On teaching the Civil War

I have started my new assignment as a Teaching Assistant in a survey class on U.S. History up to 1877, which will cover the Civil War of course. One of the books used in the class is Lies My Teacher Told Me by sociologist James Loewen. Now, this is not my class, as I work under one of the professors, and I probably would not use this book if it were my class, but I am willing to give it a chance. The book has made me think about how we teach the war and what we may need to work on.

The book notes in the introduction about how history texts and courses are too often focused on whites, which serves to alienate minority students. It seems that if publishers are trying to get out their books to the most schools that they are going to write books focused more on white people since whites are still in the majority, which can lead to minorities feeling left out. I disagree with Loewen’s assertion, as I have encountered textbooks that focused too much on minorities, with the majority of chapters on World Wars I and II being devoted to minority issues. This is not to say that the history of minorities is not important, but rather that the amount of space devoted should be proportional to the impact of minorities on a given time period.

Lies examines the Civil War, but mainly focuses on how textbooks ignore a rise in anti-racist attitudes as a result of the war and treats Confederate and Union sympathizers equally. Loewen notes how all but one text omit a majority of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, including a section where he decries slavery. This section also invokes religious beliefs, specifically Judeo-Christian, which may be a reason why it is omitted from most books (can you say ACLU lawsuit?). Most of Loewen’s dealings with the Civil War revolve around race, while ignoring other striking problems facing historical education, especially on the war.

As far as Civil War teaching is concerned, there is room for improvement. Students seem to enjoy the exciting aspects of the war, i. e. the battles, but this should not lead into teaching the war from a wholly idealistic standpoint. Students must be made aware that the war was a horrible event, the bloodiest war in our history. One thing that would be wonderful is for history teachers to contact historians and staff at historical sites and archives to request educational kits, as most sites have something set up for teachers to use in the classroom, which will certainly beat the boring textbook. Loewen mentions the wealth of sources available today that make textbooks obsolete. There are a myriad of sources for teachers on the war that are well worth incorporating into the classroom. The Library of Congress makes several Civil War related documents available online. In addition, what would be wrong with having students read a book on the war, as there are certainly many great books out there on the war. Documentaries and living history presentations offer a more visual approach to studying the war. Finally, the internet (this site included) offers a wealth of information for teachers and students, but beware because the internet is not a democracy. Overall, if teachers are willing to use other sources outside the textbook, then it will go a long way to improving Civil War and larger historical education.

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2 thoughts on “On teaching the Civil War

  1. Hello there. First of all, I am a fan of your blog.

    As far as this particular post, I think one of the points often missed in general history classes that include the Civil War is the real differences (cultural and socio-economic) that existing N-S prior to the war. The north industrializing and affected by waves of immigrants; the south agrarian (perhaps stiflingly so), aristocratic, still predominantly “old” (meaning multi-generational families, fewer immigrants), etc.

    Obviously the “slave/non-slave” part is always discussed, but not some of these other differences.

    Just a thought.

  2. The antebellum period is perhaps the most overlooked era within basic American history courses. Not only are the socio-economic differences between North and South neglected but how about: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Mormon War, Western exspansion, Bleeding Kansas?
    I have always found the antebellum period fascinating, and it is a pivotal point in the growth of the United States. The fact that it is crammed between the Revolution/Constitution and the Civil War eras causes it to be breezed over by instructors.

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