Why Students should Learn about the Civil War

Teaching young students about America’s Civil War carries some added advantages, besides the intrinsic value of simply learning history. Among those benefits are three discoveries that students can make: (1) that the Civil War is the most important event in the history of the United States; (2) that the struggle provides a unique cultural lesson for all students; and (3) that it changed the notion that “the United States are…” to “the United states is…”

The turning point

Many historians have described the United States between 1789 and 1860 as “a country unfinished.” History books teach about the American Revolution, the adoption of the country’s Constitution and everything that occurred up until the South seceded. When students learn about the Civil War they learn much more. It was the beginning of the end of an era.  The country was “unfinished” because of unresolved sectional differences and the dispute over the spread of slavery.

That the United States was “unfinished” can be illustrated by the apparent irony in its name: The United States of America. The country consisted of individual states, but was never truly united. The “poison pill” in that unity was the compromise the Founders made with the institution of slavery in return for adoption of the Constitution and some measure of central authority. That “poison pill” was eventually swallowed when politicians from opposing sections could no longer compromise.

The cultural lesson

Students need to understand the truth in what Lincoln once observed. It was something to the effect that people always seem to behave in a way that makes sense to them. What sense did southern slaveholders make out holding other human beings in bondage? Why did apparent patriots like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee actively participate in an effort to split up the Union?

The answer lies in the two cultures that developed in the United States as the sections grew further and further apart. Its ingredients are the slave trade and agricultural economy of the South. Stirred into that brew was the growing number of European immigrants in the North as the industrial revolution took off, further separating the interests of North and South.

Teaching students to take a detached, cause-and-effect view without making judgments is the first step towards understanding what the Civil War was all about. The second step has to do with understanding why thousands of southerners, who had no vested interest in slavery, were willing to fight for their independence.

The country united again

One great lesson that students need to learn about the Civil War is about its differences from other conflicts. Typically, the winners round up the leaders of the losing side and begin trials and retribution. President Abraham Lincoln’s greatest contribution was that he never allowed that to happen. His philosophy was that of a winning wrestler: “Let them up easy.”

When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he was relieved and gratified over the generous terms offered by Union general Grant. There were no reprisals, and only one war crimes trial. Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis was eventually set free after treason charges against him were never pursued.

What the Civil War settled

There can be little doubt that students need to learn more about the Civil War. It is the central conflict that resolved what could not be resolved by compromise and agreement: (1) that human slavery could not be tolerated, and (2) that secession from the authority of the central government could not be countenanced.

In some respects, the Civil War could be viewed as a type of Divine retribution where, as Lincoln put it in his second inaugural address, the United States could not free itself from the shame of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”

When students understand the tragedy and inevitability, they can come to grips with how sometimes events govern people, and not the other way around.