Taking a closer look at the American Civil War

By Nika Madyoon

 While the American Civil War represents only a small fragment of all of the history that students are required to learn in their junior year, for Sam Ruddy ’11, it was much more. Ruddy spent about seven hours per week this school year exploring the Civil War, which usually takes no more than a few class periods for United States History students to cover.

Ruddy, whose favorite subject has always been history, had wanted to do an independent study in that discipline ever since he found out about the Senior Independent Study program. It was not until he learned about the Civil War in his 11th grade history class that he knew exactly what he would do his study about.

“The book’s explanation about why the North won the war seemed too simple to me,” he said.

Ruddy chose to investigate “how the failure of Confederate nationalism at the grassroots level” affected the war’s outcome and focused specifically on the turning point of the war. He concentrated on what he decided were the three most critical campaigns during the war—the Atlanta Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the Battle of Mobile Bay, all of which “occurred at the low point of Union morale,” Ruddy said. He proceeded to examine the outcomes produced by these campaigns in terms of the 1864 reelection campaign of the Union.

During the first semester, Ruddy spent his time researching and writing the introduction of his research paper. A decision to change the subject of his paper slightly during second semester set him back a little, as he was forced to spend more time researching when he had originally planned to be writing. With the help of history teacher Kenneth Neisser, who advised Ruddy over the course of his independent study, Ruddy produced a paper that was 48 pages long.

Ruddy took more than just an increased knowledge of the Civil War away from his experience.

“I was really surprised to find out how subjective historiography can be,” Ruddy said. “There is probably even less of a distinctive answer in an analytical essay concerning history than there is in an English essay.”

He explained that the point he deemed the “turning point” of the war was actually a little bit over a year after the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, which most textbooks cite as this “turning point.”

“It’s so easy to interpret facts in completely different ways and there are always new facts to be found that can completely change your view of the war,” he said.

While the experience was “grueling at times,” Ruddy said that overall it was “fun, interesting and extremely rewarding.”

“I would recommend taking an independent study to anybody who is seriously interested in pretty much anything,” Ruddy said. “There’s no better way to get a chance to explore what you’re passionate about in school.”