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Civil War Trust

Using Myths to Spice up Your Civil War Lesson Plans | Civilwar.org

Civil War facts and quirky myths are often surprisingly interesting even for people who lack any particular interest in the event; however, oversimplifications and inaccurate portrayals of the war’s causes and major characteristics, often propagated by teachers with poorly researched Civil War lesson plans, tend to color and some would say sully an already riveting part of the country’s history.

The most common and simplest myth to debunk is that Lincoln led the North into the Civil War championing the banner of abolition. Abolition was certainly an issue for many in the North, especially towards the end of the war, but following the South’s secession, Lincoln’s primary goal was to keep the Union intact.  In fact, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, many soldiers in the Union armies (pro-Union Democrats) were disgusted that the war for Union had been made into an abolitionist crusade, leading to a number of desertions.  The frustration of these “Union men” was only exacerbated when the government allowed free blacks to join the army.  The suggestion that the causes of the U.S. Civil War were many and complicated makes intuitive sense, but is often brushed aside in a desire to emphasize anti-slavery sentiment, or perhaps to simplify Civil War lesson plans.

On the other hand, many myths and Civil War facts are quite entertaining and represent a valuable opportunity to gain insight into some of the everyday problems that soldiers and civilians had to overcome during the war. For instance, the home of General Robert E. Lee, the highly respected and brilliant Confederate war hero, was turned into Arlington National Cemetery, and General Lee didn’t receive U.S. citizenship after the Civil War, despite the amnesty and pardons offered to rebels under President Andrew Johnson. Rather, U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 1975 to grant is posthumously. One could take this as proof of the deep resentment born by Washington civil servants after the war, or as an example of bureaucratic error.

Another interesting myth came about during the war. Soldiers believed that if a man’s sword fell over, it was an omen portending death. This myth grew out of the fact that on the morning of the day General Stonewall Jackson died from friendly fire, several men saw his sword tip over, seemingly for no reason, as he dressed himself. This suggests both that soldiers were highly superstitious and that when the revered General Jackson died in such unfortunate circumstances, his men needed a larger, more satisfying explanation.

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