Why Should Ken Burns Have All the Fun

Today I attended the Community Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Port Royal in nearby Hilton Head Island. I have a degree in history and I am certified to social studies which is why a tech guy like myself was at a Sesquicentennial Civil War event (you would be surprised at how often I get asked that question). Hilton Head Island was the location of Fort Walker which was one of the Confederate forts defending Port Royal Harbor and Beaufort which were captured by Union forces 150 years ago. There were Civil War reenactors, amateur historians, Civil War buffs, and curious onlookers who probably lost their way to the car show which is also going on in Hilton Head Island this weekend. Almost everyone had digital cameras of different types such as point-and-shoots, video, and mobile phones. The only thing I did not see was a tablet. I had mine but left it in the car. As I toured the grounds of Fort Walker it struck me that there was all these cameras recording the events and the Civil War was one of the first wars that was recorded by photography. In fact, the Civil War saw many technological changes in warfare such as the machine gun (Gatling Gun), aircraft (balloons), and submarines (H.L. Hunley). As I was observing all these cameras be used there was one demographic that was not recording the event. This was middle and high school age students and this disturbs me.

Many Civil War buffs have told me they got interested in Civil War history by watching Ken Burns' landmark documentary on the war. In other words, it was a media event and not what some poorly written textbook said (or didn't say) that interested people on the subject. So why are local students from Hilton Head Island or Bluffton not crawling around the Fort Walker site creating their own documentaries? Ken Burns proved that compelling stories can be told by just using still photographs mixed with videos of interviews. Civil War reenactors love to go on camera and talk about their passion for living like a soldier did 150 years ago. These guys do pains taking research to make sure they and their story is as authentic as possible then share their research whenever they can. Today, I saw probably the best Civil War reenactor I have ever seen. This man (pictured) portrayed a doctor of the time period complete with medicines, medical instruments, and hospital setup of that period of time. The man was going nonstop with stories of how doctors were trained and practiced medicine during the Civil War and not all of it was pleasant. He told us he is not a medical professional but learned his information by reading medical journals of the time, diaries, and searching on the Internet. That is how real history is done. That is how Ken Burns did it. They researched the subject then shared their research in creative ways. This is what students need to do.

Teachers should be sending their students out and tell them to come back with creative media of various subjects. Subjects you ask? One of the reasons Fort Walker fell so quickly is because Union Navy officers figured out a weak point in the fort and exploited it to great effect. Sounds like a geometry lesson to me. Document the angle the Union Navy found and figure out what the Confederate Army could have done to strengthened that weakness with video or annotated photos of the Fort Walker site. Students create a video of their results. Those who will do well will do as much research on the Civil War as possible given a time period. Teachers should be looking at upcoming historical events so they can assign their students the projects even if it is in a future unit. Just spend a little time discussing the event then tell students there wi be a project o the subject and you will expect their work when you reach that subject. Easy! Right!

There are historical places and people all around us and we need to get students to start documenting these events. One, it gets them out of the boring textbooks and do some real history and two, the events, places, and people are disappearing everyday. Our students could be the best people to document our history for future historians to have a record to study. I think it my be great to have students interview the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters and counter-protesters if the event is nonviolent. Their interviews can be compared to news media accounts of what is going on so students can get an overall picture. The OWS is history in the making and we should be documenting this event. One of the overlooked tragedies of the American Civil War was the fact that the European powers ignored its lessons which led to the slaughter of World War I.