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Tuesday, 5 October 2010
As the personal copywriter for Civil War painter Mort Kunstler, I have a great interest in historical artwork. My favorite artist, (minus Mort of course) is John Trumbull whose paintings represent some of the most popular and recognizable images from the American Revolution. Trumbull was the gifted son of the Governor of Connecticut and a graduate of Harvard University at the age of 17. As a youngster, he showed a tremendous aptitude for drawing and it is said that his attention to detail was a result of an accident that resulted in the blinding of one eye. As a young man, Trumbull assembled an impressive resume which included positions as a second personal aide to General George Washington and a deputy adjutant-general to Gen. Horatio Gates.
In 1780, he traveled to London to study painting under the master Benjamin West. Five years later, Trumbull traveled to Paris where he began doing commissioned portraits for Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Congress. Eventually Trumbull rose to become one of the most renowned artists of the time and in 1816, he was appointed president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts. No other artist of that era so vividly captured the epic imagery that defined our nation as Trumbull did. To this day, I still notice subtle nuances in his work and I am entertaining the idea of penning a feature on his life for a future issue of Patriots of the American Revolution.
Below are some of his most famous paintings:
The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1786)
The Death of Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (1787)
The Declaration of Independence (1795)
The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton (circa 1795)
Surrender of General Burgoyne (1821)
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820)
General George Washington Resigning his Commission
The Sortie from Gibraltar (1789)
Sunday, 3 October 2010
Libertys Kids for kids
It seems that this month’s hot-button-topic across the blogosphere is the argument over teaching good and bad history to children. I have refrained from participating in any of these debates, but wholeheartedly agree that the topic deserves our attention. Education has been a primary topic of interest at our film screenings, and as a parent of four children, teaching history to youngsters is of particular interest to me. From what I see in our schools, I’m not that impressed with the manner being used to ignite an interest in our past with young people. I’ve always said that our Nation’s history is among our most precious resources, but it means nothing if we can’t relate to it and apply the lessons learned in our daily lives.
One challenge that remains in the classroom regardless of time and place is how to get kids excited about history. This obstacle is especially difficult when it comes to young children. How do we begin to capture their attention long enough to introduce them to the subject? My youngest kids have accompanied me on trips to Monticello and it was a chore to get them to recall any of the experience. On a recent Sunday morning before church, I discovered a tremendous cartoon called Liberty’s Kids. After watching a couple episodes I believe that I have found a perfect fit for introducing my youngest children to the founding of our nation. According to their website:
The primary goal of the Liberty’s Kids TV series is to provide young children with a fresh and exciting experience of the extraordinary period of 1773 to 1789 in American history. Through the eyes of two young apprentice reporters named Sarah and James, viewers of Liberty’s Kids will go on adventures in search of the real stories of the American Revolution. Although the setting is Colonial America, Liberty’s Kids’ characters find themselves in the middle of a revolution that confronts issues that still fill the newspapers today - gun control, downsizing government, lower taxes, freedom of the press, and race relations. The entire show is produced using high quality animation and creates an exciting world that today’s kids can jump into and discover the real stories of the incredible time that gave birth to the United States of America. Liberty’s Kids offers caretakers, from parents to teachers, an extraordinary resource through which they can share with young people the inspiring stories, characters, and values at the heart of America’s great experiment in democracy.
I am extremely pleased with this show, both as a historian and as a parent. I highly recommend their website which includes lesson plan material for parents and teachers, as well as full episodes and fun activities. My kids may not remember the master of Monticello, but they know this Thomas Jefferson (pictured here). It is my hope that Liberty’s Kids will be used to provide my children with an effective introduction to history that will hopefully mature as they do.
Artwork copyright 2004, DIC Entertainment.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
The ugly truth
Today I finished my speech for the upcoming screening at the Stafford County Historical Society on October 21st. I was originally invited to give a presentation on Mary Ball Washington, but after several members attended our premiere in Fredericksburg, a showing of the film took precedent. Following the documentary, I will be adding remarks that tie Kirkland’s actions in with Stafford County’s experiences. In order to do that I am “adding on” the rest of the story, which is the Union army’s evacuation of their wounded and retreat across the river.
This approach takes the film’s commentary on the human tragedy of the battle and transports the suffering, off of the Fredericksburg battlefield, over into Stafford County. I also talk about the public outrage to the mass casualties and Lincoln’s reaction to it. The more I watch this film with audiences, the more I realize that we made an anti-war film. I am very pleased that our initial goal of not glorifying the Civil War came through. There is a way to pay tribute to the action of courageous men, without romanticizing the horror that they inflicted on one another.
Even the music in our film depicts the brutality of the story. The theme song to The Angel of Marye’s Heights is titled “Fredericksburg 1862” and was written and performed by Will White. A tremendous songwriter and musician, Will generously allowed us to use his music and even donated copies of his latest CD “Rise Above” for us to play and sell at our events. He is a Virginia native who now lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Will’s family’s roots span the breadth of the South, and his songs reflect that heritage: bluegrass, Appalachian old-time, Delta blues, country and gospel, sung and played on 5-string banjo, acoustic and National steel slide guitars.
Will’s lyrics capture the essence of the film. Here’s the first verse:
They might have crossed the Rubicon and charged the gates of Hell
No mortal man could cross that land the Rebels raked so well
The soil was sown with flesh and bone and watered down with blood
As drops of rain they fell to stain that field of frozen mud, that field of frozen mud
You can literally ‘see’ the battlefield as depicted in his words. (Watch Will’s video under the Media tab in the Music section over on The Angel of Marye's Heights website. And visit his website at http://www.willwhitemusic.com/).
I am anxious to see if this approach is well received as far too many speakers nowadays tend to gloss over the ferocity of war. If I do this right, the audience will leave with a better sense of what Kirkland and his fallen foes experienced after the battle ended. That being death, destruction, and devastation.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:21 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 29 September 2010 9:45 AM EDT
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Sunday, 26 September 2010
What a weekend
Saturday’s screening at the University of Mary Washington could not have gone better. This weekend was the college’s annual “Family Weekend” when parents and students are treated to a variety of special events celebrating the school’s culture and surrounding history.
Our invitation came courtesy of Abbie McGhee, Coordinator of Community Events and Ceremonies. The screening was held at the newly refurbished Lee Hall in one of the school’s state-of-the-art media rooms. The campus staff and student attendants that assisted us were outstanding and the audience was very receptive to our presentation. I was joined by cast members Megan Hicks, John Cummings, and later, Don Pfanz. The audience had some excellent questions for John and me during the casual Q&A.
During the film’s introduction, I gave the audience some background on our past speeches and panel discussions. I recalled our previous weekend at Liberty University where we had held a forum discussing the preservation and education of history. I then informed the audience that we would be doing nothing of the like for them. The reason I added, was the unique opportunity that this particular group had. That opportunity was an exclusive invite to tour the nearby historical landmark Brompton. This magnificent estate sits atop Marye’s Heights and bore witness to the Battle of Fredericksburg. The story of Richard Kirkland literally took place in the shadow of this manor, so the tour fit perfectly with our story.
Completely preserved, Brompton is the residence of the acting president of the university and is not open to the public. In over 10 years of giving tours at the sunken road, I knew of only two people who had ever been inside the mansion. As this was “Family Weekend,” the newly appointed (and tremendously popular) UMW President Richard V. Hurley, graciously opened his home to visitors. Following the screening we headed over to Brompton and were given free reign to walk the house and grounds. During the tour, members of the staff took us out back to meet the president and his wife along with the college’s chief of staff Martin A. Wilder Jr. Apparently they had heard some great reviews of the film and after discussing the origins of the project, President Hurley proposed the idea of holding a private screening. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and told the president that we would be honored to oblige him.
The biggest satisfaction of the weekend came in the private discussions that I had with parents and students who shared a great love of history. Several of them had specifically chosen UMW, due to it’s close proximity to historical sites and hallowed grounds. All of them expressed their gratitude for our film and are anxiously awaiting the release of our DVD.
Below: A rare view of the Kirkland Monument (in yellow highlight) from the front porch of Brompton.
Thursday, 23 September 2010
Inspiration leads to education
Dr. Kenny Rowlette, Liberty University Professor and Director of the
National Civil War Chaplains Museum and me (Photo by Kathleen Warren)
As I reflect on last week’s screening at Liberty University and prepare for Saturday’s showing at the University of Mary Washington, I am pleasantly surprised that education is becoming a popular aspect of our documentary. In addition to the theaters and libraries, we are getting more and more requests from museums and colleges to present our film. We then compliment the evening with individual speeches or panel discussions.
The topic of “teaching history” is routine, while the participants and discussions are not. The overall theme encourages our audience to recognize how important it is to preserve and present history to our young people. After all, they are the historians and storytellers of tomorrow. We also discuss what we can do in today’s modern-age to encourage an interest in our past.
What makes our presentations so unique and well-received? I believe it is the variety of ages and stages that we include on our panel. This of course is a direct reflection of our film’s cast and crew. We are a very diverse group and equally passionate about our own respective parts in this project. From home-schooled kids and grad students, to retirees and techies, we cover all bases of amateurs and professionals. Our historians (me included) cover a wide-range of disciplines and each of us brings a different perspective to the screen.
This ‘melting pot’ mentality is what we try to emulate on our panels. Topics at these chats include parental philosophies, emerging technologies, defining real heroes for our children, and how to inspire value in learning about our past. It is our hope that the audience will walk away with something that they were not aware of when they entered the room.
We call it ‘living history’ where you can awaken a student’s natural curiosity with a great story. This can lead to further interest and investigation into the topic. In other words, our film on Richard Kirkland may drive a student to want to learn more about the Battle of Fredericksburg, which in turn will result in he/she opening a book, or visiting the battlefield to see firsthand what Kirkland experienced.
Chances are they will relate more to the subject matter and walk away with a better understanding of the events from that day. In addition, they will probably retain the memory of that experience, which will assist them in recalling the lessons that they learned. (I can’t tell you the title of my 10th-grade history book or what was in it, but I remember our field trips to Fort Pitt and the Carnegie Museum.)
None of our team are licensed teachers or educators at any level, but the faculty and professors at these prestigious schools really like what we have to say and see it as a benefit. At Liberty, students were encouraged to attend our screening and some classes received extra credit for writing their thoughts. Our stage crew was students and the press that covered us were journalism majors. All of them seemed to have an interest in either history or film.
What really impressed me were the young people that work at the National Civil War Chaplains Museum and the Victorian Society. Clearly they have a passion for the subject and their contributions as research assistants, guides and re-enactors are extraordinary. Some even expressed a desire to work on their own documentary films.
As a 16+year resident of the great state of Virginia, and a parent of 4 (spread out from college to diapers) I have always been disappointed in the Old Dominion’s approach to teaching. The public schools in our region receive their funding based upon how well their students perform on an SOL (Standards of Learning) test. The result of this requirement is that you have a child learning the history questions that are on the test instead of a well-rounded knowledge of the topic. In response, parents and mentors must find ways to connect with young people so that they have a desire to look beyond the SOL.
On the other side of the spectrum you have kids in VA private schools learning whatever their teacher feels is important. If “critical thinking” is their teacher’s preferred focus, students may learn more about the act of analyzing history instead of the events themselves. This is misguided in my opinion as the 'process' inevitably becomes more important than the subject matter.
Knowing what took place in our past and understanding how we can apply those lessons in our daily lives is what matters. How does one do that? Admitting that times have changed and that this new generation responds differently to learning is crucial. Using the tools and technologies that we have today to reach young people and show them that history doesn’t have to be a boring textbook is essential.
The question one should ask is: Are you really teaching history, or are you teaching how to examine history? These are both very different goals. I believe the latter cannot be effective without the former. Inspiration can lead to education. We like to think that our documentary can lead from one to the other.
Stay tuned for photos from this weekend's MWU screening and tour of Brompton.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:13 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 23 September 2010 11:46 AM EDT
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