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.

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.

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:”

Teachers Corner

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.




  1. Shelby Corso says

    I agree completley on not being afraid to teach the sensitive parts of the war because if we don’t know the sensitive parts then we cannot get the full effect the war had on many people. We need to know all possible effects the war had on its participants if we expect to get the full affect of learning about the war. I believe that if we are already in highschool and we are 15 or 16 years old and older, we are mature enough and have been through enough to find out what has happened in our nations past. Woo hooo go Mr. Dunn!

  2. Brianna Bruner says

    I totally agree with your article. High schooler’s need to know the information behind the civil war. Not just the basic information that everybody knows. Being in high school, I would personally want to know the hidden details and the real action that goes on behind the war. We’re not little kids anyore so I think we’re ready to be mature and learn what really happened. Good job Mr. Dunn!

  3. Danny Caracciolo says

    i kinda agree with its kinda hard to tell students about the truth of the civil war. probably because we have been told the absolutes so much that we have accepted it as the truth high schoolers have a hard time accepting their childhood truths as lies way to go Mr.Dunn

  4. brittconnn says

    I completely agree with this article. Todays society believes high schoolers arent mature enough to handle issues such as slavery, when in reality we are. I believe teachers should be able to teach the sensitive subjects without having to worry about if the students are going to be able to handle it. Overall this is an amazing article and i agree 100%! Great job dunn dunn :)

  5. PLondono says

    Nice job Jim. I enjoyed reading your article and believe that high school is the place to begin getting into the intricacies of history. I don’t believe that lower grade teachers lie to their students, but rather, they are working with children who are not prepared for abstract thinking unless they are prodigies. The idea of right and wrong is very black and white prior to sixth grade, for the most part, so students get a basic knowledge of history content while developing other essential skills in reading and writing. Although, having had the luxury of team teaching in many and varied history classes, I can assure you that history teachers do teach beyond the absolutes, but I imagine students have selective memory of those high school classes because they weren’t ready for the material that was presented to them, and only when they get to their college level courses are they prepared to wrap their heads around the politics and complications with which any history is replete. Keep up the good work!!!

  6. Kristin Petty says

    As students all our lives we have been told that the North was all anti-slavery and the South was all pro-slavery, when this isn’t true. I agree with this article that High School students need to know the truth behind the Civil War. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to tell their students the truth. We are young adults now and need to know that in college our professors aren’t going to hide the truth from us about the politics in the world. Great Job Mr. Dunn!

  7. Valerie Jones says

    Has this been printed as an op-ed anywhere? I think this is the perfect time to get this in a few key newspapers, particularly in the south where I live.

  8. dc_rusty says

    I don’t really remember what I was taught so long ago in HS about the Civil War except I did carry with me the idea that it was ALL about slavery for a long time. As an adult I have since figured out that NOTHING is that simple. I guess the simple truth in regards to HS is how much time can any one class spend on a particular era of history. I do think that without going into great depths a teacher should be able to address the political climate and not just focus on what is considered the core reason for (the Civil War). Then depending on the individual student’s further education (ie; you Jim) they can delve deeper into the subject as needed. Schooling in grade and HS (I always thought) was more a guidance ( after the basic 3Rs), giving the young adult tools to cope with and ponder the world as it was and in relation as it is now…Of course the opinion has always been; understanding history prevents repeated mistakes…hmmm

  9. Ally Gutshall says

    I really agree with what is said here. Teachers don’t take the time to teach everything about the Civil War. Its just something that they teach and move on with. I think that they should teach the background behind the Civil War like you said. I think that since we are in high school we are more mature and can handle the issues like slavery and immigration.I also agree when you say that there is so much to go over in class that the teachers should pick a few things. The teachers should pick the most important things and spend a month or a little less teaching their students about the Civil War and its causes. Great article Mr.Dunn, I’m proud of you! :)

  10. Billy Barber says

    This article is absolutly true. The Civil War is a major part of American history. Teachers have sugar-coated many topics about the Civil War. The truth is that everyone needs to know the truth about it so it doesnt happen again. Teachers need to realize that highschool students are mature and can handle these strong sensitive topics. Good Job Dunn!

  11. Ryan Geibler says

    Throughout my experience in school, learning about the civil war, teachers tought me the basics of the Civil War. For example, they would teach us the North and the South were in war, the battles that occured, and a few major military leaders. After reading this article, i realize that there is a lot more teachers are hiding about the Civil War that is valuable information such as the role of the slaves, who played a major part in the war, or the strengths and weaknesses of the two opponents. That is why I agree with this article and beleive that teachers do hide a lot about the lessons we learn in history, but if they are going to teach us, teach us the truth.

  12. Argiea Spencer says

    As a high school student, I completely agree with this argument. There are no absolutes, especially in such a controversial topic as the Civil War. Personally, I believe most students in high school are mature enough to handle the many details that made the Civil War what it was. Additionally, I believe that knowing detailed aspects of the war is more important and more useful than just knowing an altered, simplified, overview of it. Good Job Dunn, you really know your stuff!

  13. Jessica Hutter says

    This article mentions some very good points. Teachers shouldn’t leave out important information while teaching the Civil War, knowing more about what happened during this time will give us, the students, a better understanding of every issue that took place. I agree with everything stated in the article. Well way to go Mr. Dunn! rock on!

  14. Rachel Steelman says

    I agree completely with what this article is trying to prove. Without knowing every detail about the civil war, due to teachers not wanting to teach it, can effect students, because its leaving a huge part of the actual war out. While leaving a big part of the war out, you are not fully filling the students in, therefore not necessarily teaching them ‘the war.’ Picking and choosing what you think is important is not giving students the true idea of what the war was like. Go Mr. Dunn ! Youre the best ! :)

  15. Jessica Johnson says

    I agree with this article due to the fact that all our lives we have been taught the same thing. Which recently (thanks to you) i learned there are many aspects that were left untold in early years. The teachers are simplifying the war that changed America, by not being told important information we are unable to understand the issue. Why be taught something that isnt even true ? Good Job Dunn ! \m/

  16. rachelgeibler says

    I agree with this article about teachers being alloud to teach students about the civil war and not leaving any harsh or sensitive details out. Students need to learn about their history the real way it happened. This war affected our country dramatically and not teaching the students what really happened during the war students would never know how, why or what happened. Students are mature enough to know what happened. If teachers taught the students the civil war in a easier or simpler way it would not be helping our education on important information from our history. Go Dunn!