Increase the Relevance of Civil War Summaries in Your Classroom -

High school students often question the importance of the U.S. Civil War. Unless students have some personal or familial connection to the war, maybe because they recognize the names of some of the Civil War battlefields, many don’t understand the relevance of the war or why Civil War summaries take up such a large portion of their time in U.S. History. Even for a teacher, answering this question convincingly can be difficult.

The first and simplest answer is that the Civil War culminated in the emancipation of slaves and initiated the slow process of providing U.S. citizens of African descent with equal rights. The second answer is somewhat more involved, and considers the impact of a nation split in two, and the long term ramifications of the Union’s victory over the Confederates, which the North then had to transform into a socially re-unifying event. Civil War summaries that oversimplify and only emphasize Lincoln’s purported zeal for freeing the slaves miss this important analysis. Any easy way for teachers to frame this point is to suggest the alternate outcome, in which traveling to the Southern States or visiting many of the most historic Civil War battlefields would have entailed entering a foreign country.

Whereas attempts to demonstrate the political and economic lessons of the Civil War and its causes might be a tough sell for high school students, pointing to personal experiences along with social and cultural ramifications will almost certainly find more resonance. For example, both of the most popular strands of music in the U.S. rock and roll and Rap/Hip-Hop, have roots in the musical, lyrical, and structural traditions that African Americans from Southern States – think Chuck Berry, Memphis, Jazz, Southern Gospel - popularized in the mid 20th Century. When U.S. culture, both through visual media and music, is arguably the United States’ most potent international export, it becomes difficult to imagine a world in which a Nation-State border divides the regions where this culture developed from some of the country’s largest population centers.

So it might be poignant for educational Civil War summaries to highlight both the end of legal slavery and the political reunification of the United States as proof that the Civil War has direct relevance for contemporary youth, and to highlight the cultural touch points that can provide students with a personal connection to the outcome of the war that was fought on so many Civil War battlefields across the country.

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