OPTION A: Writing and Remembering Early American Conflicts

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In this assignment, you will write a history on your own pages, using the stories you find in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers, officers, and wartime civilians; or in the newspapers published during military conflicts.

You will be writing your research paper on the roles, experiences, and daily lives of african american union soldiers during the civil war. You are to note not only the struggles of soldiers finding their identity and ones place while dealing with the issues of acceptance and integration.

The colonial historian Rhys Isaac defined history as “stories that historians write on their own pages fashioned from the stories they find in the archives.” Isaac himself used a plantation owner’s diary as his window into the larger history of colonial Virginia. In this assignment, you will write a history on your own pages, using the stories you find in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers, officers, and wartime civilians; or in the newspapers published during military conflicts.

PART ONE: Finding Sources:

You will be writing a history based on primary source that will be the touchstone for your research and thinking over the course of the semester.You have two options to locate one. Be bold, and use a source that seems totally bizarre, intriguing, or unfamiliar. Use sources that touch on people, places, or events that are strange or new to you. Above all, choose a source you’ll enjoy.

OPTION A: Writing and Remembering Early American Conflicts

Choose either a collection of letters, a diary, or a memoir by a soldier, officer, or civilian; the author’s subject MUST be a conflict involving the United States or colonial North America that took place prior to 1900. Use your own criteria to select a source. What conflict/era interests you most? Are you interested in a particular geographic place? Are you interested in a day-by-day account of military life, or a memoir from many years later? Are you interested in social, cultural, or political aspects of military life, or are you more interested in questions of strategy, professionalization, or motivation?

A glance at the footnotes of our coursebooks for the semester will yield many first-person accounts. Some narratives will be available in the Brooklyn College Library. Some will be available through inter-library loan. Some will be available on Google Books or via electronic databases. Others will be inaccessibly located in faraway archives (in which case you probably should choose another source, unless you’d like to discuss this possibility with the professor). I have listed a selection of first person accounts below—these are only a sample of the kinds of narratives available! Looking at these sources in the Brooklyn College Library online catalog or in the stacks will yield other nearby (or related) sources. For this option, I do not recommend choosing a high-ranking general (Washington, Grant, Lee, etc.), as your subject. You will be overwhelmed very quickly.

Analyze your primary source(s). Then write a paper with a coherent argument based on your analysis. Begin by considering: What is your source? Who wrote it, and why? When and where was it written? Was the source written in a particular way for an intended audience? What issues do the sources address? How do you think they came across for different audiences? What clues do these sources offer about broader issues? What questions might you ask about the source, and how might you try to answer these questions? What clues does your source offer? Use the sources to draw inferences and formulate a hypothesis. Do these sources present a mystery or conundrum? If so, it will be your task to solve it. As you draw conclusions about the significance of your source, you may wish to begin by laying out a set of unanswered questions that might lead to a conclusion. You will want to be a careful analyst, falling in between the two extremes of, on the one hand, being seduced by the author’s hype, or, on the other hand, disbelieving your source to the point of wholesale dismissal.

Do not use outside research

Now that you’ve isolated particular questions about your source, find out where these questions fit in a historical context. Use secondary sources, as well as your primary source, to explore some aspect of American military history. (You may incorporate some of your work from Part Two.) Figure out where your source fits within a wider historical context. Have historians overlooked the issues your source raises? Does your source have particular historical significance?How does the secondary source literature place your primary sources in context and make them understandable? Using the footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies in the secondary sources, try to determine whether (and how) other historians have used your primary source.

For this assignment you should use at least TWO BOOKS and TWO JOURNAL ARTICLES aside from those assigned for the class (and aside from the book containing your source, if pursuing Option A). Use academic books as well as academic journal articles, not popular books, textbooks, or magazines. Most websites and encyclopedias should be avoided except as reference tools. The more effort you put into your research, the more impressive your paper will be. You may also wish to incorporate other primary sources (if available), but this is not mandatory—it will depend on the content of your specific paper.

Now draw some conclusions. What aspects of history, or developments within history, does your source illustrate? Have historians sufficiently appreciated this source as evidence? How does the larger context of American military history make this source more comprehensible? Were the issues raised in this source more important to contemporaries than they are to historians now? Or perhaps vice versa? It may also be very important to address: do different historians take different perspectives on the issues in question? You need not answer all these questions, but one or more of these inquiries should point you in the direction of a conclusion. The goal here is to critically engage and analyze your primary source as well as the secondary literature, and develop an argument.

Remember, history does not always present an easy or complete picture. Try not to be discouraged if you run into setbacks, pitfalls, or dead ends, and try to avoid wandering too far into irrelevant tangents. Build towards a central argument, even if your sources are pulling you in different directions. Your job as a historian is to be clever as well as careful, imaginative as well as discriminating.

In addition to full footnotes (do not use parenthetical citations for this paper), make sure to include a bibliography at the end of your paper.


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