The President and His General

When George Brinton McClellan became the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, hopes were high for nearly everyone in the Union. From the President himself to the soldiers fighting in the war, McClellan demanded respect. After a humiliating defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln selected McClellan to replace General Irvin McDowell as leader and McClellan quickly decided he was worth of the nomination. The General wrote to his wife Mary Ellen on July 27, 1861:

“I find myself in a new & strange position here – Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me – by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me – “

Just three days later, McClellan wrote to his wife again:

“Who would have thought when we were married, that I should so soon be called upon to save my country? I learn that before I came on they said in Richmond, that there was only one man they feared & that was McClellan.”

images-1Unfortunately for McClellan, not everyone in Washington felt as strongly about the General as he did about himself. Once McClellan replaced Winfield Scott as Commander of the Union army, it was only a few months before the President expressed his frustration with the General’s lack of activity. From April of 1862 to November of 1862, Lincoln went from frustrated-but-understanding to outright angry at George McClellan.

This website is intended to not only show the relationship of Lincoln and McClellan and its deterioration over the course of 1862, but also allow teachers to see how history can be engaging for high school students. By beginning historical inquiry with a research question or idea, students can narrow down their focus. This site follows the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan. Students could explore the relationship between McClellan and Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. They could investigate the relationship between McClellan and his wife. Or they could go in a completely different direction. In any case, there are plenty of resources and examples here at the “Lincoln and McClellan” webpage to get you started.

Engaging High School Students in Historical Inquiry

While this site serves as an investigation into the Abraham Lincoln-George McClellan relationship during the Civil War, it is also intended to be a resource for teachers and students in high school Social Studies classrooms. As more and more states embrace the Common Core Standards and 21st Century skills become more valuable for students to learn and utilize, teachers will be seeking lessons and activities to engage their students. While using technology and online resources can be a bit daunting for educators, it is essential to ensure our students are prepared for college and the workforce. As Marc Presnky, founder and CEO of Games2train, wrote in his essay “Adopt and Adapt: Twenty-First-Century Schools Need Twenty-First-Century Technology”:

“If we want to move the useful adoption of technology forward, it is crucial for educators to learn to listen, to observe, to ask, and to try all the new methods their students have already figured out, and do so regularly”

567389_origOur students are creating websites, tweeting, making podcasts and even programming their own software and games. Students don’t need to be taught HOW to use these 21st century tools, they need to be taught how to use effectively in the classroom. The Common Core asks students to become better readers, essentially to use texts (like primary sources) to figure out key ideas. Here are two standards for 9th and 10th graders in Social Studies and three for 11th and 12th graders:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

While many teachers will resort to the “old ways” of having students break down a text in class (whether it be a primary source or textbook), there are myriad ways to have students engage with their reading material and have fun doing it. On this site, you will find four examples of ways students can demonstrate proficiency in the Common Core standards while also showing their ability to be prepared for the future work force. Please browse the tabs listed above and explore the ways your students can engage with primary sources. My hope is that you become inspired to try some of these strategies out yourself in your classroom.