Teaching About the Civil War

Originally posted on April 14, 2011 by Shennan Hutton

Happy 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War! It’s certainly a bitter anniversary for our nation, although easier for us than for those who had to live through it. The recent exchange of salvos over the “cause” of the Civil War shows that controversy is still alive and well. Since people have always viewed the nation’s history as a part of national identity, deciding what should be taught to children about the national past involves strong opinions motivated by a concern for the present and future nation. Such a sad and bitter event as the Civil War, as well as the sad and bitter tragedy of slavery, is a difficult thing to explain to children, and a source of much concern to adults.

It’s interesting, therefore, to hear what children have to say about the Civil War. I’ve only heard this second-hand, through their teachers, so don’t rely too heavily on my evidence. However, at the recent meeting of the Blueprint teacher leaders, four 8th-grade teachers agreed that their students come into their study of the Civil War believing that the war was exclusively about slavery. Thirteen-year-olds believe that the war was a struggle between the good guys in the North and the bad guys in the South. They don’t understand how anyone could have thought that slavery was a good idea. To them, the Civil War was clearly destined to end up exactly as it did. Our Blueprint teacher leaders said that breaking down these student preconceptions is the most difficult challenge they face in teaching the Civil War unit. They want students to understand that there was more than one cause of the Civil War, and that regional differences within the United States were much stronger then than they are now. They wish students to realize that the constitutional issues over the powers of the federal and state governments could have been decided quite differently. They want students to recognize that there were supporters of slavery in the North and opponents of slavery in the South, and evaluating people as “good” or “bad” based on modern morality, particularly on just one issue, may be easy, but it’s not good history.

I first learned about the Civil War in 4th grade. My family had just moved from Florida (2 years after we had moved there from New York) to Pass Christian, Mississippi, a beautiful little town on the Gulf Coast that was recently devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I learned from my little classmates that I was a northerner, and therefore an enemy (although they didn’t hate me permanently for it.) In the 1960s, the Civil War was a vivid memory to white Southerners, and its loss had continued to embitter each succeeding generation. I have no idea how it is now, since I moved away from the South in 1970. No one ever told me that slavery was right, but I did hear a lot about how northerners had destroyed the lives of the Southerners (white and black) who had all been happy before the northerners arrived. Young as I was, I didn’t even realize that the Civil Rights movement was going on all around me, but I did learn a lot about the Civil War before I ever studied it in the classroom.

I suppose that one could say that our Blueprint teachers are clearly teaching in California and not in Mississippi, where children’s attitudes might be different. However, I imagine that Mississippi history teachers today face the same challenge that California history teachers do: how to move children from the simple good vs. evil judgment of a past event to a more complex interpretation. This, to me, is the primary responsibility of history teachers; to introduce students to multiple points of view and differing interpretations. History is not a body of facts to be transmitted whole to the next generation. Historians debate issues and defend their differing interpretations with evidence from primary sources. The continuing debate over the causes of the Civil War is actually a vivid example of the true nature of history.

I argue that the debate about teaching the Civil War should focus on how to move students from the Hollywood version of the Civil War (the single cause and the good guys vs. the bad guys) to an understanding that there were multiple causes, and debates continue about those causes, as well as to the appreciation that it’s more important to try to understand what different groups of people thought they were doing in the past than to judge them by modern standards.