Teaching Who Won the Civil War

Charlottesville's Civil War Soldier at Courthouse Square

This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War.  My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.

I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities.  During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month.  No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture.  I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation.  The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.

The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources.  I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible.  In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation.  In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation.  The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame.  I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions.  Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together. 

Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)

Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves they were not yet quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others; and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty. Yet the negro after his emancipation was precisely in this state of destitution.

The law on the side of freedom is of great advantage only where there is power to make that law respected. I know no class of my fellowmen, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely, with the liberties of any other class. Protestants are excellent people, but it would not be wise for Catholics to depend entirely upon them to look after their rights and interests. Catholics are a pretty good sort of people (though there is a soul-shuddering history behind them), yet no enlightened Protestants would commit their liberty to their care and keeping.

And yet the government had left the freedmen in a worse condition than either of these. It felt that it had done enough for him. It had made him free, and henceforth he must make his own way in the world, or as the slang phrase has it, “Root, pig, or die”; yet he had none of the conditions for self-preservation or self-protection. He was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither property, money, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and the frosts of winter. He was in a word literally turned loose naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.

The first feeling towards him by the old master classes, was full of bitterness and wrath. They resented his emancipation as an act of hostility towards them, and since they could not punish the emancipator, they felt like punishing the object which that act had emancipated. Hence they drove him off the old plantation, and told him he was no longer wanted there. They not only hated him because he had been freed as a punishment to them, but because they felt that they had been robbed of his labor.

An element of greater bitterness still came into their hearts: the freedman had been the friend of the Government, and many of his class had borne arms against them during the war. The thought of paying cash for labor that they could formerly extort by the lash did not in anywise improve their disposition to the emancipated slave, or improve his own condition. Now, since poverty has, and can have no chance against wealth, the landless against the land owner, the ignorant against the intelligent, the freedman was powerless. He had nothing left him but a slavery-distorted and diseased body, and lame and twisted. limbs with which to fight the battle of life.

Susie Taylor King, Reminiscences of My Life: With the 33rd United States Colored Troops (1903)

Living here in Boston where the black man is given equal justice, I must say a word on the general treatment of my race, both North and South, in this twentieth century.  I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood?  For two hundred years we had toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever freed from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when we read almost every day of what is being done to my race by some whites in the South, I sometimes ask, “Was the war in vain?  Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more hopeless?

In this “land of the free” we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man.  There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag.  It seems a mystery to me.  They say, “One flag, one nation, one country indivisible.”  Is this true?  Can we say this truthfully, when one race is allowed to burn, hang, and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly, on another?  No, we cannot sing, “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty”!  It is hollow mockery.  The Southland laws are all on the side of the white, and they do just as they like to the negro, whether in the right or not.

A few of the images that we will examine:

There is no answer to this question.  It depends on who, where, and when the question is asked.

9 comments… add one
  • Craig Jan 24, 2011 @ 9:37

    Who won the war? How did it affect Reconstruction? My father grew up in upstate Wisconsin near the Minnesota state line. His father was a minister who died during the Great Depression when my father was five years old. Jobs were scarce in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, as they were throughout all of the United States, so scarce, in fact, that to find work my dad and his mother, his aunt and uncle and a cousin, moved to Mississippi for two years where my grandmother and her sister-in-law managed a trailer park while my dad’s uncle started up a trucking business. Why Mississippi? I have a theory.

    My dad’s great grandfather fought and died in the Civil War. He was in Mississippi for about two hours while he changed boats at the eastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He boarded a ship there that took him from the Mississippi coast to Fort Morgan in Alabama, where he began his march on Spanish Fort, east of Mobile. He barely set foot in Mississippi because he didn’t enter the war until Christmas Day in 1864, but his unit, the 27th Wisconsin, was in Mississippi for about three months when they took part in the siege of Vicksburg.

    My great great grandfather’s widow-to-be had a younger brother who enlisted on George Washington’s birthday in 1864. He never set foot in Mississippi, but his unit, the 12th Wisconsin, had been in Mississippi for a full year. They participated in the siege of Vicksburg. They also marched on Jackson and when that was secure they marched on Meridian, where they tore up the train tracks on the rail lines connecting Meridian to Selma, Alabama and the city of Mobile. They scorched the earth between Jackson and Meridian, destroying large caches of weapons and ammunition on the way. Anything that wasn’t burned on the way over was torched on the way back. Waldo took special note of the names of all of the local newspapers that went up in flames as he still considered himself a newspaperman. When they weren’t out torching things they would retire to their base camp south of Vicksburg in Natchez, a town on the Mississippi they really liked because the ladies there were so very gracious and charming.

    My great great grandmother and her younger brother lived in Sheboygan County in Wisconsin where they spoke German. I think her brother volunteered for the 12th Wisconsin, across the county line in Washington County, at age 19 because he’d somehow learned enough English to read the West Bend Post. One of that paper’s reporters, Charles Waldo, had volunteered in 1861 and sent letters to his editor about once a month for two and a half years. He got himself promoted to quartermaster for Company D, so he knew where all the food was stored. I suspect he traded inside information from the larder for news about what the officers had planned for his unit. His column abruptly ended at the end of April, 1864, when his regiment “veteranized” and hooked up with Sherman’s Army for the Battle of Atlanta and the March To The Sea.

    Waldo appears to estimate that about ten thousand (or more) former slaves went north with departing Union regiments during the siege of Vicksburg. I would guess that many were making their way to Paducah, Kentucky, where the Tennessee feeds into the Ohio. Transit time from Cairo on the Mississippi to Paducah on the Ohio by riverboat was twelve hours. Nearly all of the twenty or thirty regiments of U.S. Colored Troops “from” Kentucky were enlisted and formed into regiments in 1864. My theory is that many of the recruits were slaves freed by the fall of Vicksburg, accounting perhaps for Nathan Bedford Forrest’s unhealthy interest in that locale.

    “For the past week we have been sending forage trains into the country every day, mostly for the purpose of bringing in all the negroes that wish to be sent north, and the way they flocked in has been a caution to sinners. At least ten thousand have been sent off during the last week, and our forces remain here a week or two longer, not a [Black Slang] could be found within a hundred miles of the Gulf. But I understand that this place is to be evacuated, until Vicksburg is wholly ours, as it is thought to be of no use to us until that time. It is one of the best places that can be found to fortify, and no doubt our gunboats will make frequent visits to it after our force are all gone to prevent the “rebs” from taking possession of it.”
    (From a letter written June 9, posted by Charles Waldo from Grand Gulf, Mississippi, to the West Bend Post, published on June29, 1863)

    The siege of Vicksburg ended in early July. Grand Gulf is south of Vicksburg on the Mississippi about halfway between Natchez and Vicksburg. Waldo’s account seems to suggest that it may have been a collection point, a refugee camp, more or less, for freed slaves awaiting transportation north. Waldo’s last post to his West Bend newspaper is a first-hand account of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s assault on Paducah in April, 1864.

    I’ve never set foot in Mississippi myself, but I feel strangely connected to the place. Maybe it’s because when I first met my wife she had just spent four years working there for the federal government.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2011 @ 14:15

      Thanks so much for sharing this story.

  • Bob Huddleston Jan 24, 2011 @ 7:33

    I have often wondered about how the long term future would have looked *with* Lincoln. I agree with Margaret about AL’s political skills. Would that have meant no 14th or 15th Amendments? With “citizenship” remaining a state by state issue, could an African-American born in Hawaii have been able to run for president?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2011 @ 8:46


      Those are very reasonable questions.

      • Edwin Thompson Jan 24, 2011 @ 10:59


        Thanks for another good subject. Another reference besides Fredrick Douglas is WEB Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, but I have a feeling you are very familiar with his work. I was never taught Du Bois and have only read this book about 5 years ago. Very powerful. The question as to who won the war was also his question. I love his introduction:

        “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line. I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.”

        There is an on-line version by the University of Virginia (remember to check your internet sources – haha).


        • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2011 @ 14:15

          You are absolutely right to point out DuBois. My students actually just completed a DBQ essay on Reconstruction that included an excerpt from DuBois. “The Souls of Black Folk” is a wonderful book, though I much prefer “Black Reconstruction” which was one of the only books at the time to focus specifically on the success of black political action during the postwar period.

  • John Jan 23, 2011 @ 15:23

    Thank you Kevin for the thought-provoking post. I am not a teacher or a historian, but your post puts me in mind of an assignment from my 6th grade teacher to debate who was the better general: Grant or Lee? That sparked an interest in the Civil War that has burned to this day. I’ve read about reconstruction but never considered it in quite the same way you describe. What a tremendous let down it must have been for African-Americans. On the other hand, I’ve often wondered what reconstruction might have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. My own feeling is that Lincoln would have found a way to reconcile north and south in a way that would have been more conducive to national healing. I know that’s speculative and that historians don’t like to speculate, but I’d enjoy reading your comments.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2011 @ 15:39

      Hi John,

      I was actually talking about this with my class last week. To be honest, I don’t know to what extent Reconstruction would have been different. I think Americans would like to think that Lincoln would somehow have managed to quell some of the more violent aspects of the period and improve the long-term status of African Americans. It’s not clear to me at all that he would have championed the cause of the newly freed slaves in the way that the Radical Republicans did. You may want to check out this short video with Paul Escott to be of some interest. I recently finished the book that he discusses in the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOlgTjRcCek

      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 23, 2011 @ 17:49

        I think one of the major differences would have been that President Lincoln was far more skilled a politician and leader than was Andrew Johnson (of course, that could be said of just about every other US President but, in the case of Lincoln, the distinction was particularly acute). Lincoln also had made very public commitments on the debt he believed the country owed to the 200,000 black men who joined the US Army and Navy during the Civil War. Johnson turned out to be very resistant to anything that protected black rights. I won’t even begin to speculate as to what would have been the outcome if Lincoln had completed his second term, since the whole dynamic would have been radically different. There’s a real possibility that the Radical Republicans might not have become as strong as they did if Lincoln had lived; Johnson’s laissez faire Presidential Reconstruction and the extreme advantage former Confederates took of it to try to establish slavery lite (with only the auction block missing) pushed a lot of more moderate Republicans futher towards the Radicals than they might have been otherwise.

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