Avoiding absolutes and teaching the Civil War
Lincoln, backed by overwhelming support of the progressive North, freed the slaves from Southern slave owners by waging and winning the Civil War. This largely erroneous and overwhelmingly simplified statement is sadly how most public high school students would encapsulate their knowledge of the “war between the states.”
With its 150th Anniversary at hand, museums and historical venues throughout the country are gearing up to offer new, innovative perspectives on the Civil War. As a high school teacher and active re-enactor, I am constantly trying to enliven, enrich and engage Civil War curriculum. Yet, one of the great obstacles social studies teachers face when teaching the Civil War is avoiding “the theory of absolutes.”
Numerous issues pervade any Civil War curriculum. Controversial and delicate subjects such as slavery, immigration and politics are rarely covered in great detail. Because it can be so daunting to wade through such issues as just one unit in an already seam-bursting academic calendar, many teachers tend to rely on simplifications.
The danger of this is giving the students the false notion that very complicated, historical issues are actually more “black and white.” This is where absolutes are born. For example, it would not be surprising to hear a teacher tell his or her American history class that everyone in the North was against slavery and that they all voted for Abraham Lincoln in the Election of 1860 because they were all Republicans.
If these statements are true, how do we explain the slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware fighting for the Union? How about the state of New Jersey splitting its electoral votes between Lincoln and the Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglass?
This “theory of absolutes” is also applied to the South. Most high schoolers are led to believe that everyone in the South supported slavery and even owned slaves. Also, all the Irish immigrants who come to America during the Antebellum period all go to the North to work in factories. Lost are more compelling and enriching stories such as the statistics that show that roughly only 30 percent of the white families in the Confederacy owned slaves. Lost are the experiences of the 10th Louisiana and 24th Georgia Irish regiments who fought for the Confederacy. Lost is Major General Patrick Cleburne, who fought and died for the Confederacy at the Battle of Franklin.
Now that the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is upon us, teachers need to resolve this issue of teaching “absolutes.” Here are a few ways teachers can avoid the dreaded “theory of absolutes:”
Hey, here is a list of questions that can guide students studying a more nuanced approach to the causes of the Civil War:
- Does the causes of the Civil War change depending on who you asked? If so, why?
- How did border states between the North and South determine their loyalties?
- When did the fight for abolition begin?
- Who or whom can be credited for emancipation?
Which occupation or skills would an ideal abolitionist have?
1. Do not be afraid to teach the war’s sensitive issues. Slavery, immigration and politics deserve to be taught in greater detail. Teachers tend to fear addressing these controversies, but today’s student can not only handle having conversations on these topics, they deserve to have them. Instead of simplification, we need to provide more details in order for students to truly understand the issues that caused the Civil War.
2. Focus on a select few issues rather than the entire war. Teachers do not have nearly enough time to address every issue and event. Choose the material that best suits the topics or themes you might want to cover. Too much information can lead to over-simplification.
3. Be up-to-date on current Civil War research and theories. No matter how long you have been covering the Civil War, research constantly changes. Do not rest on your laurels. Challenge yourself to update lectures and innovate old lessons.