Kids Can Handle Tough History If You Expose Them To It

Part Five of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864. To read earlier posts, see parts one, two, three, and four.

This essay on Yale professor Crystal Feimster’s discussion of rape and mutiny at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, will conclude my series of posts on the Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. It’s been three weeks since the end of the conference and I regret that it’s taken so long to get all of my thoughts onto this website, but life happens. There are times when the things you want to do have to be put to the side because there are other things you need to do first, like working full-time and figuring out how you’re going to pay back your student loans.

Feimster’s analysis of the conditions at Fort Jackson during the American Civil War were eye-opening, fascinating, and disturbing. The most troubling aspects of her discussion revolved around a case of attempted rape at Fort Jackson. White Union troops at the fort in 1864 cornered an African-American woman who was working at a nearby contraband camp as a laundress (throughout the war slaves ran away from their owners and sought refuge with the U.S. military. Several confiscation acts passed by Congress aimed to punish the Confederacy by allowing the military to protect these runaways rather than sending them back to their masters. Contraband camps were established by the military to ostensibly provide aid to these runaways as their numbers increased). These troops attempted to have sex with the woman; the only thing that stopped their pursuit was the woman’s threat to dump her chamber pot on them.

From there the record gets murky, but we know that the white troops seemed surprised that this woman would stand up for herself and reject the advances of white men. The troops eventually resorted to name-calling, insults, and threats to otherize and place the blame for their sexual advances on the African-American laundress. Cases of attempted and actual rape of women in contraband camps was disturbingly common, according to Feimster, and there were times when troops went from camp to camp demanding sex from women. Seen in this light we can see how white Union troops often utilized the same tactics as slaveholders to control black women through threats, sexual assault, and rape.

These insights greatly complicate our understanding of the relationship between soldiers and members of the contraband camps and between white troops and black women. One person, however, seemed to take exception to Feimster’s discussion on Twitter. This person, declaring herself to be a teacher, suggested on Twitter that the discussion “was interesting, but…” (which usually means that they didn’t find the discussion interesting). According to this person the problem lied in her belief that topics like rape and mutiny were “not appropriate” for an eighth grade history classroom setting. Was there room to make these topics more appropriate for that setting?

The answer is certainly a matter for open debate and interpretation, but count me as someone who finds Feimster’s focus on rape at Fort Jackson to be uniquely appropriate for an eighth grade history classroom. If historians are interested in finding a “usable past” that speaks to our concerns and helps us address pressing problems in contemporary society, then rape at Fort Jackson in 1864 is an extremely relevant discussion to be having with teenagers right now.

Middle school is a trying and difficult time for just about anyone who has to endure the hellish environment of puberty, hormones, and judgmental classmates. During my time as a teaching assistant for grades 6-12 the topic of gender relations was a constantly pressing issue for the entire faculty. Working as an In-School Suspension and substitute teacher always challenged me to make sure that males and females were treating each other with dignity and respect, and there were plenty of times when that was not the case. Middle school is a particularly difficult time for all of us because we are still very much finding ourselves and forging our sexual identities.

After this teacher criticized Feimster’s talk, I started thinking about the parallels between the rhetoric white troops used against the black laundress at Fort Jackson and the type of rhetoric we hear around cases like the Steubenville rape episode in Ohio and the concerns of those who believe we live in a rape culture today. I’m not sure whether or not we live in a rape culture, but it’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t teenage boys blaming their sexual outbursts on their victims or objectifying those who rebuff their sexual advances. Can history help us start meaningful conversations with teenagers about sexuality, gender, and mutual consent?

A while back my friend Andrew Joseph Pegoda left a thoughtful comment on this blog about the fact that schools introduce topics like drug and alcohol abuse and gang membership to students through the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) at a very young age, sometimes as young as first or second grade. Generally speaking, most students can handle these sensitive topics and engage in thoughtful conversation about them in a classroom. What makes us think they can’t handle sensitive or tough history by the time they’re thirteen or fourteen?

Rather than shielding our students from tough history or contemporary problems in the classroom, I believe we can and should make time in the k-12 classroom for addressing all different kinds of difficult history, whether it be about slavery, imperialism, genocide, or rape. Teachers, of course, must practice a bit of discretion as they facilitate these conversations and ensure that they organize enough prep time for themselves and their students to tackle these topics. Nevertheless, I’ve seen time and time again that students want to have these sorts of discussions and are often willing to share their own experiences if given the opportunity. Having a historical perspective to facilitate classroom discussion can help teachers and students address difficult history and the challenges of living in a tough world today.

How would you incorporate Fort Jackson into a Civil War history lesson plan?

Happy Bastille Day

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