A New Yorker's Thoughts on Teaching the Civil War in the South

Teachers spend time ruminating on their how their own education inform their opinions, techniques and pedagogy in the classroom. As a history teacher, I reflect on how I was taught and what narrative I was taught in my own middle school social studies class. I, like all people, am a product of my environment...in this case, Long Island, New York. I would like to share some observations I have made about my own learning and offer up what ideas this inspired.

Middle school was about the time I began to realize my complete fascination with people and events in the past. I have joked with fellow historians about how people in the past are not simply people for us; we speak about them as if they were friends or foes and imagine what our relationship would be like with them had we been around then, too. I am happy to say this engagement with the actors of the past is still alive and well. There were pretty strong feelings in my classroom about who was a better person: Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson? In the end, there was no clear "Mr. Popular." Living in southern Louisiana and teaching at an independent school in New Orleans, I have given great thought to how I should present the actors of the years prior to and during the Civil War. I have a feeling the narrative I was once taught in Our Lady of Mercy School probably would not fly in New Orleans.

I want to frame my observations first by saying I am indebted to my 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher. She engaged and inspired me to become a teacher. With that being said, it was not until I was in high school that I discovered most whites in the South did not own slaves. On the flip side, I also did not know most Americans in the northern states not only did not support freedom for slaves, but in fact a large percentage were resistant, fearing they would move into northern cities and compete for jobs with whites. The saddest part of this reality: it was not in class that I discovered this information. Rather, visiting museums, reading on my own and watching documentaries forced me to confront this new information.

The narrative I remember in class went something like this. Southerners were all slaving-owning, whip-toting elites ala Gone With the Wind. Not all slave-owners were cruel, but the majority followed the Uncle Tom’s Cabin approach to owning slaves. Southerners drank tea, used Japanese fans, and talked about “state’s rights.” Northerners, on the other hand, were zealous in their condemnation of slavery. Appalled by the horrors of slavery, the northern states of the Union banded together to tell the South they were evil and when pressed, the South struck first. Abraham Lincoln was the Union’s fearless leader, loved by all, feared by Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The Union, righteous in its cause, were eventually able to overcome the evil slave empire.

Now, can a 13-year old be presented with all the complex strands of a conflict that changed the trajectory of our country? Of course not. Curriculum constraints, time constraints and psychological propriety are always at play in our classrooms. But is it possible for this narrative to be presented in a different way? One that would allow students to see multiple perspectives of the Civil War for both the North and South? You betcha! One of my favorite Public History books is Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. The title of David’s Blight’s article in the book points to my understanding and approach to teaching in my classroom: “If You Don’t Tell It Like It Was, It Can Never Be As It Ought To Be.” Of course...that’s always easier said than done.

As a Yankee whose family came to America several decades after the Civil War, I won’t pretend my ancestors had a direct stake in outcome of the Civil War. I always loved the idea of discovering a Civil War ancestors, but mine were still quite busy resisting British control of Ireland. My students, on the other hand, have a long and strong connection to Louisiana. During my first week of school, a fellow middle school teacher gave me some important insight into a student and her family. She asked me if I had heard of a particular bayou before. Yes, I had heard of it. “Well,” she said casually, “that bayou is named after my family. Has been for years...since before Louisiana was part of America.” Yeah...I don’t remember anything being named for the Plunketts when they came here.

With clearly a long and illustrious history in the South, I come to my big question: how to teach these students about a war even I had a biased story of at their age? I always try to approach my understanding of History by asking myself, why do I believe that? This, hopefully, weeds out any biased ideas I may still have lurking from my youth. I do not want to fall into the trap of over-simplifying things and blaming it on time. My first step? My co-teacher and I planned to spend a month on the events leading to the Civil War and the war itself. There I suppose is one of the beauties of teaching in an independent school. My big concern? Giving my students multiple perspectives on these ideas, events and individuals, without ever letting them feel guilty for living in the South. Now, this could be just a teacher-manufactured fear and in all reality, guilt would not even occur to my students. But judging by their reactions when they confronted some serious civil and human rights violations America has in its past, I’d say there was some internal conflict in some of my students. Some even felt somewhat hopeless, thinking there was nothing they could do to stop it.

No matter where in the world it happens, I have discovered, my students are fascinated about human rights issues. Their youthful hope and straightforward morals make them some of the greatest advocates for human rights I have ever heard. For them, they’re would never be a question about whether or not slavery contributed to and helped spawn the Civil War, or that it was a horrific crime in our past. They want to know why it happened and how it happened and there, as a Yankee, I come to my last big observation. If they want to know why and how, they are going to read it straight from the horse’s mouth. My students love reading the speeches, letters, diaries and newspaper articles from the past. I hope, this increases their connection to the past as well.

I realize the majority of teachers in New Orleans’ school simply could not spend the time on this topic as it warrants. As a still new teacher (now in my third year), I don’t ever assume I have the most astute technique or answer for this problem. I have, however, a deep love for my subject and have a humble suggestion. If you only have time for say, 1-2 class periods (I know that sounds appalling, but sadly, is in all likelihood a reality) I would read selections from Union and Confederate soldier’s diaries and choose one short and great documentary to supplement their words. I agree with David Blight. I want my students to know how it was, and who better to tell them then those who fought over those ideas? I want to teacher my students to study and honor the past and those who lived it. Hopefully, students will have a safe space in their classrooms to explore these big ideas even when they feel uncomfortable.

Sources and Further Reading:

*There are dozens (way too many to list!) of wonderful books about techniques and pedagogy surrounding critical thinking and historical thinking skills. If you’re curious, just ask!

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of America Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Elizabeth Horton (New York: The New Press, 2006).

Wineburg, Sam.  Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts:  Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On the Past) (Philadelphia, Temple UP, 2001).