Schools Walk Into Touchy Territory With Civil War

April 19, 2011 7 min read
The Fort Sumter "Storm Flag," lowered by Major Robert Anderson on April 14, 1861, when he surrendered Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., at the outset of the American Civil War.
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You don’t have to look far for examples of how the Civil War stirs public debate 150 years after it began.

A private “secession ball” in Charleston, S.C., pegged to the anniversary in February of the state’s declared exit from the Union, sparked a protest from the local NAACP chapter. In Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, got into trouble last year for issuing a proclamation on Confederate History Month without ever mentioning slavery.

Experts say schools can play a powerful role—and hold an important responsibility—in helping young people make sense of a complex conflict whose meaning continues to be hotly disputed in the public sphere. That debate is sure to be amplified, given the prominent attention the war is getting as the sesquicentennial begins this month.

“One hundred and fifty years later, we’re still fighting with many of the same questions,” said Andrew T. Mink, the director of outreach and education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, who has administered a series of federal Teaching American History grants. “People bring a certain cultural understanding of the Civil War, of the Confederacy, of the Union. ... If teachers don’t address that, it gets addressed somewhere else.”

A Currier & Ives lithograph depicts the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., in 1861.

Recent polling suggests that Americans remain divided in their understanding of issues tied to the Civil War. The very idea of designating a Confederate History Month, for instance, which Gov. McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors declined to do, split those surveyed. Just more than half of U.S. adults said they oppose such a remembrance, according to the poll by Harris Interactive.

Meanwhile, 54 percent of respondents said they believe the South was mainly fighting to preserve slavery, compared with 46 percent who believe the South was mainly fighting for states’ rights. (The poll did not offer further alternatives.)

Slavery’s Role

To be sure, the nation has come a long way. For decades, historians say, slavery had been largely removed from the public conversation about the war and its origins, as had such topics as the role of African-Americans in fighting for the Union. Today, they get much more attention in schools, museums, and planned commemorations of the anniversary.

Most mainstream historians now agree that slavery was the leading reason driving the conflict. “Slavery is the major cause of the Civil War,” said James I. Robertson, a Civil War historian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg. “There are people ... who will argue to the sky that slavery was just a byproduct, but without slavery, there was no cause for the North and the South to start killing each other.”

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That said, Mr. Robertson and others stress that it was by no means the only factor propelling the war, which involved a web of issues: states’ rights, differences in the Northern and Southern economies, and, of course, President Abraham Lincoln’s determination to hold the Union together, by force if necessary.

History educators say one of the biggest challenges for schools in promoting an accurate and deep understanding of the conflict may well be time. At the secondary level, the topic may be part of a yearlong course that covers the full sweep of American history; a lucky teacher might get two years.

“Teachers often find their time extremely limited to get in-depth with the Civil War,” said Anthony Napoli, the director of education at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in New York City. “The biggest question is what to cover and what to leave out.”

Political Ramifications

Most historians believe a fundamental understanding of the conflict is vital for Americans. They call it a defining moment in U.S. history that still has many ramifications and lessons a century and a half later.

“So many of the crucial issues that were connected to the Civil War, its origins and consequences, are still with us today,” said Bernard E. Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. “You only have to think about the question of race.”

Guiding Principles

Excerpts from selected state standards show some of the points that policymakers believe students need to know about the Civil War.

Trace the development of efforts to abolish slavery prior to the Civil War:

  • Describing the abolition of slavery in most Northern states in the late eighteenth century.
  • Describing the rise of religious movements in opposition to slavery …
  • Describing the rise of the underground railroad and its leaders …

Identify causes of the Civil War from the northern and southern viewpoints. Examples: States’ rights, slave versus free states.

  • Describing the importance of the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, John Brown’s Rebellion, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Describing the impact of the Civil War on the social, economic, and political life of the United States.

Trace the development of efforts to abolish slavery prior to the Civil War:

  • In this unit students concentrate on the causes and consequences of the Civil War. They should discover how the issue of slavery eventually became too divisive to ignore or tolerate. They should understand the significance of such events as the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act ...
  • Students should understand the basic challenge to the Constitution and the Union posed by the secession of the southern states and the doctrine of nullification. The war itself should be studied closely, both the critical battlefield campaigns and the human meaning of the war in the lives of soldiers, free blacks, slaves, women, and others. Special attention should be paid to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency ...


  • Summarize the critical developments leading to the Civil War: the Missouri Compromise, the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ... John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the election of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Analyze Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), his views on slavery, and the political obstacles he encountered.

The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes of the Civil War:

  • The student will identify and analyze the main ideas of the debate over slavery, abolitionism, states’ rights, and explain how they resulted in major political compromises.
  • Students will identify on a map the states that seceded from the Union and those that remained in the Union.


  • Disputes over the nature of federalism, complicated by economic developments in the United States, resulted in sectional issues, including slavery, which led to the American Civil War.

The student will demonstrate an understanding of the events that led to the Civil War, the course of the War and Reconstruction, and South Carolina’s role:

  • Compare the conditions of daily life for various classes of people in South Carolina, including the elite, the middle class, the lower class, the independent farmers, and the free and enslaved African-Americans.
  • Summarize the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War, including reference to conditions in South Carolina, the invention of the cotton gin, subsequent expansion of slavery, and economic dependence on slavery.
  • Explain the reasons for South Carolina’s secession from the Union, including the abolitionist movement, states’ rights, and the desire to defend South Carolina’s way of life. ...


  • Explain the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery, and significant events of the Civil War, including the firing on Fort Sumter, the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg ...
  • Analyze Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address and contrast them with the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address.

The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era ... by:

  • Evaluating the multiple causes of the Civil War, including the role of the institution of slavery as a principal cause of the conflict;
  • Identifying the major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War era, with emphasis on Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass;
  • Analyzing the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the principles outlined in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ...
  • Examining the social impact of the war on African Americans, the common soldier, and the home front, with emphasis on Virginia.

SOURCE: Education Week

“But it’s not just that,” he said, citing, for instance, states’ rights.

“The political problem still manifests itself today,” he said, pointing to recent debates over health-care policy. “Can the federal government require people to buy health insurance?”

And how schools teach the Civil War flares up from time to time. One recent example concerned a textbook on Virginia history found in many of that state’s public elementary schools. It came under fire last fall, after a parent complained about the book’s contention, widely disputed by historians, that thousands of blacks served as soldiers for the Confederacy.

A review by a panel of historians of Our Virginia: Past and Present and another text from the same publisher, Five Fronds Press, led the state board of education last month to withdraw approval of both and to overhaul its textbook-review process.

Still, when asked whether current teaching on the war reveals regional biases, most history educators interviewed said that if there are differences, they are far more rare than in decades past, and much less pronounced.

“I have no doubt you’re going to find pockets [of the South] where ... this ‘Lost Cause’ view is present [in the classroom], but I’ll tell you, I think it’s much too easy to draw overly simplistic regional distinctions,” said Kevin M. Levin, the history department chairman at the private St. Anne’s-Belfield School, in Charlottesville, Va., who has led workshops to help teachers with the subject. “I don’t think you can draw the same regional distinctions that were drawn a few decades ago.”

“I’m still waiting to come across the teacher ... who believes that slavery was a side son, a history professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina, who also has worked with many K-12 educators. “I have the exact opposite problem. If I get a question, it’s that a teacher considers the war to be a moral crusade [by the North], and it was not that way.

“You have to understand that slavery,” he added, “was sectional, but racism was national.”

In Hartford, Vt., Jennifer Boeri-Boyce, who teaches social studies at Hartford Memorial Middle School, said she tries to help students get past the stereotypes.

“This is not just ‘the North is great, the South is wrong’,” she said.

Analysts say textbooks generally do a reasonable job of providing a fair and accurate look at the Civil War, though that was not always so.

“For the longest time, the Civil War was kind of the dividing line,” said Kyle R. Ward, the director of social studies education at St. Cloud State University, in Minnesota, who has examined U.S. history textbooks from different eras. “You could tell fairly quickly if a textbook was published for a Southern state or a Northern state.”

But he doesn’t see such differences in textbooks now. “They usually do a pretty good job of laying out ... the major issues,” Mr. Ward said.

State standards provide clues to how schools teach the war, though one analyst suggests that some give teachers little guidance.

“Apart from mentioning in passing that the Civil War happened, that’s about all you get in many states, regardless of region,” said Jeremy A. Stern, a history scholar who co-wrote a recent report by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute that graded state history standards.

He sees little evidence of regional variations in the thrust of Civil War content in states that do get more specific, though he said Southern states are generally more apt to talk about the Civil War in state-history courses, given its impact there.

He added: “There are a number of Southern states that are notably honest in dealing with the realities of slavery and ... the coming of the Civil War.” He cited Alabama, South Carolina, and Virginia as examples.

But Mr. Stern singled out another former Confederate state for criticism.

“In Texas, it’s not just a question of omission, but ideological distortion,” he contends. “Slavery is clearly, deliberately downplayed.”

He notes, for example, that sectionalism and states’ rights are listed as causes of the war before slavery, the third item in a list in the standards, which were revised last year.

But Patricia Hardy, a member of the Texas state school board, insists there was no intention to downplay slavery. “If we put it first, we get criticized; if we put it last, we get criticized,” she said. “You can imagine how many people pick and parse what we say.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Civil War Takes Schools Into Sensitive Territory


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