Teaching the American Civil War Through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

Teaching the American Civil War Through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

South elevation (front) of Beauvoir as it appeared in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Studying the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students understand the complex forces that shaped late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. Their life stories help instructors explain soldiers’ motivations for service, discuss battles and campaigns, describe conscription and dissent, unravel the process of emancipation, and examine the political and economic upheaval of the era. By studying a veteran from a single company or regiment — and the communities in which they were raised — students discover how historical figures experienced the larger historical trends we study in class. I have developed an exercise focused on veterans to help undergraduates conduct the kind of “on the ground” research that Civil War historians routinely do using online databases.

Lately, my students have been researching the veterans, wives, and widows who lived at Mississippi’s Confederate home from 1903 through 1957, which is also the subject of my article in the March 2019 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.[1] The project brings sweeping historical concepts to a local level that is both familiar and approachable, and it helps students study the Civil War generation not as monuments and memorials, but as men and women whose lives personified the complex forces that shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and continue to inform our classrooms.

Take, for example, the case of Jacob and Mary Ratzburg, who moved to the Jefferson Davis Soldiers’ Home in Biloxi, Mississippi, in March 1905. He was seventy-nine and she was sixty years old. Jacob had immigrated to the United States from Schleswig-Holstein in 1852 at the age of twenty-seven, coming through New Orleans and eventually settling in Lauderdale, Mississippi, in 1860, one year after he became a U.S. citizen. He worked as a brick mason and supported his German-born wife Louisa and a daughter or step-daughter, Louena. Across town, Mary Jane Beverly was just fifteen years old, one of six children, none of whom attended school, and who were supported by her father and eldest brother who were both carpenters and poor, but independent farmers.

In April 1861, Jacob Ratzburg was part of the early rush of men to arms. He joined the 8th Regiment Mississippi Volunteers for one year and re-enlisted in the spring of 1862. He appears to have served in good health and without injury until the Atlanta Campaign in 1864, when Private Ratzburg was captured and held as a prisoner until the end of the war. Less than a year after returning home, he married Mary Jane Beverly. It’s unknown if he and his first wife divorced or if she died; little is known of her daughter either. By 1870 Jacob, still a brick mason, and Mary had three African-American farm laborers living with them, including an eleven-year-old girl named Eda Ratzburg, whose surname indicates that she may have been enslaved to Jacob or a member of his family before 1865. By 1880, the Ratzburgs had moved to nearby Meridian, where Jacob and Mary supplemented his income by running a boarding house, but by the early 1900s, they were struggling. In 1904, Jacob, now seventy-eight, was sufficiently impoverished to be approved for a Mississippi Confederate pension. But the Ratzburgs still could not live independently, which led to their admission to Mississippi’s Confederate Home, commonly known as Beauvoir. Jacob died there in 1907, two years after arriving. Mary was eligible to stay as a Confederate widow, and she married a fellow veteran resident, J.N. Webb, at the home in 1914, and after his death, Mary remarried to another resident, George Bazemore. She died at Beauvoir in 1929.

This is a solitary case of a Civil War veteran, but consider the numerous nineteenth-century themes that run through his life: ethnicity and immigration; slavery and emancipation; education and literacy; economic instability; labor and farming; birth, death, and marital rates; extended families resulting from death, divorce, and remarriage; and New South efforts to care for and memorialize Confederate veterans. And these are in addition to fundamental military history themes in his story: early volunteering vs. later enlistees or draftees; the Confederate effort to motivate one-year volunteers to re-enlist by offering leaves of absence (which Ratzburg received in the spring of 1862); the heavy toll of combat at places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the 8th Mississippi suffered 47 percent casualties; the increasing intensity of the war by 1864 seen in the Atlanta Campaign; and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system witnessed through Ratzburg’s long captivity.

The research involved to uncover these stories can be adjusted depending on the time instructors want to dedicate to the topic and students’ skill sets. A simplified project might involve picking a veteran home — U.S. or Confederate — or picking a military unit from the county or region where you teach. Don’t assume that this requires you to restrict yourself to Confederate units if you live in the South. Were African-American units raised in your area? Were other Union units? Similarly, if you live in the North, you can study dissent just as well as southern students can. Are you teaching in sections of the country where northerners and southerners deserted the ranks in large numbers? Where draft riots shocked communities from New York to Wisconsin? Supplementing students’ research with readings from published experts will help them contextualize the records.[2] Similarly, the articles in the March 2019 Journal of the Civil War Era special issue on veterans will aid their interpretation of veterans’ postwar years.[3]

Once instructors select their approach – such as a particular company or regiment – they’ll need a list of those who served in the unit (a muster roll). These are accessible through sites like Fold3.com, which allows instructors to isolate their search to the Civil War, then to the Union or the Confederacy, to a specific state, to individual units, and then to a surname. When students locate an individual’s name, they can access the soldier’s compiled military service record, which contains information like their age and location when they enlisted, as well as anything that happened to them during their time in service: wounds, illnesses, leaves of absence, or records of capture, imprisonment, or exchange.

When students have secured the location and date of a veteran’s enlistment, and hopefully their age, this helps students locate the veteran in census records using databases like Ancestry.com or the free online resource FamilySearch.org. Census records can reveal if they were large or small slaveholders and, in the case of Jacob Ratzburg, if freedpeople remained in the same area after the war and possibly in the same households. This opens an opportunity to discuss the challenging process of emancipation, a lesson that can be enhanced with digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records on Ancestry or FamilySearch. These help students study the process of emancipation at the local level while they also ponder how white and black soldiers shifted from wartime service to occupation duty (a topic that resonates with veterans in today’s classrooms).

Students can then access digitized pension records available through Ancestry, Fold3, or state archives or historical society websites to study the postwar lives of veterans and their wives or widows who, facing poverty, were eligible to receive financial assistance from the federal government (Union veterans) or their southern state government (Confederate veterans). Digitized newspaper collections like Chronicling America (free), Newspapers.com, or Genealogybank.com also add to these projects by allowing students to see how a veteran’s community experienced the war and postwar period on a daily basis. Veterans and their families sometimes appear in articles or in obituaries, but newspapers are most useful for helping students consider significant wartime and postwar developments at a local level. Admittedly, some of these databases have subscription fees, but instructors can often get free access through libraries, or they can factor subscriptions into students’ expenses for the class (much like the cost of books).

Teaching the American Civil War through the experiences of veterans help students wrestle with key concepts about this conflict and era. It also brings the experiences of individuals who are often overlooked — due to a lack of traditional sources like letters and diaries — into the classroom. Finally, students master valuable research skills and engage with and contribute to their local communities. It’s an active learning project that excites and inspires students, helping them see connections between the present and the past, and the lessons to be learned from each.

 

Online Resources to Bring Veterans into the Classroom

 

Sample Classroom Project:

The Beauvoir Veteran Project

 

Selected Databases:

Ancestry

Chronicling America

Connecticut Civil War Records

Family Search

Florida Confederate Pension Applications

Florida Old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Home

Fold 3

Genealogy Bank

Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls

Indiana Digital Archives

Michigan Civil War Service Records

Mississippi Confederate Pension Applications

Missouri Soldiers’ Records: War of 1812 – World War I

Newspapers

Pennsylvania Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866 Indexes

Soldiers and Sailors Database

 

 

[1] Susannah J. Ural, “‘Every Comfort, Freedom, and Liberty’: A Case Study of the Mississippi Confederate Home,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 55-83. Their research is featured online at www.beauvoirveteranproject.org.

[2] Readings might come from Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2008); Richard Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[3] Special Issue: Reconsidering Civil War Veterans, The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019). See also Brian Matthew Jordan, Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2016); James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Susannah Ural

Susannah Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military experiences of U.S. Civil War soldiers and their families. Dr. Ural's latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (LSU, 2017).

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