I went to a Catholic grade school which included kindergarten all the way through to 8th grade. There was no clear break between grade school and middle school. To me, I went to grade school, then high school.
Often when I tell people about my grade school experience, I realize that people get confused about how young I was, so sometimes I have to say that it was my grade school/middle school.
Now that that’s explained, when I was in grade school, I recall distinctly the lessons about the Civil War. I remember the teacher specifically saying that the war was not about slavery, that it was about states’ rights.
I remember thinking, “Oh! I didn’t know that! The little I knew about the war was North and South, the country splitting between free states and slave states.” Learning about the slave states that stuck with the Union was kind of like learning about a piece of trivia and reinforced the idea that no, it wasn’t about slavery specifically. It was about whether or not the government can tell states what to do.
And in the end, the federal government won. The United States of America is a single entity, not a bunch of individual states.
And I carried this knowledge throughout my life. Whenever the Civil War came up, this fact about the reasons for the war being about states’ rights as opposed to slavery came with.
When I visited a Confederate museum in Virginia, I hadn’t seen the war from the Confedrate perspective, and while the museum was tiny, it was full of uniforms, battle standards, carvings such as an engagement ring made from a peach pit, and all matter of fascinating pieces of history. I found no mention of slavery, and I was not surprised.
So after the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina in which 10 people were shot in a church by someone motivated primarily by race, I found it odd when a few friends posted on Facebook about calls to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol.
They kept talking about racism and slavery, and I was confused because, after all, the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, right? Calling for the removal of the Confederate flag seemed irrelevant after a shooting driven by hate.
Then this article in the Atlantic called What This Cruel War Was Over published some of the rhetoric and public documents prior to the war.
Oh. It very much was about slavery.
It was about slavery, and it was about White supremacy. The election of Abraham Lincoln with his party’s radical agenda of stopping the spread of slavery was in direct opposition to the desire of leaders in the Southern states to spread slavery into the larger empire of America, which touches on our tensions with Mexico in a way I never saw before. The end of slavery would mean that Blacks would be bizarrely considered equal to Whites, and if that happened it would be the end of civilization as we know it. Even when the Confederates realized the rest of the world wasn’t so keen on helping their cause and so diplomats tried to spin it as states’ rights, it was abundantly clear by the writing and opposition that there was no reason for people to feel embarrassed about slavery, that it was actually a force of good and they should be proud of what it has accomplished.
It was about slavery. That people think so is not perversion by extremists. It isn’t miseducation. It’s part of the historical record, and it isn’t interpreted as it is part of the primary documents we have about the war. To the extent it was about states’ rights, it was the right of states to continue keeping a good number of their population as slaves in order to ensure equality among Whites. It’s an odd thing to today say is part of your proud heritage, and I now understand why people conflate slavery, White supremacy, and the Confederate States of America a lot more closely than I thought they deserved.
And I look back on my grade school days and recognize some of the things I’ve learned since. I remember a high school teacher informing our class that most text books are published by Texas and have a certain point of view built into them. Lies my teacher taught me, indeed.
Now, I’m from the Northern part of the country. In my mind, I always thought WE won the civil war. I identify with the Northern states despite the fact that I was born to immigrants over a century later and have no direct tie to the war. I can only imagine how painful this kind of knowledge can be for people who identify with the South, or who have ancestors who held such views and proudly fought for them.
There are things you learn from a young age, and you never think to question it because it just was. You have a base to build your knowledge on.
And then you find your base is a lie or wrong. It can be difficult because you feel like you are starting over. If that base was wrong, what about everything built on top of it?
But when is the truth ever not the goal? You know, when cynicism and duplicity aren’t involved?
Sometimes your continued education in life isn’t isolated to gaining new knowledge. Sometimes it is about relearning what you thought you already knew.