Can We Teach Civil War History Using Novels?

By Mitchell Klingenberg

It was my good fortune to teach United States History to 1877 last academic term to a class of seven. These students were aspiring businessmen, language speech pathologists, doctors, and teachers. They came from California, Tennessee, Texas, and Ecuador. And they reflected those virtues that typify the kind of student who attends Texas Christian University: conscientious, articulate, and intelligent. Most importantly, these students chose to be in this course – for, though it requires coursework in Historical Traditions (which encompasses a broad range of the Humanities), TCU does not require that its students take courses in American history. For a young instructor, this was an ideal environment in which to invite students to engage meaningfully with literature, history, and primary-source texts.


Hoping that literature might pique their interest in the Civil War, I assigned Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Its rich prose, vivid battle scenes, and themes of the brother’s war and the meaning of slavery in American history would, I hoped, communicate to students the complexity of the Civil War. But as we discussed The Killer Angels in the warmth of a December Texas sun, it became apparent that this was not the case. Students commented on the novel’s portrayal of Civil War combat; some took interest in the human sketches of Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain. They seemed to appreciate the novel’s narrative arc. But here the interest ceased. Aside from the simple (and perhaps sufficient) explanation that these students did not intend ever to take a degree in history, how could one explain the apparent failure of the novel to convey the meaning of the war to students?

One answer could be that the centrality of the Civil War to American history diminishes with each passing year, and that however much debates over monuments and remembrance may command attention in the public discourse of intellectuals and elites, many young educated people believe that the meaning of the American Civil War has been settled. When I asked them to consider why Shaara might have depicted slavery as merely a cause of the war—and not the cause—among several others, the students didn’t respond. They took for granted (thankfully so) that the outcome of the war determined the fate of slavery in America. Any interpretation of the war that unmoors slavery from the meaning of the conflict strikes them as odd.

Another explanation is that it is increasingly unlikely that students will take serious interest in long novels when they are conditioned to read pieces on Buzzfeed and Twitter in an age of social media. Most of these pieces, because of their structure and brevity, require little critical engagement. The depth and nuance that great books contain is harder for students first to recognize and then to experience on iPads (indeed, one student opted not to buy a physical copy of the book, and read it instead on her Kindle). One student noted how he enjoyed the linear plot structure of Killer Angels—in contrast, he volunteered that Willa Cather’s seminal novel of the nineteenth-century American West, Death Comes for the Archbishop (which I had assigned earlier in the course), seemed complex, dense, and difficult to follow, a sentiment that one of his colleagues echoed. Despite its rich and readable prose, however, The Killer Angels failed to elicit deeper responses from these students.

Finally, there is another change underway that may distance students from the vivid interior world of The Killer Angels. Our knowledge of the Civil War and its legacy of race relations in America centers on the white oppression and exploitation of African Americans.  But as R. R. Reno observed somewhat shrewdly in an otherwise provocative assessment of Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me, demographic shifts in the United States threaten to displace that understanding. The black-white racial narrative so essential to our understanding of nineteenth-century America is dissolving into the multiethnic world of the twenty-first century. One in four Americans today, notes Reno, are born to a parent not from the United States. Almost fifteen percent of Americans are foreign-born.

These developments in demographics and technology, combined with the passage of time, will influence how all young people appreciate Civil War history. As Reno notes, “kids who make the school trip to Gettysburg in 2025 may take an interest in the Civil War, but it won’t be a living reality for them, as it was for Faulkner’s ‘Southern boys’—as it is for Coates.” Students in 2016, mine included, champion post-racial values and ever-increasing spheres of tolerance and diversity to such an extent that Civil War-era racial stratification, while meaningful for historical inquiry, appears anachronistic. And so one wonders: has The Killer Angels (and the Battle of Gettysburg it chronicles) ceased to be “living reality” for a new generation of students? Does a Civil War novel now seem utterly disconnected from history and from the day-to-day concerns of university students?

My limited experience suggests that the answer to both questions may be “yes.” The students in my class, by their very participation in the life of the university, affirmed TCU’s mission to educate leaders to serve as ethical citizens in a global community. At TCU, as in other universities today, instructors often encourage their students to think globally about pressing social concerns. This approach has much to commend it, but in the long term, global thinking may unintentionally displace and obscure the study of historical events central to national development—such as Gettysburg—from students’ understandings of an American narrative.

All of this suggests that historians must continually adjust their historical frames to communicate the profundity of the Civil War to younger Americans. We must help students understand that although society and technology change, human nature does not. Joshua Chamberlain wrote in 1913 that war tests the character of its participants and reveals their virtues and flaws. Perhaps the characters of Killer Angels and the battle they fight have something to teach us. “The value of history,” wrote the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, “lies in its recovery of the concrete life of the past. There is not an essence of history that can be got by evaporating the human and the personal factors, the incidental or momentary or local things.”

Literature guides students to historical understanding because it renders these human and personal factors in vivid color and depth. Literature reflects us to ourselves; it makes us aware of the ways we achieve—and fail to achieve—the fullness of our humanity. If The Killer Angels cannot communicate the meaning of the war in its totality, it nonetheless imparts a meaningful lesson: that even in crusades for noble causes, humanity often descends into violence.

I intend to teach The Killer Angels again, but I understand that the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach to the study of the Civil War may not be so obvious to students. I hope, therefore, to demonstrate to them that The Killer Angels is instructive on several levels: first, that its themes of race and reconciliation reveal a great deal about the state of Civil War memory in 1974, the date of the novel’s publication; second, that the novel attempts an explanation of what—and who—is American; and third, that it profoundly communicates the centrality of the Civil War to American history in ways that previous generations understood in clearer terms.

As teachers we have a duty to help students understand the Civil War as a “living reality.” A deep and abiding love for literature may help to ensure that we do not lose those things which ought not to be forgotten.


Mitchell G. Klingenberg is a doctoral candidate in history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. His most recent essay, “‘The Consequence of this Rigorously Protestant View of History’: The Anglo-Catholic Mind of Frederick Adolphus Porcher,” appeared in the South Carolina Historical Magazine (115 no. 2). He can be reached at ude.u1513594694ct@gr1513594694ebneg1513594694nilk.1513594694m1513594694.