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James Robertson Jr. and the late Randy Peacock

Civil War Story

When Ken Burns' teacher became his student

by Janet Peacock

From the September, 2017 issue

I didn't realize, when Ken Burns' Civil War series made its debut on PBS in 1990, that it would change my life. My husband, Randy Peacock, was ecstatic; Ken had been a student of his at Pioneer High School. He said: "The student has become a great teacher." Shortly thereafter, we embarked on our own Civil War journey, one that lasted more than two decades.

Randy was a voracious reader, devouring books on subjects that captured his interest. Before we visited a battlefield, he would research it, studying the actions taken by both Union and Confederate commanders. At first I was just the dutiful wife, tagging along. But Randy's enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated by his ability to make me feel what was happening during a battle. I could hear the bullets whizzing by me as we walked the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh. I felt a tightness in my gut as I walked with Pickett's division into almost certain death from Union cannon at Gettysburg. But the place that moved me most was Antietam. As I stood by the sunken road, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the human sacrifice there on September 17, 1862--nearly 23,000 killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest day in American history.

Over twenty years, we visited almost every battlefield east of the Mississippi and several to the west. I had my own private tutor who made this history come alive. In the last few years, though, Randy's mobility issues curtailed our battlefield explorations, although he continued his reading and learning. I lost my battlefield guide last September, on the anniversary of Antietam. This spring I decided to sell his extensive Civil War library and to donate the proceeds to some Civil War preservation effort.

Sometimes things work out in a way that brings a fitting closure to a journey. PBS had a "Thank a Teacher" campaign this May, and Ken Burns named Randy as his favorite teacher, saying Randy made

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him feel "joyously connected to history." More than twenty-five years earlier, Randy had recognized Ken as a great teacher; now Ken was recognizing Randy.

The other event was Jack Dempsey and Brian Egen's presentation at a meeting of the Ann Arbor Civil War Round Table. Jack, a local attorney and Civil War scholar, and Brian, executive producer at the Henry Ford museum, coauthored Michigan at Antietam in 2015. They spoke about Michigan soldiers' role in that battle and the effort to erect a monument to them there. The land had been procured, but more money was needed for the monument.

By the end of their presentation, I knew where the proceeds of the sale of Randy's books would go. What better cause than one that connects Michigan and the Civil War! Randy would have approved.


For more information about the Michigan Antietam monument, email
    (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2017.]


On September 24, 2017, Carol Pon wrote:
I had Mr Peacock at Pioneer for a Russian History class. His enthusiasm and his joy of teaching made the course and the experience memorable. He remains one of my favorite teachers!

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