This blog is part of The Immigrants’ Civil War.
I am teaching a new civics class for permanent residents preparing to take the citizenship exam. One of the topics recently was slavery, the Civil War, and the 14th Amendment-all in 45 minutes or less.
My students can’t believe that Americans once shot each other down over politics. One of my students is from Colombia and six are from El Salvador. Having lived through their own civil wars they have a hard time seeing how a highly legal country like ours could have ever descended into a state where people sought to resolve differences through force of arms instead of in the courts.
Having survived civil conflicts themselves, they have none of the romantic notions of war that sometimes afflict those who interpret the American Civil War to the general public. Yet, when the war is placed in the context of the end of slavery, some of the students see some justification for the carnage. They also understand that the 14th Amendment, which gives them equal legal rights in spite of their race, could only have been passed after the Civil War tore the country apart.
A few hours after I finished teaching the class, I read a blog post by historian James Loewen, the author of two popular books explaining how America’s racial history has been distorted in school books and in the historic monuments scattered across the landscape. Those books, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America” try to put the stories of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos back into American history.
Loewen blogged about a conference on local history in Richmond, Virginia that he attended. Local historians are the folks who put up the markers telling passersby what happened on a particular street corner a hundred years ago, or who run the local “historic home” or regional museum. These historic sites rarely mention anyone who isn’t white or who was born abroad.
But Loewen says that is beginning to change. “Local history” that only talked about the deeds of native-born whites cut historic sites off from the increasingly diverse communities around them. How were Richmond’s largely black citizens, for example, to relate to the city’s telling of the Civil War that for many years glorified white slave owners and ignored the slaves who made them rich? Loewen says that change is coming from brave young people who are running the sites now and are willing to challenge the old orthodoxies. He writes that “Local history is no longer the intellectual backwater that many academic historians formerly assumed. Many site managers pine to discuss historical issues.” He urges academic historians to come to their aid because most Americans learn about history from these historic sites and interviews with local historians in the mass media, not through scholarly books.
Loewen reports on a speech at the local history conference by one terrific university historian:
Ed Ayers, historian and new president of the University of Richmond, spoke on the Civil War, emphasizing emancipation and pointing out that we must make even our newest immigrants think of it as “their” history, leading to rights and conflicts that still affect all of us. Applause interrupted him twice before he finished.
When my civics class students hear about the Civil War as a long ago fight between the North and the South over states rights they find it utterly irrelevant to their lives. When they understand that the war made non-whites into citizens, expanded voting rights regardless of race, created birthright citizenship for anyone born here, and that a third of Union soldiers were either immigrants or blacks, they begin to identify with the war’s causes and outcomes. The fact that Ed Ayers got two rounds of applause for urging local historians to revive the relevance of Civil War history for today’s immigrants makes me want to see the next round of historical markers that explain our past to our newest citizens.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites