What I was taught about the Civil War


When I was growing up, I believed that the Civil War was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, brought on by the radical abolitionists of the North and the radical fire-eaters of the South.

I believed that the Southerners were better and more chivalrous fighters, and had better generals.  I believed that the North won only because of greater numbers and better supplies.  I believed that black people were bystanders in a war between white people.

I believed, too, that Reconstruction was tyranny, dis-enfranchising the white people of the South and putting them under the rule of ignorant black people and corrupt Northern carpetbaggers.

I learned that the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was the liberation movement of the Southern white people, and not to be confused with the 20th century Ku Klux Klan, which warred on white Catholics and Jews as well as black people.

All this coincided with a strong belief, which I got from my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers, that all people have equal rights and that people should be judged as individuals and not on the basis of their color, religion or nationality.

Our history was written to make possible the reconciliation of the white people of the North and South, and to conceal the fact that the price of reconciliation was to sacrifice the freedom of the black people in the South.  In all my high school and college experience, I was never assigned a book by a black author.

This may have been the result of growing up in Maryland, a border state, where people had fought on both sides, although a friend of mine, who grew up in Brooklyn, recalls being taught the same version of American history.

The fact is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.  It was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but in defense of slavery.

President Lincoln said that slavery was a bad thing and should not be allowed to spread.  The white Southern leaders said that slavery was a good thing, and should not be restricted.   The white Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union, but the white Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery.  There also were black regiments fighting for the Union, and their members had no doubt they were fighting against slavery.

Reconstruction was a noble but half-hearted attempt at nation building, and it was a tragedy that it was stopped by means of terrorism—terrorism that was still in place during the civil rights era of the 1960s.

That doesn’t mean that Southern white people were individually worse than Northern white people, as Abraham Lincoln was at pains to point out, or that the Confederates did not fight bravely against great odds.  It means they were part of a bad system whose effects linger today.

Recommended Books

Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by James McPherson.  A good report on the causes and politics of the war.

What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War by Chandra Manning.  What the soldiers thought they were fighting for, based on their letters.

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.   A good antidote to “Gone With the Wind”.


Update 6/4/2015

Here are three good articles on the Civil War by Gary Brecher, the War Nerd.

Why Gettysburg was the finest fight ever in the world

Why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta

The Confederates who should’ve been hanged


Tags: , , , , ,

4 Responses to “What I was taught about the Civil War”

  1. Gabriel Conroy Says:

    The version of the Civil War you were taught was very similar to the one I grew up learning. The weird thing, at least for me, was that it wasn’t necessarily my teachers’ fault. Looking back, I think they did a pretty good job of trying to explain what the issues were and what Reconstruction was all about. A strange thing was that I held to that traditional view even though I knew about such things as Jim Crow and segregation.

    Rather, I just grew up in an environment in which the was “remembered” as “a result of misunderstanding, the actions of a few radicals ‘on both sides,’ and the tariff issue.” And those memories were “sticky.” Even though I could name one high school teacher who was at pains to disabuse his students–and me–of such a view, I held fast to them. (I also had a middle school teacher who probably tried to do the same thing, but my memory is fuzzy about how she approached the issue.) It was only in grad school, really, when I started reading more about race history, and Foner’s work on Reconstruction that I began to finally reconsider what I had picked up or learned.


    • philebersole Says:

      I, too, acquired my unexamined beliefs about the Civil War not so much through any specific teaching in school as through osmosis through the culture, especially through the movies of the 1940s and 1950s. The hero of every other Western movie seemed to be a Confederate veteran who lost everything in the War Between the States.


  2. Holden Says:

    I think the reason for the skewed perception of history is that the North had to take the fight to the South. The worse death and destruction took place in the South, and so it was later romanticized especially in movies like Gone with the Wind.

    As far as the South was concerned, they’d have been happy to just recede, continue on with the slave economy and leave the North to do what they would.

    Considering that the South really was so out numbered and out gunned, I do think some of the perceptions of the South having the more heroic and better generals and fighters is probably accurate.


    • philebersole Says:

      I think it is true that the Confederates man-for-man were better fighters and had better leaders than the Union.

      As far as that goes, I think the Germans man-for-man in the two world wars were better fighters and had better leaders than us Americans.

      That is tragedy—to fight heroically in a bad cause.

      But as for the Southern leaders being content just to be left in peace with their slaves, that was in fact the deal they were offered by Lincoln. There was even a proposed Constitutional amendment to guarantee the continuation of slavery where it was.

      They weren’t content with this because they regarded ownership of slaves as a basic right. They wanted to extend slavery into U.S. territories, and even into the free states of the North.

      That was where Lincoln drew the line, and it was not acceptable. Lincoln believed, and the Southern leaders feared, that the slave system would die out if it wasn’t allowed to expand.

      The McPherson book, mentioned above, gives a good background on this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: