Last year, the historian-parent of one of my students assembled thirty portfolios of documents on thirty Civil War soldiers from Connecticut — photocopies of letters and diaries and newspaper articles, links to Google ebooks, links to PDFs and websites, addresses and phone numbers for archives and historical societies in Connecticut which had the original papers, and so on. Quite the undertaking, and I’m incredibly grateful to her for the work she did.
Now this project is in its second year. The kids this year have the materials assembled by this historian-parent, and they have the materials assembled by last year’s seventh graders. And they’re already making discoveries quite different from the kids who worked through this material last year.
Working with one kid yesterday, and with the help of Google Maps, we located where one such Connecticut soldier was when he wrote his last letter to his wife before marching out toward an unknown destination. By tracing the information in his letter, we were able to identify the location of his campsite (within about a mile) the previous night. Using Wikipedia, we were able to find his commanding general, and using various historical atlases we were able to trace the route of his march.
The march that brought him to Antietam battlefield.
Based on the assigned positions of his commanding officers, we were able to get a rough idea of where he was standing during the morning of the battle, and where he was firing from. We were able to guess from his letter after the battle, roughly where he was wounded.
And we were able to ascertain where his friends carried him, to lay him down among a pile of other wounded men. Where, after being ignored for a day or two, he picked himself up from, and walked eight miles toward the nearest hospital.
Which we were able to roughly locate, using Google Maps and the man’s own letters, and the letters of his friends.
And where he died.
Officially not one of the wounded of Antietam, but nonetheless killed by it. A man who marched twenty-odd miles to be wounded in the neck by a passing bullet, and then marched another ten miles, many of them alone and leaking copious amounts of blood, to die in a hospital bed from lack of medical care and sepsis.
And from this I had a vision of what American education could be. Not an endless round of tests and preparation for tests, but a chance for the discovery and the digitization of the historical lives of thousands or millions of people — pioneers and homesteaders and explorers and scientists and immigrants and all sorts of writers and painters and workers from all sorts of walks of life, where they were and what they were doing while great and terrible events unfolded around them. And it’s extraordinary that I could go to Maryland and Virginia, and walk the roads that this man walked, or see those roads in satellite photographs, and actually live out the short, extraordinary military life of one man in the Civil War — Enlisted August 7, 1862, Died September 25, 1862 — and see where and how he lived and fought and died — in the space of an hour’s class.
Do we not live in extraordinary times?