How to Teach the American Civil War

Last night I finished reading Dudley Taylor Cornish’s The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865, a history of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), and it has dramatically changed my view on how to teach the American Civil War. Often for simplicity’s sake, the Civil War is taught as a North-versus-South conflict, as slave state-versus-free state, or as a “war between the states”. The Civil War had elements of all of these things, but what the book really brought out for me was the extent to which the American Civil War was a civil war within the states as well as between them.

I knew enough about the US Colored Troops to want to read a book about them, but what I did know was mostly about the 54th Massachusetts infantry, a black regiment that was not actually part of the USCT. While the 54th Massachusetts was a state volunteer regiment of free blacks recruited mostly in the Northeast, the US Colored Troops was a distinct branch of the Union Army primarily recruited from the slave population of the American South. At its full strength, the USCT comprised about 10% of the Union Army in the closing year of the war, and provided a large percentage of the Union soldiers on duty in the Mississippi Valley and on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts during that time. (Edit: They also provided the entirety of the XXV Corps, one of the six Union Army corps at the Siege of Petersburg in 1865. The XXV Corps was assembled from the black divisions of other corps in late 1864, and was the first Union corps to enter the Confederate capital, Richmond.)

Estimates of the exact composition of the USCT vary, but at least two-thirds of its members were directly recruited in the South, and the early regiments bore state names, such as the “1st South Carolina Volunteers”, before they were converted to federal designations. Of the 180,000 soldiers who served in the USCT at least 120,000 were from the Confederate states. Tens of thousands of other Southern black men served as laborers for the Union Army (although not in uniform as soldiers). All told, a significant portion of the Southern black male population of military age played a direct or indirect role in support of the Union war effort.

This reminds me that many southern whites fought for the Union as well. Kentucky, as well as Missouri and Maryland, stayed in the Union despite being southern, slave-holding states. A substantial minority within each Unionist Southern state still formed regiments for service in the Confederate army, but the majority was Unionist, and neighbors fought guerrilla wars against each other. The western half of Virginia had a white Unionist majority, and broke off to become the new state of West Virginia. There was strong white Unionist sentiment in East Tennessee as well, but the Unionist militia there was overwhelmed in the early months of the war.

So what we have is substantial white Unionist sentiment in the Upper South, and substantial black Unionist sentiment throughout the South, but particularly in the Lower South where the majority of the slave population was. I don’t have firm numbers on this, and would be interested if someone does, but my guess is that if the South’s four million slaves are added to the white Unionist populations of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, western Virginia, and eastern Tennessee, then as much as a third to half of the Southern population supported the Union. 

This is obviously a very different picture than the one in which two distinct regions fought one another, or even in which two distinct blocs of Union and Confederate states fought each other. It indicates that the war within the South was just as important as the war between the regions or between the Union and Confederate governments. The “house divided” was not simply the United States, it was also Southern society itself. Lessons teaching the history of the Civil War should emphasize this important aspect of the war.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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2 Responses to How to Teach the American Civil War

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Pleased to have found your blog and I’ll explore further. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

  2. Alicia Ember says:

    Very odd hearing it referred to by (thankfully only) a small handful down here as the War of Northern Aggression. I hate Florida.

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