“A People’s Contest” and a Classroom Discussion

Yesterday I commented on my Facebook page about a pretty intense discussion in my Civil War class on what motivated northern men to volunteer for the army in the spring of 1861. We talked about about a collection of letters as well as a short selection from James McPherson’s book, What They Fought For 1861-1865.  I’ve commented on the challenges of teaching the importance that northerners attached to union, liberty and their close identification with the founding generation in contrast with Confederates. The latter’s claims to defending hearth, home, and a “way of life” tend to resonate more with my students.

Even at the end of yesterday’s discussion students were still having difficulty coming to terms with what these concepts meant to Americans in 1861. I got a very different response today in our discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address. Something clicked. Reading through the address it occurred to me that Lincoln was engaged in something like the same challenge that I as a teacher was struggling with, namely how to make meaning of why the Union was worth preserving.

We spent a good deal of time talking about why Lincoln constantly references “the people” and the “plain folk” leading up to this key passage.

Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.

The passage went far in helping students understand how secession itself could be construed by Americans as an aggressive act. More importantly, it is helpful for students who have trouble identifying with the emotional pull of service and sacrifice for the Union that many northerners experienced in the wake of Lincoln’s initial call for troops. In short, secession constituted an assault on each individual’s small, but important role in the maintenance of the government.

5 comments… add one
  • Brendan Bossard Jan 30, 2014 @ 10:12

    Is it possible that your students are (or were) confused about what you really mean? Is it possible that “defending hearth, home, and ‘a way of life'” means defending the Union to them, because that is all they’ve ever known?

  • James Harrigan Jan 30, 2014 @ 8:26

    thanks for this, Kevin. One of the most interesting, and hard to understand, things about the Civil War for me has always been Northern support for the war. Like your students, I have had a hard time understanding why preserving the Union meant so much to so many in the North. I’m sure you know Gary Gallagher’s recent book The Union War, which is about exactly this question, and which is also among other things a critical response to Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over. Gallagher really helped me understand the centrality of Union in Northern public opinion.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2014 @ 8:37

      Gallagher’s book is very helpful as is Manning’s book as well. My problem with Manning, however, is that I just don’t see the kind of evolution among the enlisted on issues of race that she does.

      • James Harrigan Jan 30, 2014 @ 10:23

        Kevin, I don’t buy Manning’s thesis either (nor does Gallagher). Still lots of good stuff in her book, though.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 30, 2014 @ 10:30

          I think the book does an exceptional job dealing with Confederates and the importance of slavery. Those sections, however, are not as controversial. I don’t mean in any way to diminish what she accomplished in the book overall. It’s been extremely helpful for me over the past few weeks in coming to terms with how Union soldiers assessed the Crater and how they viewed the participation of African Americans.

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