Yesterday morning my friend, Woody Ragan, and I were at the The City of Raleigh Museum, in our Federal uniforms, where we had been invited to present a program for children who had just read “Emma and the Civil Warrior“. In attendance were about half a dozen enthusiastic children and their supportive parents.
Our role was to try to give them a little background on the causes of the Civil War, perform a “show and tell” of our uniforms, weapons and equipment and then take a walk down the street to the North Carolina State Capitol, where we both volunteer as docents, and point out some of the places mentioned in the story.
Why did we have a Civil War? I have been studying this period of history for over a quarter of a century and have only concluded that there is NO simple answer. Having experience leading tours and speaking in public on this topic, I am well aware of the “simple” answer that comes to most peoples minds…Slavery. I do not deny that this was a factor but it is not THE sole cause any more than hamburgers are THE cause of America’s burgeoning crisis with obesity.
I struggled to find a simple analogy that I could relate to school children that would help them understand that the American Civil War, like all wars, sprung forth from a complex mix of many issues, many of them, ultimately, with economic roots. I did not want to get into the complicated and emotional issue of slavery, but I also did not want to leave the impression that I was trying to avoid the issue. I am happy to delve into an intellectual discussion on this topic, but it does not really fit into a 10 minute overview of the Civil War for 8 and 10 years olds on a sunny Saturday morning.
I finally hammered out an analogy in my head that I thought would be simple to understand and get my point across. Let’s say we all chipped in a dollar and we used that money to buy a couple of pizzas and everyone got an equal share. Would that be a fair way to split up our pooled resources? I pictured youngsters shaking their heads in agreement while imagining a steaming slice of pizza. Now…I would continue, lets say we gave the money to one of the group to go buy the pizza and he decided to buy his favorite…Pizza with anchovies, which no one else really likes…would that be fair? I imagined the look of disgust coming across the young faces as they heard mention of anchovies, hoping they knew what anchovies were! No! they would say, we don’t like anchovies!
I would continue by proposing we used our pooled resources to buy… Here I struggled not to be sexist, but when I was a kid I could have said something like baseball gloves for the boys and dolls for the girls. To continue the analogy I would suggest that if everyone got their fair share they would be satisfied, but what if we pooled our money and one group got more than the other, to illustrate in simple terms how unfair it is to one side if they contribute to the pool of money, but don’t get an equal share of what it is spent on. Anyway, I knew it wasn’t perfect but I thought it might be workable and I trusted to luck that I would make sense of it during my presentation.
On Saturday morning we were introduced by the City of Raleigh Museum’s Assistant Director Kimberly Puryear. I launched into a discussion of the Civil War as it related to the book they were reading, events that occurred right here in Raleigh and North Carolina, and then began my discussion of Civil War 101.
“What do you think were some of the major causes of the Civil War?” I quizzed my alert students.
Hands shot up and I called on a young lady.
“Slavery” she predictably said, to which the other heads, including the proud parents nodded in unison.
I smiled knowingly and said “well…not exactly…” and made the point that there were many factors including economics, states rights, and the election of Lincoln.
“How would you feel if you voted for the next president, and the man that won, was not even on the ballot in your state?” Because that is what North Carolinians faced after the 1860 election.
I launched into my brilliantly thought out analogy of the Pizza. “Let’s say we all chipped in a dollar and we used that money to buy a couple of pizzas and everyone got an equal share. Would that be a fair way to split up our pooled resources?”
Some of the childrens shook their heads in agreement, but my young antagonist folded her arms firmly across her chest and politely said, “NO! I can’t eat Pizza.”
I glance over to Woody who smiled as my analogy fell apart. “well, forget Pizza” he exclaimed “make it Ice cream cones”.
Big smiles appeared on the other children’s faces as heads rapidly shook in agreement.
“I don’t eat Ice cream.” declared the young lady. The adults in the back smiled in amusement. This was not exactly what I had in mind.
“What DO you like then?” I blurted out.
“OK, Let’s say we all chipped in a dollar and we used that money to buy a couple of MUFFINS and everyone got an equal share. Would that be a fair way to split up our pooled resources?”
“Sure” they all agreed
“Now, lets say we gave the money to one of the group to go buy the muffins and they decided to buy their favorite…blueberry muffins, which no one else really likes…”
“But I like Blueberry” exclaimed my young friend ” they’re my favorite”
“OK, so then it was YOU that we sent to get the muffins” I wearily exclaimed, “and YOU bought YOUR favorite but what about everyone else?”
The parents chuckled as I struggled to regain control and get my point across.
In the end we discussed many themes including economics. I tried to weave some of these themes into the book’s story line. We agreed that Emma was a Confederate, but I asked them to consider why? Did they think Emma understood all the issues that led to the Civil War (N0) or was she influenced by her father being a Confederate soldier and her friends and neighbors?
In the story Emma smuggles medicine in her doll for the wounded soldiers. Is smuggling good or bad, I asked? Bad they agreed. But in this case wasn’t it really good? I could see the wheels tuning in their young minds.
I asked them to think about reading an account of a battle or an article about President Lincoln in a Raleigh newspaper. Would the story would be the same or different if we read it New York newspaper? I could see the spark of recognition ignite on their attentive faces. They understood that newspapers may have a slant, both in 1861 and still today.
I explained as historians, we need to look at the issues from all sides to understand what really happened and not be misled by only one point of view.
The kids where great listeners and eager to learn. We concluded by walking a couple of blocks down to the capitol. We stopped across the street and I pointed to the green metal dome describing how signal officer Lt. George C. Round climbed to the top. I had them look up and down Fayetteville Street, the very street where thousands of Yankee soldiers entered Raleigh 148 years ago. We walked through the Capitol grounds and looked at Christ church, Where Emma’s mother worked as a nurse in the Confederate hospital there. Across the street, where the North Carolina Museum of History now stands, was once the residential neighborhood where Emma’s fictional house once stood. They could see how close it was to the Capitol and how natural it would have been for her to use it as her playground.
We returned to the museum to conclude the program with a talk by the book’s author, Candy Dahl. She talked a little bit more about her fictional characters, and Lt. Round, whose impressive actions inspired her to write the book.
Walking back to my car, I recapped what we talked about and was satisfied that I got my learning point across. The Civil War was the result of many causes that built up in the decades preceding the war. I felt confident that these junior historians where sufficiently intrigued to continue reading and learning. They are fortunate enough to live in an area that offers so many nearby Civil wars sites, like Bentonville battlefield and Bennet place.
My stomach growled as I got into the car. It was lunch time.and I was hungry. I was going to need something more substantial than a blueberry muffin.