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Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 1850-1861

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Edited By Michael E. Karpyn

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, killing nearly 700,000 Americans and costing the country untold millions of dollars. The events of this tragic war are so steeped in the collective memory of the United States and so taken for granted that it is sometimes difficult to take a step back and consider why such a tragic war occurred. To consider the series of events that led to this war are difficult and painful for students and teachers in American history classrooms. Classroom teachers must possess the appropriate pedagogical and historical resources to provide their students with an appropriate and meaningful examination of this challenging time period. Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 18501861 will attempt to provide these resources and teaching strategies to allow for the thoughtful inquiry, evaluation and assessment of this critical, complex and painful time period in American history.

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1. Struggling to “Remember” the Causes of the American Civil War (Kevin Caprice, Ricky Dale Mullins / David Hicks)

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Kevin Caprice, Ricky Dale Mullins and David Hicks

Why do we as a nation struggle so much to understand the cause of the American Civil War? There is no simple answer to this question, but our lack of understanding is at least partially due to both sides contesting the memory of the war before the guns had time to cool. As Warren (1961) famously wrote, “The Civil War is our only ‘felt’ history—history lived in the national imagination” (p. 4). The way in which people remember the Civil War still has relevance today, because memory is active by its very nature. Janney (2014) points out that:

[t];he war generation understood what historians have come to grasp only in the past few decades: memory is not a passive act. People actively shaped what was remembered—and omitted—from the historical record for social, cultural, and political purposes. (p. 1139)

In the immediate post-war period, three memory strands emerged: (1) the Lost Cause Memory; (2) the Unionist Memory; (3) the Emancipationist Memory. Yet these memories proved fluid in the minds of individuals living in this era. As Janney (2013) notes, these memories were “never clear-cut, nor did they remain static” (p. 10). The memory of the war grew even more complex when a desire for reconciliation between the North and the South began to affect which memories were given primacy. In many ways, it is because of the nebulous nature of memory...

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