What I Didn’t Learn in School About the Civil War

Engineer camp, 8th N.Y. State Militia by Mathew Brady. Original public domain image from Flickr

September 5, 1957 – I was just eleven years old when the evening news came on our black and white television. US paratroopers in Little Rock Arkansas held back an unruly crowd of angry white adults who were trying to prevent nine Black students from attending an all-white high school. Under President Eisenhower’s orders, the military enforced a Supreme Court ruling to desegregate federally regulated public schools.

Back then, this kind of violence was not unusual to see on television for a little kid like me. The networks covered state police wielding dogs, firehoses and night sticks against civil rights demonstrators.

In this same period, Russians were the first to launch a satellite into orbit around the earth. With America’s early lead in rocket science, we always assumed we would be first.

One TV newscaster commented: “This means that men are really going to the moon.”

“Yes,” said the second newscaster. “And here we are, still fighting the Civil War again.”

As I grew older and lived through decades of racial turmoil, I had no idea why this was happening. I remember in high school social studies classes, instead of an honest discussion of the South’s economic need for cheap exploitative slavery, we discussed lame reasons for the Civil War such as states’ rights and tariffs. What took main stage were the glorious battles, the valiant generals, the brave soldiers, and the development of modern weaponry.

Battle between the Monitor and Merrimac. Original public domain image from Smithsonian

I’ve since learned one of the reasons. This reframing of the Civil War was designed by a 1960s Centennial Commission with a two-fold purpose, to celebrate the virtues of American bravery and valor on both sides of the war, North and South, and to bury our divisive past and unite our country against the tyranny of Communism. Because the Emancipation Proclamation – the freeing of slaves – was still a touchy issue with the South, its 100-year celebration was so low-key that President Kennedy did not attend.

My dad was interested in the Civil War from a purely military perspective. As a child, I never remember us discussing the issue of slavery. He did a lot of research on our immigrant great-great-grandfather Gerhardt Myers who served in the New York 91st Regiment. I doubt Gerhardt knew what he was fighting for. He could neither read nor write in his native German nor speak English well. The sign-up bonus must have been a good enough incentive to enlist. He was killed in the second assault at Port Hudson, Louisiana. I still have his service medal and sometimes think of him in his blue wool uniform in the Louisiana heat.

Statue of General Sherman, Albany, NY

That research got my dad interested in joining the Civil War Round Table, a national organization of amateur historians that sprang up in the early 60s. Again, discussions focused on the military aspects of the war, not any human rights issues. Around that time, many Civil War books and journals were popularized by authors such as Bruce Canton and Shelby Foote. Dad read a lot of them. He would take me on historical walks around our city of Albany, New York, where no battles were fought, but where there were many Civil War statues, monuments, and armories to visit. General Sheridan’s statue stands in front of the state capital building. General Henry Thomas, The Rock of Chickamauga – a southerner disowned by his family; his tomb is found in nearby Troy. We viewed the remains of the Burden Iron Works also in Troy that manufactured the iron-plated Union warship, the USS Monitor.

Disney’s 1956 movie, “The Great Locomotive Chase,” was the prelude to our family’s vacation to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. The movie starred Fess Parker, of Davy Crockett fame, as a Union spy out to destroy the Western and Atlanta Railroad, a vital supply link for the Confederate army. Didn’t every boy my age have a Davy Crockett hat? I loved trains and this movie about trains and the Civil War was probably dad’s way of piquing my interest.

The following year we took a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield. We toured Cemetery Ridge, Devil’s Den, the Round Tops, and the sight of Pickett’s Charge. I was familiar with the names of generals and where they fought because I played a board game with my dad and boyhood pals called Avalon Hill’s “Gettysburg.” Again, the game focused on battle logistics, not the reason for all the carnage. At Gettysburg, a great diorama depicted the battle in miniature. There was no “why” given for all that death, just immense respect for a famous battle.

As I now look back on these memories, I think they do a great dishonor to both Union and Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives. What were they fighting for?

Much later I came across a 1913 photograph of white Civil War veterans on both sides shaking hands at a Gettysburg reunion, a federally sponsored event for the purpose of demonstrating North and South unity. Some 200,000 Black Union soldiers who had fought in the Civil War were not invited. They held their own separate reunion which was not funded by the government.

African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. Library of Congress

In 1968 after I graduated from college, I was drafted into a one-year tour with the 2/1 Calvary in Vietnam, then stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. There I learned about the Confederate General Henry Benning, a local slave-owning planter who actively sought to persuade the South to withdraw from the Union. I wondered why a U.S. Army post was named after a rebel general. The fort itself sat on the five-thousand-acre site of a former plantation.

It has taken me too long to understand the deep-rooted issues caused by slavery. This is especially concerning to me because I was a college history major and went on to study American history in graduate school.

Since the early nineties there has been a gradual change in the interpretation of what our nation suffered for the South’s economic necessity of enslavement, not to mention the human cost. Movies like “Glory,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” and the “Underground Railroad,” and Ken Burn’s Civil War television series reframed historians’ recognition of slavery as the birthing pains of our nation’s democracy.

The period of “peace” after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, was a reign of terror throughout the South of murder, lynchings and property destruction that largely went unpunished. During this period, the North was eager to move on from the Civil War, willing to accept “Jim Crow” segregation laws for some semblance of harmony.

More than a hundred years past the Civil War, our nation was still in turmoil with civil rights protests and political assassinations. Don’t forget the Vietnam War: our country sent this nation’s treasure as soldiers to emancipate another country when we don’t have promised freedoms and racial justice in our own.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in Washington D.C.

Within the last few years, I’ve taken several OLLI adult learning courses on the Civil War and civil rights. The most recent was titled “When Black Lives Almost Mattered.” These history courses, taught by Joseph McAuliffe, sparked my interest in compiling a Civil War timeline; my wife, Liesse Chable, shared the timeline with the OLLI literary course she offered on George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

We’ve both become interested in educating ourselves on what we didn’t learn in school.

You’re welcome to join us in a diverse group discussion among OLLI members on Zoom. Maybe it’s time for us adults to figure out together what we didn’t learn in school. To connect your interest in this special project of the OLLI SIG group Community of Readers and Writers, email readersandwriters@aol.com.

Andy Mohr was born at the end of WWII in England. His father was a GI who fell in love with his future English wife who was in British military service. Their son Andy returned from Vietnam, attended graduate school, became director of a museum in the Adirondacks. He was PR director for the D&H Railroad, worked as a train dispatcher for its XO Tower in Mechanicsville, and retired after 33 years in Rail Division of NYDOT. Both Andy and Liesse Chable, his wife, have been OLLI members since moving near Tampa where they live close to their son, his wife, and their three grandchildren.

7 Replies to “What I Didn’t Learn in School About the Civil War”


  2. Thank you Andy. It is painful to watch what our governor is doing … what has been done for way too long in our country. Learning our true history … to bear witness of what Blacks endured and continue to endure. How else will we wake up, will we open our hearts.

  3. I grew up near Albany, NY and remember visiting the Saratoga Battlefield as well as Gettysburg. As a former educator, I struggle with understanding why some southern government leaders continue to restrain learning, and how there could be so much systemic support for blissful ignorance. I’m still learning.

  4. Andy, this is such an important and timely piece; it is so well-written, it invites us in to bear witness to both the horrors of the past and the horrors of the present.
    Thank you for this call!

  5. Andy, your account of not learning the truth about the Civil War in school mirrors that of many of us, even some who grew up where the battles occurred. I fear The Truth has been lost in history and we are left with as many “truths” as there are “seekers of truth”. Having said that, it behooves us all to re-examine what we think we know.

  6. Great story! So much of accurate reports of government doings are never relayed to Americans. I agree the Civil War seemed not to accomplish what we were taught was its purpose : emancipation of slavery.

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