Studying the Many-Sided Civil War

Funded by a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in May 2013 Bowdoin began developing a trio of inaugural course clusters in the humanities: “The Civil War Era” (featured here), “Studies in the Mediterranean,” and “Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” joined by two more clusters – “Beauty” and “Digital Humanities” – in fall 2014.

Each of these cross-disciplinary initiatives encourages students to examine one field of study from many academic perspectives – to not only gain multifaceted intimacy with a theme of interest but also develop an arsenal of skills for working across disciplines.

Civil War cluster students Michael Smith, Alexxa Leon, and Katie Randall (photo credit: Tess Chakkalakal)

Civil War cluster students Michael Smith, Alexxa Leon, and Katie Randall (photo credit: Tess Chakkalakal)

In one sense, there were only two sides in the Civil War – but there are many sides to the story of this pivotal era in American history, and studying them today requires bringing together a whole array of disciplines, including the historical, the literary, the visual, and the digital.

Coordinated by associate professor of Africana studies and English Tess Chakkalakal and history professor Patrick Rael, Bowdoin’s Civil War course cluster also depends on contributions from art history assistant professor Dana Byrd, Museum of Art co-director Frank Goodyear, and director of Special Collections and Archives Richard Lindemann. These faculty and staff members have been working with students both inside and outside of the classroom, with several notable research projects coming out of their collaborations.

Nancy Walker ’15 and Richard Lindemann

Walker and Lindemann

The cluster’s first research project germinated in the summer of 2013, when Nancy Walker ’15 began working with Lindemann and Rael to transcribe and annotate the diary and letters of Horatio Fox Smith, a Bowdoin student from the class of 1865 who made efforts to form a student regiment and later left school to be a Union soldier. Walker, a double major in Africana Studies and English and an education minor, went on to conduct an independent study with Lindemann and Chakkalakal in spring 2014, in which she digitized Smith’s documents according to the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative, to make them available online as scholarly resources.

In her report about the project, Walker explained the challenges of pulling a comprehensible text out of barely readable original documents, and the importance of shedding light on such personal histories – in addition to studying battles and better-known historical figures – to achieve a nuanced understanding of the era. The project “allowed Nancy to apply cross-disciplinary knowledge and research techniques at a level more common in graduate school programs,” Lindemann said. “And she rose to the occasion with flying colors.”

Charles W. Chesnutt (source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery)

Charles W. Chesnutt (source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery)

The next set of research projects came over the summer of 2014. One student investigator was Michael Smith ’16, who delved into the archives of the writer Charles W. Chesnutt, the subject of Chakkalakal’s upcoming book. Chesnutt wrote many works of fiction related to the Reconstruction years, set both in North Carolina and Ohio, and is considered to be the first great African American novelist.

Smith has been creating spreadsheets of Chesnutt’s library and other historical data to better understand how the writer’s own life and surroundings contributed to his fictional history of Reconstruction. Having taken several classes with Chakkalakal, Smith is “a consummate Civil War cluster student,” Chakkalakal said. “He’s in history, English, and Africana studies, so he’s able to bring these three disciplines together quite productively,” while adding his own technological skills into the equation.

“That’s what’s so cool about these projects: I’m technically supervising, but really it’s the students bringing their knowledge and technical know-how to my field of expertise,” Chakkalakal said.

Randall's timeline

A sample from Randall’s digital timeline (click to visit the real thing)

That same observation holds true for Katie Randall ’16, an art history major, who spent the summer creating a digital timeline of the Brunswick home of Harriet Beecher Stowe with Chakkalakal. “The building has been significant to Brunswick history for over two hundred years, but very few people today know its story, let alone that it has been unoccupied since 2001 and is falling into disrepair,” Randall said. “I hope that my work will help save the Stowe House and allow it to continue to be an active part of the community for years to come.”

With new information recently coming to light about a fugitive slave whom Stowe harbored in her home, “the history of the house and its scope is growing,” Chakkalakal said. “So Katie’s been working with different people in our Brunswick and Bowdoin community, and also with other scholars, to refine the story from the time when Stowe lived there until the present. And she’s really taken off with it.”

One of the maps created by Kearon and Rael, depicting cities with performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-1880 (click to enlarge)

As an art history major who plans to go into urban planning and historic preservation, Randall called the project “an amazing opportunity,” saying that “it has been incredible to see how this one structure has had such an enormous role in Brunswick culture.” Randall recently put her accumulated knowledge to further use when she and Chakkalakal co-led a tour of the Stowe House for the greater Brunwick community’s Pejepscot Historical Society, and she is currently in the process of applying to have the Stowe House included in the Network of Freedom, which honors properties that have served as stops on the Underground Railroad.

Meanwhile, under Rael’s supervision, Patrick Kearon ’17 has been studying Stowe from a different angle: building a database of theatrical performances of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and using GIS to map out the ways the novel was received and performed. “It takes us from the earliest antebellum presentations through the Civil War and into the post-war era, when theatrical performance of Uncle Tom’s cabin became the infamous ‘Tom Show’ of the minstrel age,” Rael said. Kearon also researched and built a database of slave conspiracies and revolts, producing more GIS maps to visualize the data.

Moving into this fall, Rael has begun working with Alexxa Leon ’15 to digitize the Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned newspaper in the United States (1827-1829), founded and edited by John Brown Russwurm, Bowdoin Class of 1826 and the College’s first African American graduate. That’s in addition to the College’s student-powered endeavor to digitize its famed O. O. Howard collection with support from a major grant awarded by the NHPRC last spring (so far, more than 41,000 images have been scanned).

The interdisciplinary nature of all of the projects has a strong technological component, which Chakkalakal notes is important. The students have been able to consult with faculty from the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, in addition to library and museum staff, as they figure out ways to gather and convey information. “My own scholarly work has been to write a book, an essay, an article – but access to knowledge production is happening now in these other ways. And the students are really on the cutting edge of that technology.”

Reunion and Reconstruction: New Gateway Course on the Civil War

Amid all of this research activity, the Civil War course cluster has also been busy in other arenas, coordinating the exhibit “Visualizing Uncle Tom, for instance, and funding lectures from distinguished visiting speakers. Last year’s lineup included Clemson University English professor (and Stowe expert) Susanna Ashton, who also consulted on Randall’s Stowe House project, as well as the University of Maryland’s Robert Levine, who spoke about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in Bowdoin’s annual Russwurm Lecture. Next spring’s Russwurm lecturer will be Craig S. Wilder of MIT, whose research explores themes of slavery and Ivy League colleges.

And then, of course, there are the courses themselves, the heart of the interdisciplinary course cluster initiative. Following the great success of a new team-taught course last spring, “Uncle Tom and Its Afterlife,”  Chakkalakal recently held a workshop to put together an even more collaborative course to introduce the cluster: “Reconstruction and Reunion,” offered for the first time next spring, drawing from the disciplines of history, English, Africana studies, and art history. “It’s a gateway course to give students an introduction to exploring the Civil War and its aftermath through all of these different lenses,” Chakkalakal said.

This replaces two separate courses on the Reconstruction taught by Chakkalakal and Rael in their respective departments, one from a literary perspective and the other from a historical one. “We’ve dismantled these classes for a while, so that we can bring the different disciplines together and teach this period of American history and literature more effectively,” Chakkalakal said. Meanwhile, the cluster continues to offer a range of courses within individual departments: this fall Rael is teaching a history course called “Antislavery” as well as an overview of Civil War history, and Chakkalakal is teaching “Literature of the Civil War Era.”

“What we’d like to do is move students through in a linear way throughout their four years, where they take the gateway during their first or second year, choose additional courses, and bring things together in some kind of independent research their senior year,” Chakkalakal said.

In the new gateway course, Chakkalakal and Rael will each teach sections of the course, while art historian Byrd will contribute a segment on the homes of the Reconstruction. Goodyear will teach a module on how to curate an exhibit on the Civil War, and Lindemann will teach a component about Civil War archives.

“The cluster is allowing us to really grapple with these thorny issues related to the history, literature, art, and visual culture of the Civil War, in more accurate ways than I think we have been doing,” Chakkalakal said. “It enables us to bring our different sides of the story together and put them into conversation: there are so many sides to telling this story, and we want students to walk away with more than just one side. We want them to be able to challenge, debate, and express a diversity of opinions effectively around different topics related to the Civil War. We want to to broaden and deepen their understanding of this moment in American history.”

Stay tuned for more stories about the Mellon course clusters (and keep an eye out for a symposium sponsored by the Medieval and Early Modern Studies cluster in spring 2015).

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