Kevin Levin, G'05

Graduate explores Civil War memories

November 16, 2012

Kevin Levin, G’05, calls his interest in the Civil War an accident.

In the early 1990s, he traveled to Boonsboro in western Maryland and came close to the Antietam National Battlefield. He remembers touring the battlefield and soon after, he was immersed in Civil War research and study.

“I can't think of a more important moment in American history, where so many issues, including the very future of the nation itself was in doubt,” Levin says. “I am interested in how individuals responded to the dramatic shifts that took place in the 1860s and its legacy for our own time.”

That brief moment ultimately led to a graduate degree in history and, most recently, publishing a book, “Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.” Levin’s book is a study of how Americans have remembered race and the Civil War through one particular battle — the Battle of the Crater — which was fought outside of Petersburg on July 30, 1864, and included an entire division of U.S. Colored Troops.

The book examines how the division’s presence influenced the way Confederates framed the battle in their letters and diaries. Subsequent chapters explore Confederate reunion ceremonies on the battlefield, reenactments, how the battle became the center of postwar politics during the Reconstruction Era. This exploration is an expansion of the subject of his master’s thesis, which he completed under the guidance of Robert Kenzer, professor of history and American studies.

“A big chunk of the book was written as my M.A. thesis, which I completed in 2005,” he says. “I ended up making substantial changes to the manuscript in response to reviewer suggestions, but the core of my thesis is still visible in the book.”

In 2005, Levin, who has also written for The Atlantic and The New York Times, started a blog called Civil War Memory. The subject of historical memory, he says, has been a popular topic among academics, but he wanted to engage Civil War enthusiasts from various backgrounds. 

“My goal was to use the blog platform to share my interest in the Civil War and historical memory with as broad an audience as possible,” he says. “What we remember and how we remember is constantly changing depending on the needs or interests of subsequent generations. The blog allows me to bridge the divide between what is being remembered (history) and the rememberer.”

Working as an instructor of history at the Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass., Levin says he is particularly interested in the use of primary sources and the role of social media in the classroom. He says that web tools now make it possible for students to think critically about how they want to interpret and present material to the general public, whether through videos, digital timelines, blogs, or traditional websites.

“Social media has fundamentally changed what it means to do history in the classroom,” he says. “We now have an incredibly rich amount of primary source material that is accessible online, which allows students to think like historians in the digital age. It's an exciting time to teach and study history.”

As a result of his interest in blogging and digital tools, Levin is now working on developing educational materials for an e-book on the Civil War and Reconstruction. He says that the e-book format offers many avenues to present material and allows for student interaction.

“This particular project is built, in part, on a simulation based on [University of Richmond President] Ed Ayers's Valley of the Shadow project that allows students to role play real characters from the Shenandoah Valley,” he says. “They must make decisions and interact with others in response to news and events on the local and national stage. Nothing like this is possible in a traditional textbook.”

Living in Boston, Levin wants to engage into something more local. He is collecting information about the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry for a possible regimental history and he says that he may at some point try to write something about Massachusetts Governor John Andrew during the Civil War.

“I am working on a couple of projects,” he says. “The first is a study of Confederate camp servants, which explores the master-slave relationship in camp, on the march, and in battle. It also examines how the stories of these men evolved more recently into the myth of the black Confederate soldier.”