A hundred and fifty years after the event, the causes of the Civil War are still hotly debated.
So what is all the fuss about? And how can you factually teach about the causes of war without stirring up some of the controversy?
How do YOU teach about the causes of the war? Was it all about slavery, or was none of it about slavery? Was everyone in the North rushing to join the armies to fight for the freedoms of all men? Were all Southerners racist slave owners who needed the labor to support the agrarian economy? Or were they really just rushing to join the armies simply because their state had been invaded and they were defending that state and their way of life?
Has it ever struck you that every one of these answers is way too easy?
“The Civil War was fought over slavery.”
“The Civil War was fought over States’ Rights.”
“The Civil War was fought because of a difference in economic systems of the North and the South.”
When such information is presented in a cut-and-dry fashion (the operative word being “dry”), I bet your students intuitively know that this most complex and emotional time in our country’s history could not have been so cut-and-dry for those living through it.
My point is that there is no better motivator for learning than controversy. Use it. Your students can, and will when presented, analyze multiple sources – both primary and secondary – and will be able to tell YOU why the Civil War was fought. They don’t need a textbook spelling it out for them in neat columns and column headings with three precisely-cropped photographs per page.
My suggestion for anyone teaching the Civil War is to begin by using primary sources in small group settings. Let the people who lived through the events tell your students about what it was like and why they became involved. This will very quickly bring out multiple perspectives. You can further divide the primary sources between personal and political writings.
For example, compare a letter from a Union soldier detailing his reasons for joining the army with that of a Confederate soldier? They will often find more similarities in the reasoning than differences, such as examples of men from both sides identifying “freedom” as their reason for fighting. Then compare those personal letters of Confederate soldiers with the various Declarations of Secession. Are the political reasons the same or different as the personal reasons for becoming involved in the Civil War?
Further comparisons can be made between the soldiers and political leaders in the Civil War with soldiers and political leaders involved in other American conflicts, including those occurring today. The reasons why my step-son is fighting in Afghanistan may be very different from the reasons why the young man down the street is fighting? AND are their reasons for fighting alike or different from the identified missions of the President and the Congress?
Ultimately any classroom discussion on the causes of the American Civil War has got to include discussions on slavery and race, because if you subtract these things from the equation, there would never have been a Civil War. By presenting students with a multitude of primary sources, they will come to this on their own. By presenting students with a variety of post-war secondary sources, they will also quickly come to understand that history often changes with hindsight. Secondary sources shed slivers of light on historical events, but spotlights on the time periods in which they are written.
So what is all the fuss about when people today deny that race and slavery had anything to do with the Civil War? Could it be that it is difficult to swallow the idea that an ancestor could have possibly fought for anything other than honorable things? But your students will see that it is possible to have an ancestor who fought for a government with a slave society, but who still fought bravely and honorably.
And what is all the fuss about when people today insist that the Confederate flag is and was a symbol of racism and oppression, and all Confederate soldiers fought to perpetuate those things? Could it be that it is too difficult for some to conceive that perhaps while their ancestor fought to keep the Union together, he didn’t believe in the equality of the races?
We shouldn’t be teaching young people to judge those who came before us, but rather we should try to teach them how to better understand these people and the decisions that they made. If we deny our students the ability to read about these complexities and draw their own conclusions, then we deny them the ability to make complex decisions about their futures and the future of the world. THIS is the denial that we should all be making a fuss about!
Next time: I will have a list of primary source resources so that you can compile your own Causes of the War teaching materials, including excerpts from the Declarations of Secession, Union and Confederate soldier letters, and post-war writings about the causes of war.
Barbara Sanders, Education Specialist