting and fall harvest[2]. Additionally, the savage campaigns of the summer of 1864, also known as the Valley Campaigns of 1864, caused a staggering 8% of the Northern Virginia army to desert in a single month. The brutality of these campaigns was evident in the North’s relentless destruction of not only Southern militias, but Southern economic hubs. After these campaigns, families and wives wrote desperately to their husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles to return home and end this brutality[3]. Looking at these various incentives for desertion, it is not hard to imagine why Adam would have left his regiment. Perhaps he needed to aid those on the farm with fall harvest. Perhaps he was tired of spoiled food and insufficient supplies and weaponry. Perhaps he was fed up with the lack of furlough days and insistence the Southern generals, namely Robert E. Lee, had to push the battle further North. Adam, like the rest of the Virginian soldiers, was enduring battle in his own homeland while his family and the families of others suffered at their absence. Adam knew the risk of leaving his regiment; in a letter to his brother he describes the treatment of a deserter that was brought back to camp.

Adam Kersh:

Adam Wise Kersh to George Kersh April 3, 1864

Orange County, VA

I seat myself to drop you a few lines to let you know that I am well and hope these few lines may find you all in good health. We still picket along the Rapidan we has some very rough weather last month on the 22nd the snow fell about 11 inches deep here we had a good deal of rain to boot on the 30th the Rapidan was very high it was level with the dam They put Patrick Loyd in the guard house the other day for refusing to drill with the conscripts kept him a few days and released him he says he will drill with them if the Captain says so Captain Baumguardner arrived here a few days ago It was a man shot to death with Musketry out of 58 Va regiment on the 19th of last month charges desertion some half dozen times and brought back under guard it is to be one Shot out of our regiment on the 8th of this month by the name of Shomo he was trying to get a reprieve it is thought he will not succeed charges about the same as the 58th man. Furloughs have been out down one out of a hundred goes now Junius R Craun leaves here for home in the morning he has leave of absence for 8 days I send this with him he has important business to transact all quiet along the Rapidan today yours respectfully write soon”.

Narrator:

Despite knowing some of the consequences of leaving, Adam Kersh does in fact desert and only 6 months after writing this letter to George. However with rations low and morale even lower, is it any wonder why any of these men wanted to return home?

Narrator:

On July first of 1864 Adam Wise Kersh deserted the 52nd Virginia Infantry and started his journey back home. After countless hours of research, theories, and cross referencing we have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to know exactly why Adam Kersh left his company. We know that by this time in the war the South was looking at a very clear defeat, with troops demoralized from repeated losses and distrust for the high ranking officers rampant. Many soldiers chose this time to leave and return home to be with their families as Union troops began closing in on the heart of the South. We also know that there were few if any able bodied men at the Kersh farm. With the harvest season just around the corner, many soldiers would leave their regiments in order to go home and help their families with the back breaking labor of harvesting their crops. Finally we know that many soldiers ended up leaving just due to the fact that they were so close to home that the temptation to return was too great. A key to the Southern strategy was to be able to fight a defensive war, which would give them a 2 to 1 advantage. However, although strategic, this plan meant that the Southern states would spend the majority of the war fighting in their own backyard. As the Union pushed further and further into the core of the South they demonstrated their total war concept destroying railroads and factories, and killing the civilians who operated them. The Southern troops began to rush home to defend their families and land. Adam Kersh may have deserted for any one of these reasons, or perhaps a combination of them all. However what we can say is that Adam Wise Kersh did not leave his regiment strictly because he was a coward, because he returns to his regiment on December 31st of 1864 of his own free will.

Narrator:

What most thought would be a quick summer skirmish, turned into nearly four years of vicious fighting. After the Union finally ended this bloody conflict on April 9th, 1865 there was no celebration. Once the dust settled, over 600,000 Americans laid dead, and whole cities were reduced to waste. The South was beaten and its states in complete and total ruin, thus the era of reconstruction was set to begin in order to rebuild the South. However as oppose to most people living in Virginia, the Kersh family actually seemed to be even more lucrative after the war. When we look at the agricultural census taken in the year 1870, it appears that the Kersh family moved locations but stayed within the same county. The new Kersh family farm was also worth nearly twice as much as the farm they had lived on in 1860. Was this partially due to the fact that Adam Kersh left his regiment in order to go take care of things at home? Was it due in part to the fact that instead of slaves the Kersh’s had hired workers with enough skill to run the farm? Maybe it was due to the fact that since the Kersh family produced no cotton and owned no slaves, they weren’t a Union target. We will never fully understand what caused the spike in net worth between 1860 and 1870; however we can conclude that despite being a deserting doodle

Adam Wise Kersh loved his brother, his land, and his country and was willing to die defending them; slaveholder or not.

Narrator

All of the data collected and used in this project is courtesy of the Valley of the Shadow’s website provided by the University of Virginia. We hope your outlook on the civil war has changed and shed a little light on the daily lives of those who were impacted by it. This has been the Kersh Family podcast thanks for listening.

[1] Sutherland, Daniel. “Diary of a Yankee, Engineer: The Civil War Story of John H Westervelt, Engineer, 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps.” 26, no. 3 (1998): 151.

[2] “Desertion (Confederate) During the Civil War.” Desertion (Confederate) During the Civil War. Accessed May 2, 2015.

[3]

“Teaching History.org, Home of the National History Education Clearinghouse.” Deserters in the Civil War. Accessed May 4, 2015.

Advertisements