Students were asked to write six reflection papers during the course of the term. The assignment for the final reflection paper is provided below.
Formulating a Strategy for the Final Reflection Paper on "Who Got it Right"
- Think of this as a comparative book review in which you assess the strengths and weaknesses of McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and Ken Burns' The Civil War. These are the two main works to be compared, though you are certainly welcome to refer to other readings we did this term, like Donald's little book, Why the North Won, or Sam Watkins's Co. Aytch.
Formulating a plan: When I write a book review or assess an unpublished manuscript for a publisher, I evaluate it on four levels:
- Interpretation/overall tone
- Style of presentation/felicity of expression/clarity
For an analytical essay like the one you are being asked to prepare, content and interpretation are the most important elements to consider.
Some questions to ask are:
What is distinctive about the content (and style) of McPherson vs. Burns with reference to:
- Richness (both visual and descriptive) of the material being discussed
- Ability to project into the 1860s and recapture the essence of the Civil War;? The connectedness/continuity of the subjects being discussed; the relationships and insights being made?
- The overall grasp of the big picture and larger implications of the war?
- Effectiveness of presentation (McPherson's single voice vs. Burns' talking heads approach [David McCullough, Shelby Foote, Stephen Oates, Barbara Fields, Ed Bearss, et al.])?
- Ability to capture the inherent complexities of the conflict?
What are the differences in interpretation between McPherson and Burns?
What are their interpretative approaches to Civil War? How do they differ? Do they project a different tone or attitude about the war and why it was fought? To what extent do their interpretations of the war agree?
- Example: one significant difference is Burns' focus on personalities (great leaders/great battles) versus McPherson's focus on political processes and especially what he considers the highly contingent nature of the war (see his last chapter for a discussion of contingency).
- Another example: Their varying viewpoints about why the North won. At one point in Part 7 of Burns' The Civil War, historian Shelby Foote remarks that "The North fought that war with one hand behind its back." Contrast that comment with McPherson's discussion of "Why the North Won" (again, see his last chapter). To what extent is McPherson's interpretation of the war more open-ended than Burns? Is Burns' interpretation more in line with Richard Current's discussion in Donald's book, Why the North Won?
- What other contrasts can you think of? Does one leave out important material discussed by the other? Does one convey subtle nuances missed by the other? Does one present a more romantic view of the war and war making than the other? Etc., etc.
- What are their interpretative approaches to Civil War? How do they differ? Do they project a different tone or attitude about the war and why it was fought? To what extent do their interpretations of the war agree?
Once you have teased out these differences/similarities, come to a conclusion about who did the best job of conveying the realities and larger implications of the Civil War. In short, come to a well-reasoned conclusion about "who got it right" in your view.