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What were you taught about the US Civil War? - Input Junkie
April 9th, 2013
12:01 pm

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What were you taught about the US Civil War?
I used to be impressed with how much people from southern states knew about the civil war. I thought they were all hobbyists, but then I found out they'd been taught a lot in school, which shows less individual initiative. If you're comfortable doing so, let me know when and where you went to school. If you went to school in more than one place, did you notice differences about the civil war? How much civil war material was offered at your college?

I grew up in Delaware in the 60s, and I don't have the impression I was taught in much detail, but I hated history. It seemed like a combination of boredom and people hurting each other.

It's okay if you tell me about what you were told about the hot button issues like the causes of the civil war (was it slavery or something else?), but I'm at least as interested about other aspects. Was it battle by battle? How much was your state or immediate region emphasized?

If you weren't educated in the US, I don't mind hearing about what you were taught about the US Civil war, but I'm also interested in regional differences in what's taught about events there rather than here.

There was a bit on NPR (sorry, I'm not sure when or which show, maybe This American Life) from a southerner who was taught about the civil war as a heroic endeavor and didn't find out until she was in college that the south had lost. If it was This American Life, they mix fact and fiction. Have you ever run across something that extreme?

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From:malkingrey
Date:April 9th, 2013 05:01 pm (UTC)
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Well, I grew up in the South, and frankly, it would have required either an active effort at ignorance or some stupendously bad teaching for me to have left school thinking that the South had won the Civil War. Of course, back then there were still people around who, while they hadn't themselves been alive at the time, would have been able when they were young to talk to people who had been there.

By now it's all stuff that happened a long time ago to dead people, so God knows what they're teaching in the schools.

I've derived a certain amount of entertainment (in the intellectual chew-toy sense of the word) from watching the causes of the Civil War mutate over the years. When I first became aware of the war as a historical event that had to have been about something (because why else would all those people have been fighting each other), the war was about slavery -- possibly because it was a nice clear-cut one-word answer suitable for giving to an inquisitive primary-grades schoolgirl. By the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade, the war was about preserving the Union, and by the time I was in high school, it was about states' rights. By the time I hit college, the economic issues of tariffs and such had been raised, but the prof was mostly a Union-and-slavery guy so he stuck with that.

Now, of course, the consensus has swung back to ending slavery again. I think it pretty much had to, because there's no other cause -- not even preserving the Union -- that could ennoble so much mutual slaughter. (Preserving the Union could justify it, in my opinion, but that's not the same thing.)
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:April 9th, 2013 07:15 pm (UTC)
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I expect "tariffs and such" were really why the Powers that Be committed so much resource to such destruction.

My current view fwiw is that wars are 'about' different things at different levels of class and education. We see the war with Iraq as about oil and Halliburton and such, or about re-electing Bush. Weapons of mass destruction and burquas and such were the stuff to give the troops, and so were 'freeing the slaves' and 'preserving the Union' imo.
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From:malkingrey
Date:April 9th, 2013 05:12 pm (UTC)
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Also, I didn't get so much of the "heroic efforts of Our Glorious Home State", mostly because I was living in first Florida and then Texas and then (in college) Arkansas, and they were all kind of on the periphery of the main conflicts.
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From:elenbarathi
Date:April 9th, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
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I was a Civil War geek, all on my own, years before the school got around to teaching about it. From preschool through third grade I was in California, but those were the years of the Civil War centennial, and I was captivated by the songs, the gallant riders, the laments for the valiant young soldiers fallen - it's the Bardic tradition that keeps those feelings alive, that makes dry History mean something real. It's the same what has kept the Troubles alive in Ireland all these many years, when without it there might have been acceptance of a status quo, and a lot less bloodshed.

My parents were Nebraskans, but they were stationed in Memphis for a year when I was born, so I could legitimately claim to have been born on the Rebel side, and I fought the Civil War over - all on my own - for three years, which was how long the actual Civil War lasted. But then in third grade, I found out about the slavery thing, and what had been done to people, and realized I'd been fighting on the wrong side all that time.

It's hard to explain, half a century after the fact, what a shock that was. I'd never actually seen any black people, and the childrens' literature of the time did not really mention them, so these 'slaves' were vague and hypothetical in my mind. But then there was a black girl, older than me, who walked home from school past our house; the first black person I ever saw. I asked my mother why some people were black - she was pruning her roses at the time, and she answered "People come in different colors, like red and yellow roses", which seemed eminently logical to me.

However, it did not explain why some people thought it was okay to do terrible things to other people, for no reason but that they were a different color, which (as I was given to understand) was for no reason but to protect their skin from sun-burn in the fiery tropic regions where their ancestors lived. This was around 1965, 1966 - a big deal for me, my philosophical break with the Confederacy, which nobody knew about because I was just a weird little kid on a 'Civil War kick' - which might have been acceptable in a boy, but was just embarrassing in a girl.

But - here's the deal - I had been brought up to take the teachings of Christ seriously. Nebraskan Scandinavian Lutheran, it doesn't get much more 'Scriptural' than that, and my parents were scrupulous in their adherence. I couldn't see that there was any possible way to reconcile the keeping of slaves with either the teachings of Christ or the precepts of the United States as delineated by Mr. Thomas Jefferson. Therefore I accepted Lee's having surrendered with good grace and no hard feelings, and switched my allegiance to Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who had the most astonishing plane there's ever been - like a giant red box-kite with a lawn-mower engine! - not realizing at the time, that philosophically I was on the wrong side again. But that's a different story.

Anyway: it wasn't until 8th Grade (in New Jersey) that we had the Civil War in class, and then I aced right through it, having geekily absorbed all that knowledge six years previously, and also knowing all the songs. That was a very good class, and we sang all those songs on the bus on our field trip to Gettysburg, which I had always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, it was a school field trip, so we did not get to run free there, and for my next visit at age 30, I was with a husband in a snit, and barely saw anything. Some day I hope to go back, and do the horse tour there if I am not too old to ride by that time.

After 8th grade I had tutors, and then went away to school in Pennsylvania, where I don't recall anything about the Civil War. I had one excellent Political Science class, my senior year of High School, but it was focused on the modern era mostly. Don't recall anything about the Civil War in college either, but my major was Early Childhood Ed, which doesn't require a lot of history.



Edited at 2013-04-09 06:45 pm (UTC)
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From:asakiyume
Date:April 9th, 2013 11:25 pm (UTC)
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What a remarkable child you must have been--and it made me smile when I got to the part about switching allegiance to the Red Baron :-)
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From:wcg
Date:April 9th, 2013 06:21 pm (UTC)
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I went to Catholic schools in Detroit and Tucson. The coverage of the Civil War was fairly thorough in my 8th grade American History and 11th grade American History classes. In 11th grade, in Arizona, we got the extra bit about the almost comical (save that people died) "battle" of Picacho Peak.

My wife, Paula, went to school in Texas and got immersed in The War Between The States to the point she was sick of it. But she also got it at home, from her father, who had a pretty extensive library on the topic. She was a history major in college, and knew enough about what had gone on to be pretty good at debunking the wilder claims that still show up in more southerly climes. Having lost a g-g-grandfather and a couple of g-g-uncles in that war, she had enough "skin in the game" to be taken seriously, but she still dismayed other southerners by taking positions that didn't completely agree with Accepted Doctrine.
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From:selenite
Date:April 9th, 2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
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Born and raised in New York. Got very little about the Civil War (about slavery, South lost).

I've never run into a Southerner who was unaware the South had lost. It's more common to find those still actively carrying a grudge over it. But my school probably produced a few students who think the American Revolution was fought against the French so that level of ignorance doesn't amaze me.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:April 9th, 2013 07:10 pm (UTC)
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I went to a rural school in Texas in the 1950s, but most of what I learned about the Civil War was from my family (southerners from Georgia and Tennessee and Louisiana/East Texas), and/or from GONE WITH THE WIND (book, not movie).

My mother (who was born in 1907) said that our side (South) made the mistake of firing the first shot. We were over-confident, sort of wanted to kick ass, not just to separate by negotiation, or resolve the conflicts without separation.

As the slogan of the American Revolution was 'Taxation without representation is tyranny', the slogan of the Confederate side was 'Compulsory union is a contradiction in terms'. Our take was that, as in California divorce law, when either party wants out, for any reason, the divorce should be granted; a sound reconciliation is more likely after a peaceful divorce, than after a forced 'union'. I've forgotten which historian at that tiem wrote an alt-hist "If the South Had Won the Civil War" in which a quick and less destructive end had resulted in the countries being as good neighbors as the US and Canada, and by the 1950s considering re-merging for commerical and other positive reasons. On the level of principle, the important one was that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed".

But that was more my family's view than the West Texas rural school's, which had us recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and sing "Where the grapes of wrath are trod".

As for slavery, I seem to remember even the school teachers (my parents were teachers also) saying that Abolition was a world-wide movement and was sought by peaceful means elsewhere, and would have phased out soon anyway. (And somewhere I learned that the slaves had been captured and brought by 'Yankee clilppers', slavery had been legal in northern states till about 50 years before the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation was not done till after several years of war, and Lincoln had earlier assured the slave states that he had no intention of ending slavery.)
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From:nancylebov
Date:April 9th, 2013 10:04 pm (UTC)
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If you want lots and lots about how the Confederate States chose to secede, I recommend Confederate Reckoning, which portrays is as a high status conspiracy that imposed secession on people who mostly would have rather let let things drift.
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From:asakiyume
Date:April 9th, 2013 11:36 pm (UTC)
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I was in school in the 1970s and grew up outside of Albany, NY. We got a sketchy version of things (underground railroad, etc.) in fifth grade, a chronological run-through I think in seventh grade (possibly eighth, though--I can only remember two things from each year's social studies, and neither has to do with the Civil War), and then for real and certain in eleventh grade. In eleventh grade we learned it battle by battle and were given a constellation of reasons why it happened: slavery, states' rights v. preserving the union, and agrarian v. industrial needs.

I don't recall New York State's role being particularly emphasized, except maybe back in fifth grade--again, that underground railroad connection.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:April 10th, 2013 03:00 am (UTC)
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why the South was shooting itself in the foot by having the war in the first place

Other than macho rapier twirling? I went to your site and couldn't find your novel.
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From:autopope
Date:April 10th, 2013 03:30 am (UTC)
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Educated in the UK, took history up to O level (age 16).

Total coverage of the US civil war: zip.

Total coverage of the US war of independence: nil.

Total coverage of the USA prior to 1916: nothing.

History was invented by the ancient greeks and petered out in Queen Elizabeth the First's reign. It then begam again in time for the O-level exam syllabus, which covered 1870-1970 (but in practice stopped at 1945). Main focus: European history with a specific emphasis on the Franco-German rivalry that ran through the Franco-Prussian war and on up through WW1 and WW2.

The USA was a side-show.
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From:nancylebov
Date:April 10th, 2013 03:37 am (UTC)
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I'll keep this in mind the next time Americans are accused of being parochial.
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From:fidelioscabinet
Date:April 10th, 2013 03:45 am (UTC)
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Both my parents were old enough that there were living veterans of the war around when they were children; their grandparents had been children or teenagers during the war.

I grew up in Missouri, which was not only a border state but also had a role in the "Bleeding Kansas' fights of the 1850s. We did our best to pretend that the Civil War (and in Missouri, for reasons that are obvious when you look at the course of the war in that state, it was the Civil War, because the state was so divided and there was a great deal of guerrilla warfare going on) was something that happened in all the other states, despite the fact that the town I grew up in was a significant Union outpost (there was a railhead there, leading up to St. Louis, and an ironworks where they made some of the armor for Grant's gunboats). It was also a point that the war was over slavery, but with that whole Bleeding Kansas thing it's hard to fall back on tariffs and trade issues. Anyway: Missouri--Civil War--painful subject.

My mother's maternal great-grandfather was drafted into the Union army, at the age of 45. He could have scraped up the money to hire a substitute, but that was no protection against the next call-up, so he went, and contracted dysentery, which ruined his health after the war. I don't think he lived to be 55. His brother-in-law vanished; he was taken away by guerrilla raiders and never seen again. They had to have him declared dead by a judge after the war. My mother's maternal grandmother lost two uncles, who were killed by guerrilla raiders while they were plowing--which side their killers were on was unclear.
There's also General Order Number 11, which is the subject of a painting by George Caleb Bingham.

My father's family is from Mississippi. The older members of his family would say the war was started because the southern states feared that if Kansas and Nebraska entered the union as free states, slavery would eventually be ended by constitutional amendment*, and that the northern states fought to preserve the Union, because once it started coming apart who could say where it would end? Freeing the slaves was tacked on after the war started, and I think it was inevitable. My father had relatives who fought and were killed at Shiloh and Vicksburg. Sherman's Meridian raid passed through his home county, and left plenty of stories behind it. They didn't celebrate the Fourth of July until World War II--my fathers and his siblings grew up shooting off their firecrackers at New Year's.

I do know southerners who want to call it the War Between the States, on the grounds that the states were seen by the founders as discrete political entities; these folks claim that a civil war would be between two or more sides within a state. It's an interesting argument but I am not impressed, partly because there was an overall political entity in question, and partly because I can see the cold dead hand of John C. Calhoun moving from beyond the grave there to empower that sophistry. I do not want Undead John C. Calhoun! He was enough trouble alive. As for those "War of Northern Aggression" folks--South Carolina shot first, and we all know it; unlike Han Solo they were not in mortal danger at the time. As Sherman observed, when you start a fight, and invite someone to come over so you can kick his ass (rough paraphrase there) you don't get to complain when he shows up.


*Which happened. So much for seceding to stop it! Nice try.
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From:malkingrey
Date:April 10th, 2013 06:09 am (UTC)
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They didn't celebrate the Fourth of July until World War II--my fathers and his siblings grew up shooting off their firecrackers at New Year's.

My father's family set off fireworks at Christmas "because the Fourth of July is a Yankee holiday" -- but by the time my brother and my cousins and I came on the scene, we were getting fireworks on the Fourth and fireworks at Christmas as well. So the times and customs were already changing by then. I don't know if they set off fireworks at Christmas any more.

(My father's parents wouldn't even let him go north to college at Cornell, even though he won a scholarship there. So he dropped out of the University of Arkansas after one year, it being 1939 at the time, with the intention of going to Canada and joining the RAF. It occurred to him en route that he might want to learn to fly an airplane first, and by the time he'd spent a year or so working on a way to do that, it was 1941 and he joined the Army Air Force instead. He ended up teaching fixed and flexible gunnery on a series of Air Force bases and never getting sent overseas -- presumably because a guy who could do a good job of teaching a skill like that to a succession of other guys was too valuable a resource to get shot down over Europe. But that, as they say, is another story.)
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From:ndrosen
Date:April 10th, 2013 04:26 am (UTC)
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I attended high school in Pennsylvania during the later 1970s. I remember a tour (in elementary school, I think) of the Boalsburg Military Museum a few miles from my own town of State College, with someone saying that the Civil War was fought over States' rights rather than slavery. Even then, I think I had my doubts.

Anyway, we studied the Civil War systematically in high school, and I remember handouts of various documents having some bearing on the subject, as well as bits of what the teacher said in class. For example, there was a reminiscence, "Christmas on the Rappahanock," describing a brief Christmas truce when soldiers on opposing sides socialized with each other, and traded "Lincoln coffee" for Southern persimmons. I don't remember the teacher proclaiming, "The CW was about slavery," or "about tariffs" or "about states' rights." She taught us about battles, and political squabbles in Congress, and other matters.

I remember one class when one of the other teachers, not the history teacher, brought in the Minie rifle whcih an ancestor of his had carried during the Civil War. He had had the stock lightened after the war, to use the rifle for hunting and whatnot, but ti still seemed pretty large and heavy to me. The ancestor had been in Andersonville -- we studied that -- so he probably wasn't in the best of health afterward.
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From:redneckgaijin
Date:April 10th, 2013 08:10 pm (UTC)
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American History was a two-year course during my public schooling in Texas. Year 1 ended with the Civil War; Year 2 began with Reconstruction. Unfortunately, Texas schools of the time being what they were, no class ever got to the end of the textbook during the school year, so my official Civil War education was a hurried and untested glossover two days before summer vacation.

I've done a LOT of reading since then. I recommend "The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader," a collection of original documents from pre-war, during-war, and post-war Southern governments and politicians first demonstrating how the war for them was first, last and always about slavery... and then demonstrating how blithely they lied about it afterwards.

The South lost the war, but for a century afterwards they won the peace.
From:paulshandy
Date:April 13th, 2013 05:22 am (UTC)
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Taking an AP history class in Iowa, it amounted to this: the South had been using the federal government to enforce nation wide rights to own slaves, and when they lost control of the federal government they threw a fit and tried pulling out, telling Northerners that they were defending states' rights and their own people that they were defending slavery. Then they lost the war and pretended it was all about states' rights from the beginning. The North let them get away with trying to rewrite history for the sake of national reconcilation.
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