The Civil War Never Stopped Being Fought in America’s Classrooms

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate Monuments, John Kelly



Arica L. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians. Thumbnail Image -  Unveiling of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery on June 4, 1914.

Recent controversial comments on the Civil War from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reignited the debate over the proper interpretation of this historic event. As many have observed, Kelly’s statement to news commentator Laura Ingraham that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War” is an old misconception, and in the last week it has been refuted from all corners.

But, while the facts of the Civil War and its causes are certainly important to restate in light of the controversy, it’s also important to remember that ideas like Kelly’s didn’t come about by accident. In fact, his entire statement, which elevates Confederate soldiers to heroes who fought for the noble cause of state’s rights, is indicative of the propaganda campaign of Confederate sympathizers that began in the final decade of the 19th century as they actively sought to gain control of the representations of the war in classroom textbooks.

The effort to reeducate the South, indeed the entire nation, by recasting the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” was promoted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), as James M. McPherson describes in an essay in The Memory Of The Civil War in American Culture. Soon after the group organized in 1895, it created children’s auxiliaries called Children of the Confederacy with the purpose of “telling the Truth to children” — in other words, making sure that children were presented with a version of the still-recent war that placed it within the context of southern romanticism. As McPherson notes, “Children were ubiquitous at parades, rallies, and reunions of the UDC,” and those of its counterpart organization the United Confederate Veterans (UCV).

In addition, the UDC furthered Confederate education by creating a card game which was based on the traditional deck of cards comprising 52 “Confederate officers, political leaders, names of Confederate states, and of victorious battles,” to help sharpen students’ knowledge of the war; in addition, children were provided opportunities to write and recite original poems and speeches that expressed pride in their Confederate heritage. These efforts were aimed to combat what southern leaders viewed as the false history that their children had learned from textbooks overwhelmingly authored and published by northerners. Southerners complained that these texts indoctrinated southern children in a nationalism born out of a Union victory, which relegated their region to a place of dishonor in the national narrative.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the UDC and UCV engaged in a full-scale onslaught against the textbook industry. Each organization had formed its own “Historical Committee,” which, as McPherson notes, was commissioned to “select and designate such proper and truthful history of the United States, to be used in both public and private schools of the South,” and to “put the seal of their condemnation upon such as are not truthful histories.” Hence, the committees focused almost entirely on censoring what was dubbed “long-legged Yankee lies” in textbooks that represented the North as noble defenders of the Union and the South as ignoble rebels.

By 1910, the Historical Committees declared mission accomplished. ...




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