What Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought?

slavery in history education, Civil War, civil war battles, old schoolhouse, history education, american education, american history education. high school history education, history education in America
This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Slavery on My Mind

In good history education, the focus is not the war itself. (In this case the American Civil War.) It’s why it was fought (slavery), the effects of a war on the following years, decades, centuries, and most importantly, what we learned from it.

slavery in history education, Civil War, civil war battles, old schoolhouse, history education, american education, american history education. high school history education, history education in America(03-19-2014, updated 07-15-2018)  Let me pause for a moment and make an even stronger disclaimer than I made in last night’s post. My focus is on slavery in this series of posts, so I focus on slavery when discussing the Civil War.

Like I mentioned, it was about a lot of things, including general philosophical differences concerning the reach of the federal government versus states’ rights. But then again, the right of states to own slaves was one of the main topics within that debate.

And yes, I totally skip over lots of details–again, I’m keeping it simple.

Because personally, I couldn’t care less which Southern states had exactly what deals with the North or exactly what degree of commitment to secession during which relatively short period of time or which major battle happened where and when exactly and who the leading generals on both sides were in each of those Civil War battles and who won them and how many lives were lost on each side or which partial freeing of the slaves happened in precisely what month and what each law or proclamation or any other documents were called or exactly when all the slaves in all the states were freed.

That is the kind of stuff 6th and 7th grade kids are forced to learn here. It’s what American history education seems to be mostly limited to in general. It bogs students down completely in the least important details in the bigger scheme of things. It’s the stuff of political history aficionados and military strategy geeks, who generally don’t tend to be 13 years old. I think they should spend much more time on slavery in history education.

This may sound weird, but to me, the importance of any war is not the war itself. It’s how it got to that point, the reasons for the war, the effects of a war on the following years, decades, centuries, and most importantly, what we have learned from it that we can, should, must apply to ourselves.

The focus on each separate strategic move in history education in America doesn’t give students any real sense of the overall causes and effects or any knowledge of what all those political wranglings and battles were actually about–what life was like for all concerned during that time and why it’s still relevant today. That is what Americans should know when they come out of high school, in my opinion. They can feel free to fill in the gaps if they want throughout their lives.

I never learned in school exactly what battles were fought where and when and how and who won them in World War Two, or precisely which clamps were applied when by the German occupiers, let alone every date on which they were tightened a little more, and yet I have a pretty good feel of what led up to the war, what happened during the war, what the war years were like and why it was such a watershed moment in history.

The fact is that months after the American Civil War ended, in the same year of 1865, all the slaves in all the states were freed, (except in Texas, where they conveniently forgot to tell the slaves for a few more years). Considering that slavery had been prevalent in America since 1619, that’s pretty darn immediate. I’d like to see the federal government get anything done within months nowadays, let alone change something that has been around for centuries.

What this freedom meant in practice in the years immediately following 1865 is another matter, which I will address later on. We recently stayed for a night in Meridian, Mississippi. T later googled the town and discovered a fascinating story.  My intention with this little Slavery 101 series is partly to build up to a post I want to write about what happened in Meridian, which illustrates one aspect of this new post-civil war situation for former slaves that I had never heard of.

Having said all this, by all means keep correcting me and keep filling in the gaps in these coming posts, my Civil-War-buffish readers. Your comments add an additional layer–for those who are interested–to what I fully admit will be my very broad strokes.

What did freedom mean for people of color in times of slavery? Find out in the next post in this series.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “What is Basic History Education?”, 03-19-2014)

Header image: mine. old school house, upstate New York somewhere

Series Navigation<< Slavery and the American Civil War: A Quick When and WhyFree People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications >>

14 thoughts on “What Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought?

  1. When I moved to Texas I was shocked to see how history was taught. I was even more alarmed to see that history was taught pretty much to the exclusion of the other social sciences. Without a cross disciplinary study of events the discussions had a dangerous tendency to warp toward propaganda.
    I recently ran into Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States. It tells the same story people usually read in textbooks but from a completely different point of view: from the perspective of the 99% instead of the elite.
    The full text can be found online at http://www.historyisaweapon.com/zinnapeopleshistory.html
    One thing that interests me about the civil war was that no matter how many people died (and it was a terrible slaughter) it accomplished nothing. Jim Crow laws moved in to continue oppression. Even today there are more black men in prisons doing slave labor then there probably ever was back in the day. The plantations have just changed hands. The war didn’t even unite the country: we still see pretty much the same divide in the so-called red and blue states. What a terrible terrible waste.
    My take home point: wars never solve problems. They just bring terrible suffering to ordinary people and the churning of violence and aggression leaves terrible wounds for generations.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I don’t agree, though, with your feeling that the war accomplished nothing.
      Jim Crow laws, terrible though they were, were not the equivalent of slavery. Awful oppression, yes, but not out and out slavery.
      And from Jim Crow laws the country moved to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, etc. We now have an African-American president.
      The country still has a long way to go before there is true equality, certainly. As you mention, there are many more black people in prison than white and many of them get longer sentences for relatively minor crimes.
      And yes, there is a division between red and blue states, come election time, but in reality it’s more mixed than that in most places. Being a red or a blue state merely means that there are more democrats or republicans in a state, not that there are only democrats or republicans in a state.
      The war may not have united the country more than it had been before the war as far as varying opinions were concerned, but it did keep the country united. Which meant that the Confederate states did not get to keep slavery for who knows how much longer than they did.
      The evolution from slavery to total equality for African-Americans has been ridiculously slow, for sure, but I wouldn’t in all seriousness say that nothing has changed since the days of slavery.
      I share your pacifist feelings that war is terrible, but some wars do solve at least some problems. Imagine the world if nobody had gone to war against Hitler, for instance. Once he had killed all the Jews, he would have moved into Africa and Asia, killing everyone who didn’t fit his Aryian ideals. And that’s “just” the people he’d have killed because of their race. He certainly wouldn’t have stopped there.
      Would you, knowing what slavery did, have rather stood by? Blood was shed either way. There was terrible loss of life either way. With slavery the lives lost were black. With the Civil War, most of the lives lost were white, but as a result we are no longer able to own other human beings. I’d say that’s progress.
      Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware, and becoming more aware the longer I live here and the more I travel, that racism is still rampant in various ways, and I will be writing more about this. But to say that absolutely nothing has changed is wildly inaccurate and pessimistic, imho.

      1. The civil rights movement was a great civilizing force that swept through America and even other parts of the world. I am grateful for it.
        I have to disagree with some of your other points, though. Feel free to stop reading if I am getting annoying. haha
        Slavery continues today — even in America.
        You can still find examples of forced labor in sex trafficking, the domestic servant sector, migrant farm workers and all that prison labor. These are all people who enjoy almost no rights at all. The Global Slavery Index estimates there are about 60,000 people in America living as slaves. I think that is a low estimate because it doesn’t include prison labor.
        America has a president who identifies as black but he is an outlier. He enjoyed a lot of privilege growing up and he is more a member of the elite than a representative of how most people of color live. Worse: he has failed to use his privilege to further the goal of improving and safeguarding civil liberties to all. His administration has continued to erode not only core principles of the Constitution but even the magna carta.
        i have yet to find an example of where war was a fruitful endeavor. Even WWII which is often set as an exemplar doesn’t really meet a lot of tests. The allies were also responsible for atrocities. Who is to say that we couldn’t have thought outside the box to stop Hitler? I am willing to believe in the great ingenuity and problem solving skills of people.
        Kurt Vonnegut is often credited with saying that violence is the last resort of the incompetent but too often it seems to me that world leaders only resort to violence. Violence has become the first and only resort.

        1. Yes, there’s still slavery, but it’s illegal. If you’re caught you go to prison. That’s a big difference. Yes, I agree completely that Obama doesn’t represent most African-Americans as far as opportunities are concerned, but even twenty years ago the idea of America having a black president any time soon would have been considered unthinkable. So I stick to my opinion that progress is being made, albeit way too slowly.
          As for prison labor, that’s kind of a different story, I think. I find it weird, humiliating when prison gangs are working by the side of the road for everyone to see, and unethical. But it’s not in itself related to having black slaves. White people in American prisons also have to work. There are just a lot less of them.
          As for dealing in another way with Hitler and the Nazis, please let me know what you think would have worked. I’m seriously curious.
          No, I’m not going to stop reading your comments. I like this conversation!

          1. I have to agree the civil right movement did make some progress. And you are correct that people rejoiced that finally a black man could take office. And it is true that a lot of the forced labor here is illegal though the migrant farm worker system isn’t and many those workers even pay for the ‘privilege’ to work here for less than minimum wage in life threatening conditions.
            Prison work isn’t just breaking rocks on the side on the road. There are about 2 million workers, many on trumped up charges in private prisons that enjoy no government oversight working for places like IBM, Microsoft, Target. Macy’s, AT&T, Motorola, and a host of others — a lot of it in the tech industry where they work with dangerous chemicals and obviously have no union to protect them. They get paid a pittance and those corporations reap large profits.
            The situation in these private prisons is so bad that even people in Texas agitate for their closures. Kind of astonishing because Texans don’t exactly have a reputation for being bleeding hearts.
            This is all in the context that America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I believe the prison system is just an iteration of the plantation system. It is just more sneaky and insidious.

            1. You have a point. Slavery was ultimately about the bottom line. Perhaps it’s one of the things that explains America’s rather extreme capitalism. Maybe a country that had slavery for the first two and a half centuries of its existence–slavery takes the bottom line and property rights to a bizarre extreme–never quite gets rid of that attitude. Or at least it might explain why it takes America so much longer to get to a more humane form of capitalism like most western European countries have. I’d never thought of it that way. Thanks! I might have to spend a post on this and see what others think.

          2. How to stop Hitler? Howard ZInn, the historian was a bomber pilot in WWII who went into the war thinking that of all the wars this was one that might be called ‘just.’
            He came out of it with a very different point of view. He wrote a paper suggesting how Hitler could have been stopped. I can’t remember the title and I hope I can remember his ideas but he is only one guy. Other people might have come up with better solutions.
            But here goes:
            There was always the chance of an assassination attempt going right with multiple tries.
            Germany’s resources were way overstretched near the end and couldn’t continue to be sustained. The people were getting fed up and were ripe for subversion. Internal revolts could have been fostered from the underground or we could have just waited for its inevitable implosion. nothing about Nazi Germany was sustainable.
            Erik Larson writes of the time preceding WW11 In the Garden of Beasts. As I read it I thought there may have still been a diplomatic solution if they had acted before international aggression.
            The international community could have stood up to Hitler before the war when all diplomats were warning of civil rights being eroded from certain members of the population. They chose to ignore those very serious warning signs and so he was emboldened. Hitler was really weird about public approval. He needed it in a way that was not typical. Knowledge of that bit of his psychology could have been used against him in negotiations.
            Before the war, when the American diplomat warned state that Germany couldn’t pay reparations the banks insisted on repayment. We could have used that as a bargaining piece if we valued peace more than profits.
            I always assumed that that war was kind of inevitable but the more I think about it the less that seems true.

  2. Reading this post I remembered my history teacher on the “Avond-HAVO”.
    He started always explaining that what did lead to the event.
    So he went back in history at least 20 or 30 years before the event.
    Explaining the politics of that time.
    Learned a lot from him about history.
    Yes, it is most important to learn about what is behind the the battles, who against who.
    Something I noticed:
    In an American film, for instance about WWII, they limit to what they contributed, the battles they fought etc.
    War is clean, heroic, about honour etc.
    We both know that this is never the case
    The attitude of winning WWII all by themselves.
    Also these films often totally ignore the impact on the civilian population of the battles fought.
    It is something that keeps on irritating me!

    1. Yes, Saving Private Ryan comes to mind, as well as Band of Brothers, A Bridge Too Far, etc. All good movies as far as showing the American soldier’s experience are concerned, or explaining D-Day and the like, but yes, these experiences are shown in a bubble.
      I would have to say, though, that Inglorious Basterds and Monument Men are a bit different.

  3. We are as a culture rather bizarrely attached to our civil war. There’s a reenactment of the one battle of the war that took place in Arizona (not then a state) held each year. Typically more reenactors are present than there were actual soldiers involved.

  4. Monument Men, I wanted to see that one in the “bioscoop” but I wasn’t able to.
    Now they haven’t in their choice of movies anymore!
    I hope however that I can see this film one way or the other!
    To me it seams that this film is a bit different, like you wrote!
    The other one you mentioned I don’t know.

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