Saturday, November 29, 2014

Battle of Franklin: 150 ago today

It is quite likely the biggest battle of the American War for Southern Independence (AKA The Civil War) that you have never heard of.

On this day 150 years ago - November 30, 1864 - thousands of Confederate troops charged thousands of Union soldiers who had dug in along a defensive line with their backs to a river.  This charge took place on the outskirts of the town of Franklin, Tennessee, and it is remembered as one of the more tragic battles in a tragic war.

My family and I took an almost month-long road trip this summer, and our travels took us to this hamlet nestled along the Harpeth River about 20 miles south of the city of Nashville.  We spent a few hours at the small national park that is situated where the fiercest fighting of the battle took place.

The following is a "Reader's Digest" version of the battle:  In the fall of 1864, things were not going well for the Confederacy.  Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia were bottled up in Petersburg, Virginia, where they had been besieged by Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces for the last five months.  Meanwhile, Union General William Sherman's army had captured Atlanta, and was tearing its way across Georgia, destroying everything in sight.  In a desperate attempt to divert Sherman from his path of destruction, Confederate General John Bell Hood departed with his 30,000-man army from northern Alabama and invaded the state of Tennessee with the intention of capturing the captured Union stronghold of Nashville.  Hood hoped that this move would force Sherman to disengage from his Georgia campaign, lift Confederate spirits, and strike fear in the heart of northerners in the path of Hood's army, who after capturing Nashville, would continue into Ohio or other Union states.  Logistically, it was a fool's errand, but Hood had nothing but confidence that his plan would succeed.

By late November, Hood's army was in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and had trapped a 30,000-man Union army under the command of General John Schofield.  Unfortunately for Hood, he experienced some serious mis-communication with his subordinate Generals, and Schofield and his men were able to escape the trap during the dead of night, and retreat north to the town of Franklin.  The next morning, Hood and his men discovered to their horror that the Union army had escaped and began the great pursuit.  Meanwhile, Schofield and his men had discovered a horror of their own.  The bridge that would enable their army to cross the Harpeth River and continue to Nashville had long ago been destroyed by Confederate forces earlier in the War.  While his engineers rebuilt the bridge, Schofield had his men dig in, building trenches and earthworks in a semi-circle that anchored its flanks along the river.

As you can see by the mass of red lines to the south of the blue Union line, Hood's Confederate army caught up to Schofield and his men, arriving a couple miles south of town in the mid-afternoon of 30 November 1864.  Hood still felt pretty stung about his lost opportunity at Spring Hill the day before, and knew that if he wanted to take Nashville, he would have to deal with this Union army at Franklin first.  There were enough Union troops dug in at Nashville already.  Allowing these 30,000 troops to join their brethren would be intolerable.  Against the advice of his subordinate generals, Hood determined that his men would make their attack late that afternoon.  The attack was one that I would pay good money to see.  It has been called the "Pickett's Charge of the West," but it was actually much more impressive than that famous charge that took place on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg the year before, although it was just as doomed to fail.

Pickett's Charge saw approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers march across 1 mile of open ground. Hood's Charge saw approximately 22,000 Confederate soldiers march across 2 miles of open ground.  Pickett's Charge first spent two hours firing 150 Confederate cannon to soften up 5,000 or so Union soldiers hiding out in the open or behind a low pre-existing stone wall.  Hood's charge had no such artillery barrage against 30,000 Union soldiers dug in behind carefully constructed earthworks.  Pickett's Charge was a "one and done" affair, with the Confederate troops making one charge, and then retreating back to their own lines; the whole ordeal was over in an hour.  Hood's Charge saw the Confederates charge dozens of times over a period of at least 5 hours.

The weakest point in the Union line was a gap that existed where the line crossed the Columbia Turnpike.  This is where hundreds of Confederate troops were able to pour in behind the Union lines onto the property of a man named Fountain Branch Carter.  Hundreds of Union troops poured forward to meet this threat, and for an indeterminable amount of time, you had a couple thousand Union and Confederate troops shooting each other, stabbing each other, beating each other over the head with shovels and picks, wrestling on the ground, and generally engaging in one of the most violent and desperate hand-to-hand struggles of the entire war.  And it all happened right here in this yard:

The day after the battle, just about every square foot of the ground you see in the photo was covered with the bodies of Union and Confederate dead.  To get an idea of the intensity of the combat, observe the battle damage that still exists in south-facing walls of the outbuildings of the Carter farm.  Yes, those are bullet holes you see; most of them of the .58-caliber muzzle loading variety:

After the sobering experience of seeing the buildings damaged by the battle, we drove a couple of miles down the road to visit the Confederate soldiers killed by the battle.  On the eastern portion of the battlefield is the Carnton Plantation, where many of the wounded were treated the day after the battle, and where the battle dead were eventually laid to rest.  Approximately 1,750 Confederate soldiers were killed that day, and almost all of them were buried in the cemetery set up on the Carnton Plantation:

As much as a history teacher/buff like myself can read about and imagine this war, there is nothing like visiting an actual battlefield to drive home the fact in your mind that it all really happened.  I have also visited the battlefields at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, which also have their own cemeteries and monuments.  But they both have nothing on the outbuildings full of bullet holes that remain at Franklin, Tennessee, where just under 1,800 Confederate soldiers and somewhere between 500 and 700 Union soldiers died in a battle that was fought when the end of the war was in sight anyway.

150 years ago today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

California parents complain about Islam being taught in school... but is their complaint valid?

I came across this article in Truth Revolt the other day, and it immediately caught my interest, as it involves one of the very subjects and grade levels I am teaching this year.

First, the essence of the article:
The parents of a Manhattan Beach, California middle schooler are upset that their son is being taught the faith of Islam in school, according to a KTLA 5 report. "The audacity of this school to think they can sit these children down and teach them whatever religion they please -- it's preposterous," the unidentified father said. "This is illegal, basically. You can't teach religion in schools anymore, but apparently, in this particular school at least, that's not the case." 
The mother pointed to a section that asked the student to write down Islam's "Declaration of Faith" on the provided lines. She wondered if that would be required if the faith were Christianity. "And if it ended with the declaration of faith, 'Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior,' that's the equivalent," she said. The father added, "Can you imagine the outcry all over this country if children were bringing home paperwork that asked them to write down John 3:16, or asked them to write down The 10 Commandments?" 
The report states that the parents met with the principal, but because nothing has changed, they have pulled their son from the class. KTLA said the school did not respond to a statement request.
So, let's break this all down.

I teach 7th graders at a Sacramento middle school.  Sacramento and Manhattan Beach are both in the late, great state of California.  As such, both schools - and every other middle school in California - follow the very same state content standards.  For 7th graders everywhere in California, one of those standards is the following:
7.2 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages.
  1. Identify the physical features and describe the climate of the Arabian peninsula, its relationship to surrounding bodies of land and water, and nomadic and sedentary ways of life.
  2. Trace the origins of Islam and the life and teachings of Muhammad, including Islamic teachings on the connection with Judaism and Christianity.
  3. Explain the significance of the Qur'an and the Sunnah as the primary sources of Islamic beliefs, practice, and law, and their influence in Muslims' daily life.
  4. Discuss the expansion of Muslim rule through military conquests and treaties, emphasizing the cultural blending within Muslim civilization and the spread and acceptance of Islam and the Arabic language.
  5. Describe the growth of cities and the establishment of trade routes among Asia, Africa, and Europe, the products and inventions that traveled along these routes (e.g., spices, textiles, paper, steel, new crops), and the role of merchants in Arab society.
  6. Understand the intellectual exchanges among Muslim scholars of Eurasia and Africa and the contributions Muslim scholars made to later civilizations in the areas of science, geography, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, art, and literature.
Again, these standards are taught to 7th graders in every California middle school - not just the "particular school" in questions.  You can pull your son from that particular class all you want; the same standard will be waiting for him in the other 7th grade history teachers' classrooms down the hall.
As for Christianity, it is also taught in California's middle and elementary schools.  It just happens to be in the standards for a different grade level - along with Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.  All of the those religions are to be found in the California History Standards for 6th grade.  The standards for Christianity fall under the main standard for the Roman Empire:
6.7 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures during the development of Rome.
6.Note the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament, and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation). 
7.Describe the circumstances that led to the spread of Christianity in Europe and other Roman territories. 
You will notice that the standard calls for the teacher to teach the students not only about the life of Jesus, but His teachings as well.  The mother mentions in article about how aghast people would be if the Ten Commandments were taught.  Well, check out the 6th grade standard for Judaism:

6.3 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the Ancient Hebrews.
  1. Describe the origins and significance of Judaism as the first monotheistic religion based on the concept of one God who sets down moral laws for humanity.
  2. Identify the sources of the ethical teachings and central beliefs of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible, the Commentaries): belief in God, observance of law, practice of the concepts of righteousness and justice, and importance of study; and describe how the ideas of the Hebrew traditions are reflected in the moral and ethical traditions of Western civilization.
  3. Explain the significance of Abraham, Moses, Naomi, Ruth, David, and Yohanan ben Zaccai in the development of the Jewish religion.
  4. Discuss the locations of the settlements and movements of Hebrew peoples, including the Exodus and their movement to and from Egypt, and outline the significance of the Exodus to the Jewish and other people.
  5. Discuss how Judaism survived and developed despite the continuing dispersion of much of the Jewish population from Jerusalem and the rest of Israel after the destruction of the second Temple in A.D. 70. 
Guess what folks?  You can't teach about the ethical teachings and central beliefs of Judaism, and their belief in God, and observance of law without teaching them the Ten Commandments.

Now here is where I share some concerns with these parents and others like them.  

First, there is a standard dedicated solely to Islam, and it is a lengthy one.  There is no standard exclusively dedicated to Christianity.  Instead, Christianity only gets a couple of sub-standards that are shoehorned into the main standard for the Roman Republic and early Empire.  On the other hand, the 7th grade standard for Medieval Europe mentions Christianity extensively, and there is an entire standard (7.8), dedicated to the Protestant Reformation, where the teachings of the Catholic Church and how they differ from Protestant belief are discussed in extensive detail.

Second, the standard for Islam is usually addressed with the first couple chapters of any 7th grade history textbook, thereby guaranteeing that it will be taught.  Conversely, Christianity is mentioned in regards to the early Roman Empire, which is almost always found at the end of a 6th grade history textbook.  Seriously, how often did you make it to the end of the textbook before the end of the school year when you were a kid?

Third, I am concerned not so much with what is taught about Islam in many California schools, but how it is taught - especially in comparison to Christianity.  If you read what our textbooks say about Islam, you get a sense of tiptoeing and glass and eggshells crunching.  The Islamic invasions of 7th and 8th Century Persia, Byzantine Empire, and Western Europe are mentioned, but the authors of said textbooks are always quick to point out how tolerant Muslim rulers were toward the subjugated people of other faiths, which is a bunch of bullshit.  Also, the word Jihad is always defined as "striving" or a "struggle" to be a good Muslim.  Also bullshit.  Conversely, the same textbooks are only too quick and willing to point out Christian excesses during the Inquisition, and just flat out lie about the motivations of the Christians during the Crusades.  Yes, there were bad things supposedly done in the name of Christianity during the Crusades, but the Crusades were a defensive response to the rising threat of Islam, not an offensive campaign meant to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Some schools and individual teachers have also gone way too far in their efforts to teach their students about Islamic doctrine, such as having students visit a mosque and be shown how to pray toward Mecca (which happened in Massachusetts), or having students do a project where they role play as Muslims engaging in a pilgrimage on the way to Mecca.  I have trouble imagining a teacher having her 6th graders role play Jesus's Disciples on the way to Jerusalem. 

The bottom line is that if parents in California are going to get upset about their 7th grade children learning about Islam, they need to understand that in 6th grade, their children were exposed to crapload of other world religions to include Christianity and Judaism, along with all those eastern religions as well.  They also need to understand that it is perfectly acceptable to learn about religion in history class.  Stop saying, "I thought students couldn't learn religion in school!"  They can.  How in the hell do you properly learn about the history of the world without understanding the motivations for why so many people did what they did?  Religion kind of played a big role in those motivations, dontcha think?