Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.
Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.
But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”
We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.
It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.
Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.
Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.
And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.
Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.
Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.
Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.
Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no
illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)
After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.
But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”
Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”
But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.
The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.
So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.