In this blog series, I will stick to my personal observations as much as possible, and I have first-hand experience of the widely divergent ways in which the Civil War is taught. I call it the Civil War because I am from the North, and from the Land of Lincoln at that. My fellow Georgians call it the War between the States or the War of Northern Aggression.
Where I grew up, in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was a hero. We learned about how his family lived in a lean-to in a harsh winter in Indiana, how he read books using a fire for light, and how he loved his mother, Nancy Hanks. And we understood that, as president, he ended slavery. As we got older, we learned that some northern states had slaves and about the Dred Scott decision. What we did not learn was to hate the South. I had ancestors from Minnesota who fought for the Union and possibly some who were held in the. Andersonville Prison. I think we just felt that what the South did was in an earlier time in history that we were glad was past.
Northerners seemed to have some respect for General Robert E. Lee, and I accepted that. We little girls who loved horses knew all about his horse, Traveller. An article I read recently about Lee, penned due to the current problems around celebrating any confederate icons, suggests that after the war he facilitated peace talks between the North and South, so we might not have been wrong entirely.
My mother told me, humorously, that southerners in Arkansas told her she was sweet, even if she was a damned Yankee. Little did I know that I someday would become a damned Yankee—or some thought so, even though I am a midwesterner!
Some people in the small Georgia city I moved to at age 23 were kind and courteous. But some stared at me and seemed hostile—largely because I came to work at a historically black college, I’m sure. Everybody knows everything about everybody in a small southern community.
I may already have heard, but I soon had evidence that the white townspeople considered the Civil War (the War between the States, to them) to be the war of Northern Aggression. The concept of States’ Rights (that I actually believe in) turned out to be what they believed the war to be about. They stated directly that the war was not over slavery but about northern economic aggression and State’s Rights. The northern towns I grew up in were very patriotic, especially on July 4. Georgians barely celebrated the Fourth until the Bicentennial except with family picnics and concerts held in the black communities. Black people were more likely to celebrate Juneteenth. I learned this as I did research for an article in the Macon newspaper while I was serving as a faculty intern.
Other factors leading to southern bad feelings toward northerners include the political situation during the period of Reconstruction and the terrible economic conditions later caused, among other things, by erosion and the boll weevil that decimated the crops so that the South was less prosperous than the North.
We may think all of these things were long ago and not relevant to prejudice existing today. But the southern Democrats turned Republican—and now many are supporters of President Trump--for reasons not always related to small government or the Constitution. And only two years ago, I learned that one homeowner in town is still bitter because his family lost land three or more generations ago during Reconstruction.
All in all, northerners don’t realize what the South has been through—and that even Lincoln and his fellow Republicans allowed slavery to exist until there was no hope of maintaining the union. And southerners still are being taught a version of history that makes them appear to be the victims—brave and rebellious victims. Unfortunately, black people, Hispanics, and Asians sometimes experience the resentment of those who lost the war.
How history should be taught still is a hot potato, and states are requiring opposite things in textbooks as we speak. Meanwhile, a large number of students in most states cannot even pass a U.S. citizenship test.
It would be good if we could sort out ideas versus motives and cultural failings. Yes, colonists cheated native Americans, had slaves, and didn’t give women rights. Yet they handed down a constitution that has set forth the means of correcting such wrongs. Like northerners and southerners today, the first citizens in the United States were influenced by existing conditions in their culture all at the same time as they put forth the philosophy of individual rights. It would be good if their valuable contributions could be taught alongside the lessons of how not to treat our fellow human beings—and how not to allow power, money, and the media (who seek both power and money while we can only hope they are following journalistic standards) to warp our feelings for each other.