How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom


If you teach the history of the American Civil War to students anywhere in the United States, you will almost certainly teach at least a few students who have absorbed Lost Cause mythology. In many parts of the country—and not only in the southern states—most of your white students (or at least their families) will believe in at least part of the Lost Cause story. Indeed, many of them will have received this view from their teachers.

Tackling the mythology head-on will often be wise. But there are also subtler ways we reinforce or challenge the pro-Confederate pattern of thinking, usually without realizing it, and we should address those too.

(This post began as a Twitter thread that became popular yesterday. You may want to read the responses of the many teachers and writers who engaged with it directly.)

Whenever we teach the Civil War, even implicitly, as a conflict between two distinct geographic regions, each with its own government, its own presumed-white population, and its own military, which fought a basically white war, we are teaching the basic pattern of pro-Confederate thought. Those false assumptions all lead students to the false conclusion that the Civil War is what happened when the North tried to impose its will on the white South.

Growing up white in Texas, where my town’s war memorial was a stone monument to our honored Confederate dead, I certainly absorbed that pattern of thought without always realizing it. That is the experience that drives my efforts to avoid reinforcing that paradigm in my own classrooms.

At the Smithsonian, the program director and public historian Christopher Wilson (no relation) has discussed the efforts of several scholars to find ways to tear down “the monuments we’ve built with language” to honor the Confederacy. In that spirit, here are some simple but pretty powerful ways I’ve found in the classroom to avoid reinforcing false narratives.

Political Terminology

  • Limit the use of the term “the Union,” and avoid the term “the North,” when referring to the government of the United States during the Civil War.  

In particular, try saying things like “the U.S. Army” or “federal troops” rather than “the Union army,” and “the federal government” or “the U.S. government” rather than “the Union.” You may be amazed what a difference it can make, especially for students who have been extensively exposed to Lost Cause thought.

Why it matters: In the 1860s, Union was a very powerful concept. People joined the Union cause as an expression of high ideals about the nature of the American nation: not just a collection of states, but a unity of all American states and citizens. But today, our students are accustomed to hearing people talk casually about “the Union” as simply one of two sides in the warteam blue rather than team gray.

To put that another way,  in 2020, “the Union” often signifies only half the United States, directly contradicting its significance in 1860. That’s a problem in the classroom.

In a classroom today, therefore, the way we can implicitly take sides on the issue of national legitimacy is to talk about the war between (for example) the United States and proslavery rebels, not between the Union and the Confederacy. In most cases, this is more accurate language; “the Union army” and “Union navy” were always officially called the United States Army (setting aside complexities about regular forces, volunteers, and militia) and the United States Navy. More importantly, this language tends to shake students out of complacency.

  • Don’t say “southerners” when you’re referring to white southerners.

Why it matters: For one thing, huge stretches of the rebel states had mostly African-American populations. Indeed, in counties along the Mississippi River, in the low country of Georgia and the Carolinas, and in southeast Texas, roughly three quarters of the local “southerners” were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War. Most importantly, perhaps, the state of South Carolina, which was the most important center of secession politics, had been a majority-black society since its early colonial days. Mississippians were also 55% enslaved in 1860.

So implying that southerners were mostly white means giving students a factually inaccurate impression! The assumption that southerners were white is just plain false when you look at the communities that many rebels came from. (It’s false today, too, and that’s important.) It’s also a direct (and potent) contribution to pro-Confederate propaganda, since it implies that enslaver regimes represented the democratic will of their people, when in objective reality, they were regimes that oppressed their own people. Our language should make that clear instead of conceding white enslavers’ supremacy over their fellow Americans.

  • Don’t say “the South” and “the North” when you really mean the rebel states and the U.S. government (or the loyal states). 

Why it matters: Yes, sometimes it makes perfect sense to speak of geographic regions during the war. But not every state in the cultural south, even among enslaving states, joined the rebellion against the United States; some of the rebel states had significant pockets of pro-U.S. sentiment; and white public opinion was deeply divided in many northern as well as southern communities.

More importantly, the North/South divide functions as an all-too-convenient way to imply that there were two different natural nations in two different places, while avoiding an acknowledgement of the real reason geography was significant to the beginning of the war.

  • Say “rebels,” “insurgents,” “proslavery forces,” etc.

Some historians I know think you should avoid using the term “Confederates,” since it suggests the C.S.A. was a legitimate government. I don’t go that far because the C.S.A., whatever its illegitimacy, was a distinct organization, and it had the endorsement of the existing state governments that were in rebellion against the United States. However, I do think it’s important to avoid using the term in ways that imply its legitimacy. Using terms like “rebels” and “insurgents” in addition to, if not instead of, “Confederates,” is both historically and constitutionally accurate and useful for undermining Lost Cause tropes.

  • Make sure students know that “abolitionist” is not a simple synonym for “slavery opponent.”

This is particularly important for teaching the decades before the war, but even during the war, students should be aware that abolitionism was the radical (and sometimes violent) edge of antislavery opinion in white America. In most parts of the country, white Americans, including white Americans who theoretically opposed slavery, tended to regard the abolitionists as dangerous subversives.

Why it matters: We need to avoid “domesticating” the abolition of slavery as something that was popular and inevitable if nice right-thinking white people got their way. The Civil War effected an absolutely fundamental shift in the terms of public debate.

Human Terminology

  • Say “enslaved people,” not “slaves”; “liberated people” or “fugitives from slavery,” not “former slaves” or “runaway slaves,” etc.

This is the single most important thing to get right. It’s easy for white Americans like me to get defensive about it, given the way practically all of us were conditioned to speak about our history, but if we want our students to understand African Americans in the U.S. past (and thus now) as full human beings, we have to use language that presumes their full humanity, all the time.

If it helps, imagine a different topic. Would we teach the history of another oppressive regime—take your pick—by referring to people it oppressed as “undesirable elements,” “criminal fugitives,” “subversives,” or the like, every time we mentioned them? Would we defend the use of such language on the grounds that it’s accurate to the time and place?

It seems unlikely. Why then should we use the language of our own recent oppressive regime, which implies that slavery is a natural state rather than something oppressors do to other people?

The exact terms that are most appropriate may vary with the context. And of course we’ll be using primary sources that use other terms; we should talk about that with our students. But we’re in luck!

The historian and literary scholar Gabrielle Foreman has shared a document called “Writing About Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help.” It’s a great collaborative guide with contributions from other scholars.

That guide makes clear that there’s no single correct way to speak about the history of enslavement or the people who struggled against it. It does depend on contexts, including, for example, the fact that the history of enslavement in the Americas is much bigger than the history of the United States. Indeed, the terms many historians use are changing rapidly, and historians are still debating how they should change. But that document is full of concrete options for better terminology, as well as explanations of their rationales and links to other sources that will be useful too.

  • Say “enslaver,” “kidnapper,” etc., as appropriate to the contextbut never “slaveowner.” 

Everything under the previous heading applies here.

I should note that there is some discussion among historians about the nuances of these terms. For example, is “slaveholder” an appropriate alternative to “slaveowner,” since it refers to someone who “held” another human captive in slavery? Does “enslaver” get confusing when we use it to talk about both people who transported newly captive people across the Atlantic and people who enslaved their descendants? And what about the fact that different publishing houses and journals insist on different terminology?

Differences of scholarly opinion may be intimidating if you’re a teacher, especially if you’re using textbooks and other sources that use terms that have been challenged. But besides avoiding language that is directly dehumanizing, and besides listening carefully to what black historians are saying about it, the important thing may be to talk with your students, at an appropriate level, about why these terms are contested and changingand about what you can do together to protect the dignity of the people you’re discussing.

  • Say names and show faces.

When one kind of person gets to be named individually and another kind of person doesn’t, that’s a terminological problem too, and one with profound implications.

I’ve written before about the way we’re sometimes guilty of letting only a certain kind of person appear in our courses as full human individuals. I’ve been guilty of that—and of course, we often struggle with the way our historical sources, both primary and secondary, leave people out. There are limits to what we can do.

But we can try. We don’t just have to name and depict famous white men; we can seek out other kinds of people to name and highlight. We won’t always know as much about them; indeed, we may know very little about them. But there is power in a specific name, or a specific photograph, or a scrap of a quotation, from a single human being.

If we truly believe that one human being is as valuable and important as another, then our teaching should reflect that whenever it can.

Other Framing Considerations

Here, more briefly, are a few other recommendations specific to the way we should frame the Civil War in our teaching:

  • Never imply that emancipation happened because “Lincoln freed the slaves.” It’s just false, historically, and it also depicts one white man (however honorable and self-sacrificial!) as the sole savior of black Americans.
  • Similarly, never depict the war as a struggle in which only white men fought. (Racists routinely invoke both of those false assumptions in order to demand gratitude and compliance from African Americans and to delegitimize demands for justice today.)
  • For the decades before the Civil War, as well as during the war, never teach as if “the abolitionists” were all white. This is important not just because an all-white portrait of the abolitionists leaves people out; it’s actually dead wrong. Black abolitionists fought for freedom for decades while the dominant “antislavery” plan among white Americans involved colonization, i.e., racial cleansing. Black abolitionists, organizing against that program, fought for full racial equality, and when white Americans did join them, black protest was directly responsible for the shift.
  • Similarly, never teach as though the antislavery movement at large, or abolitionism in particular, comprised only men. Not only did women take leading roles in fighting slavery, and not only did they supply most of the movement’s “foot soldiers” across the country; their antislavery activism contributed directly to the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement in the United States and Britain. 
  • Show students photographs of black men in U.S. uniform during the war, and ideally, show photographs of their families as well. Don’t just tell your students that African Americans fought for freedom; show them.
  • Include Native nations in the story of the Civil War—even though this makes the story look a lot more complicated and, from the standpoint of the U.S. Army and antislavery politicians, a lot less heroic.
  • Always, always, always teach Reconstruction as an integral part of the story of the Civil War. Never stop in 1865; it’s deeply misleading.

Many other things could be said about all of these recommendations, and historians and teachers have reason to debate and qualify all of them. But they’re my current recommendations based on my background as a white student in a southern state, my classroom experiences, and the recommendations of other teachers and historians.


Image: Alfred R. Waud, “‘Mustered Out’ Colored Volunteers at Little Rock, Arkansas” (detail), Harper’s Weekly, 10, no. 490 (May 19, 1866), 308. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Public domain.

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