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On the Front Line
The Alumni College trip to Civil War battlefields was a victory for continuing education – and a whole lot of fun.

Civil War reenactors Cathy Weigly and Laurence Schiller accompanied Jack Koefoot (McC46).

The titanic struggle of mid-19th-century America known as the Civil War came to life vividly for the 45 participants in the Alumni College’s most recent program, Alumni College: The Civil War, in Fredericksburg, Va.

Lectures and discussions led by Northwestern faculty combined with tours of Civil War battlefields stimulated and occupied the participants during the four-day adventure.

"The program really exceeded our expectations," said Paul Densford (McC61), who went on the trip with his wife, Pat (Mu60). "It gave a much different view of what we had learned about the Civil War."

Alumni College, now sponsored by the Northwestern Alumni Association, brings University faculty and alumni together in travel programs that cover a broad array of topics and combine intellectual challenge and fun – with no stressful exams or papers at the end. Instead of studying dusty maps and faded diagrams in a stuffy classroom, the Civil War trip participants analyzed several war-related historical issues while visiting battlefields where a good deal of that history unfolded.

Indeed, the sites bore witness to some of the war’s most crucial moments. The grounds at Fredericksburg marked a disastrous defeat for the North in December 1862. Union Gen. A.E. Burnside failed to dislodge the Confederates entrenched in the town – leading to his being relieved of command shortly thereafter. The following spring the battle of Chancellorsville marked Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory, over Gen. Joseph Hooker, made bittersweet by the mortal wounding of the South’s legendary Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson by friendly fire.

A year later at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Union Army of the Potomac again failed to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest single conflicts of the war, with 30,000 killed, wounded or captured. Though Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was not able to prevail at that point for a final victory, enough Confederates perished that the South was never able to fully recover from the loss.

Faculty members were on hand to address a number of more specific topics in their lectures. Professor David Zarefsky (S68, GS69, 74), former dean of the School of Speech, discussed Lincoln’s wartime speeches and some of the famous political debates during the war. Laurence Schiller, a continuing studies lecturer in history, women’s fencing coach and Civil War reenactor, analyzed battlefield tactics. Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford (WCAS69, G71, 75), visiting scholar in the gender studies program, spoke on the role of women in the war, focusing on two women’s efforts at the Sanitary Commission in Chicago.

"[Zarefsky] really gave us a different slant on the debates," said participant Jane Courten (WCAS57). "He had really thought it out, and that really starts you thinking."

"They know their material," Densford agreed. "I think it’d be tough to pull together three other individuals of that caliber."

Each afternoon’s visit to a historical site was led by a costumed local guide who portrayed a character from the Civil War era. Having the guides role-play really brought the tours to life, Courten said, as did the participants’ energy and inquisitiveness.

Both Densford and Courten were impressed with the precise planning and attention to detail in the program and are hoping to take another Alumni College trip.

Courten said the trip renewed her interest in the war – prompting her to revisit the Gettysburg site near her home in Camp Hill, Pa. Densford also decided to pursue the subject further with some extracurricular reading.

As Densford summed it up, "I consider education to be a continual process of life, not just something you do in your childhood. [At Northwestern] they are teaching you to learn, not just teaching the facts. And then maybe you can continue to do that later in life."

– Geeta Kharkar (J02)