Teaching Secession

The two sections of my Civil War class have been a pleasure to teach so far.  Just about all of the students have either taken my AP class or read William Gienapp's biography of Lincoln last year, which means they have a nice foundation with which to dig a little deeper.  In addition to using Brooks Simpson's America's Civil War as our base text, students are reading excerpts from various historians.  In our discussion of Lincoln's election and secession students read an article by James McPherson and we are currently going through a short piece by Charles Dew that is based on his recent book, Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001). 

The two articles work well together and both are from North and South Magazine.  McPherson tackles the importance of slavery from a long-term perspective, and along the way challenges the traditional answer of states rights with the question of "states rights for what?"  I encourage my students to think critically about their readings and to look for weaknesses in the argument.  A couple of students suggested that McPherson did not do sufficiently explain the fear that white southerners felt following Lincoln's election.   Of course, I did not anticipate this particular concern, but it was nice that I had the Dew article waiting in the wings.  Many of you familiar with Dew's argument.  Dew examines those individuals chosen by the seceded Deep South states to convince those in the Upper South that Lincoln's election represented an immediate threat to slavery.  The nice thing about the Dew piece is that it gives students a great deal to think about in terms of understanding the importance of slavery.  Students can discuss the relevant factors involved in the choosing of individual secessionist commissioners.  According to Dew, these men were typically from the state where they were sent and moderate in their political outlook. 

The speeches are incredibly rich and work to answer McPherson's question of "states rights for what?"  Their speeches reveal the fear following Lincoln's election that emancipation would lead to race wars, including the raping of white women and miscegenation.  The language goes beyond our tendency in the classroom to simplify slavery's importance to one of economics.  The book includes two samples from the commissioner's writings, one of which by Stephen F. Hale of Alabama we will read tomorrow in class.  This particular speech can be found in the Official Records, ser. 4, I:4-11.

Given the recent talk about heritage and perspective I thought it might be worthwhile referencing an older post on Charles Dew, which includes his thoughts about growing up in Florida and eventually breaking with the Lost Cause tradition.

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4 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 8, 2008

    I would like to know from your students what they would like to read about (or read more/less about) in America’s Civil War.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2008

    Brooks, — Will do.

  • Robert Moore Sep 8, 2008

    Hi Kevin,

    Just a quick comment… great idea using Dew. I enjoyed that book a great deal, especially in that it was written by a Southerner who had been raised on the ideas of the Lost Cause. Not unlike him, when I started digging in the right places, my thoughts on the war evolved dramatically.

    Also, your mentioning fear and the manner in which the deep South’s planter/political class played upon those fears ties into a post that I will be putting up soon. While the argument is that the Confederate soldier was not fighting for slavery (of course, because he did not own slaves), the thought of freeing slaves must have scared the hell out of a lot of common white folk as it meant incredible changes to the social system. I have little doubt that it likely played a factor in the “fighting for hearth and home” line of thinking.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2008

    In reading the speeches and letters of the secessionist commissioners it is clear that they believed slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike had similar interests in maintaining slavery. Hale’s speech focuses specifically on the dangers of racial equality and miscegenation – all in all an apocalyptic vision. Recent scholarship suggests that both groups had an interest in maintaining slavery throughout the war, especially after L’s Emancipation Proclamation. My research on the Crater also suggests that this is the case. Chandra Manning spends considerable time drawing a connection between the hearth and home references to slavery and, while I think at times she goes too far in her interpretation, she is clearly on the right track.

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