Recently I started to think about my early Civil War education in fifth grade at Oakwood-Ridgewood Elementary School near Pittsburgh. By the time I reached fifth grade in 1981, I had already been a "buff" for a couple of years. My family even gave in to their young son's pleas to visit Gettysburg during the previous summer.
It probably is safe to say that I entered the classroom with more knowledge of the Civil War than a lot of fifth graders across the country, with the exception of Southern boys and girls who were raised on tales of the Lost Cause! Of course, I still didn't know that much. I guess you could say that I was young and impressionable.
What I find most fascinating after all these years is the relatively over-simplified and pro-Southern view I remember learning. Some of this makes sense, given that we were fifth graders, and not history grad students. But it doesn't explain why the Southern side seemed to figure so prominently in my education, particularly at a Northern school. We were taught that the cause of the Civil War was states' rights; that Southern society was characterized by chivalry and honor; that Southern men were skilled horsemen and marksmen, and even better fighters; and that the South had the best generals. Our teacher even entertained us by reading aloud from a book about a young soldier with Confederate General Wade Hampton's Legion. A romanticized and sanitized version stuck with me for many years. It was as if the Lost Cause had found its way across the Mason-Dixon line. (In some ways it already had, looking at the early 80s popularity of the Dukes of Hazard and "The General Lee," with its Confederate flag and Dixie-tooting horn.)
"The General Lee"
Perhaps my memory is faulty. After all, back in those days, I admired the Southern generals, whose dash and daring appealed to this boy's sense of adventure and imagination. Maybe I liked rooting for the underdog, since I myself was sometimes picked on by the schoolyard bullies. If I remember learning the Confederate side of things, it might just be my selective memory. However, I can't help but think that this Catholic boy would have felt more guilt if I had learned the whole truth and continued to cheer for the Rebels. Now, all these years later, my adult mind views the war and its causes quite differently, although I have to confess to still admiring the military skills of Lee and other Southern generals.
One of my childhood books. I remember reading this on my grandparents' front porch one summer.
I'd like to think that public schools are beyond teaching a view of the "War Between the States" that glosses over the hard issues. I don't yet have kids in school, but I hope that they would learn a balanced, fair, and complete picture of the war, including a frank discussion of slavery and race, even in the fifth grade. We can still teach that Lee was a brilliant general and that country boys from Dixie were better horsemen, but we can't forget to teach the truth about the system they fought to preserve and the threat that the Confederacy posed to our Constitution and our Union.