Education and the US Civil War: Confederate Readers and Dixie Spellers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Education and the US Civil War: Confederate Readers and Dixie Spellers

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A page from the Confederate primer in 1864.

The platform statement of the Republican Party of Texas for 2012 is a statement of political positions taken by party members on a number of subjects, ranging from Constitutional and legal issues to family policy and educational goals. In addition to calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, and repeal of the Endangered Species Act, Texas Republicans1 in this statement oppose equal rights for sexual minorities, but fully support the space efforts of NASA (a major employer in the state). The platform also advocates a number of changes in school curricula. The teaching of multiculturalism is to be discouraged, according to the document, and students are to be required to pledge allegiance daily, not only to the US flag, but also to that of Texas2.

Perhaps the most controversial 'plank' of this platform, however, turned out to be the following item under 'Knowledge-Based Education':

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

It is not known whether the Texas Republicans who drafted this statement were aware of it, but their educational policy had more than a few goals in common with that of the Confederate States of America (CSA), that four-year experiment in independent government which included Texas along with the rest of the slave-holding South. To understand the background of the Texas debate about education, a look at CSA textbooks might be in order.

Confederate Education and Its Goals

The Confederate States of America were a separate country, at least according to the states of the Southeast US who seceded, along with Texas, in 1860/61. According to the government in Washington, DC, secession was not possible – with the US, it was argued, it was 'once in, always in'. Resolving the impasse required a major civil war. In 1865, the South, which had run out of money, supplies and ammunition, saw its armies (though not its government) surrender: the troops gave up and went home. As there had been no war3, there were no further negotiations necessary. Former rebels who signed a loyalty oath were allowed to become citizens again.

During the short, putative existence of the Confederacy, however, Southern patriotism was fuelled on the educational front by the production of no fewer than 136 textbooks. These textbooks had certain goals:

  • To eliminate the pernicious influence of 'Northern' textbooks which taught heretical values, such as critical thinking (rather than piety), human equality, and the rights of women.
  • To legitimise political and economic claims of the South, and to place the current conflict in historical perspective.
  • To instill in Southern women, children, and slaves obedience to husbands, fathers, and masters – in other words, to recreate the Roman ideal of filial piety and respect for the paterfamilias.
  • To promote loyalty to the Confederacy.

From the days of the early republic, US textbooks in general were directed at promoting patriotism, and often included Bible readings and pious sentiments. Many of these readers, spellers, and other textbooks were written by scholars who were also clergymen. Legends of the great Founders, such as George Washington, were often included as examples to be followed. What distinguished Confederate textbooks was a re-emphasis on regional values in regard to the centrality of slavery to society, and the importance of patriotism toward the new Confederacy.

It is a commonplace of historical study today to point out that during the first half of the 19th Century, the North and South in the US developed quite different cultures. Educationally, this was reflected in the fact that northern schooling emphasised the need to keep up with change, ideals of individual initiative and an internal moral compass. In contrast, the agrarian South stressed classical learning and the ideal of the 'true gentleman', an individual who was loyal, brave, and possessed a sense of honour.

Confederate textbooks were assumed to be aimed primarily at the elite. This learning was not, first and foremost, intended for the yeoman farmers and mountaineers – nobody cared whether they could read or not, and it was illegal to teach slaves to read at all. What one calls today the 'one percent' was, to the approximately nine million people of the Confederacy, the 'three percent' – that being the estimated percentage of major slaveholders. This planter class now aimed to teach an outlook that welded the institution of slavery to the virtues of 'honour' and morality.

Confederate textbooks encompassed history, geography and grammar – but also Latin and Greek. Most important, however, were the basic subjects such as spelling, grammar and reading skills. The ethos of the slaveholding class was served up to beginning students in the form of readers in the Southern idiom, compounded of edifying fables and uplifting verse, with a few Bible quotations thrown in.

Confederate Textbooks and the Social Order

A page from the Confederate Spelling Book in 1865.

Writers of Confederate textbooks needed to accomplish two goals: to supply the student with basic information – say, the geographical layout of North America – and to 'correct' for previous bias in the curriculum due to the older textbooks being published in a different region. In the case of one geography book, the publisher simply took existing maps of the United States, performed a (physical) cut-and-paste, and re-centred the Confederate States on the page.

In terms of social relationships, 19th-Century textbooks in general tended to use stories in readers to model an ideal state of affairs. The Confederate First Reader stresses positive race relations: although others are primitive, they are capable of hospitality, as in 'Mungo Park's Travels to Africa', in which 'primitive' Africans take pity on a traveller. The moving piece ends with verses by the Duchess of Devonshire:

Go, white man, go – but with thee bear
The negro's wish, the negro's prayer,
Remembrance of the negro's care.

– The Confederate First Reader

The next reading, 'The Wonderful Chip', relates the story of how a missionary to Rarotonga impresses the natives with the power of white people to communicate by writing. In this reader, primitive people are often seen as kind: in 'The Indian and His Dog', a friendly Indian in the Blue Ridge uses his native knowledge of woodsy lore to find a lost white child.

European and US educators in the early-to-mid-19th Century often looked to the writings of classical Rome for models of behaviour and for ideas about government, virtue, and family life. Our Own Third Reader, a Confederate work printed in Edinburgh, stressed family values and the key role of women as wives and mothers by citing that great Roman matron, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. 'The Best Jewels', of course, are her sons, '...and they both became great men.'

Confederate Textbooks and the Political Situation

Did these textbooks explicitly defend slavery? Not in the lower grades. More advanced textbooks, such as Principles of English Grammar, did:

The Southern States seceded from the United States Government. 'Had they the right to do this?' is a question of no little importance... for the Constitution, which the States all agreed to live under, was a slave Constitution. The North refused to abide by this Constitution... was it wrong for us to separate from a people who would not regard their obligations to us? Who were using their utmost energies to destroy our equality, our property, our respectability, and take upon themselves the management of our own property, and thus make us their slaves?
–   Principles of English Grammar

This model writing passage, which is listed under 'Promiscuous Exercises', ends with a paean of praise to President Jeff Davis, described as 'the pride of his friends, the terror of his foes.'

Confederate Spellers and Readers and the War

All spellers aimed at teaching basic literacy while inculcating students with the desired childhood virtues of cleanliness, kindness, forthright honesty and godliness. As these spellers were Confederate spellers, they also aimed at teaching children Southern values, manners and loyalty to the Cause.

The Dixie Speller did not sugar-coat the realities a child was likely to experience:

'A boy and a man were in the old log hut we ran by just now, Will. Did you not see them?' 'No, I did not see them.' 'I did, and I saw too, that it was not a big hut, and the man had but one arm, for one was cut off in the war...'

–   The Dixie Speller and Reader

Even a privileged Confederate child was likely to know that there were rich and poor, and that there was a war going on – one in which adults lost limbs, or even died. In this passage, two boys are discussing what makes trains go ('Why, it is steam, don't you know that?'), and move on to reasons for railway travel:

I went with my papa and mamma to visit my aunt last year, and we rode ever so many miles on the cars. It would have been a nice trip to me, but dear papa was going to leave for the wars soon after we got home. Oh! how I wish this cruel war would end, for then he would come back home; he has been gone so long from us, I very much fear that some of those bad men will kill him.
  –   The Dixie Speller and Reader

In the questions that follow, students are asked what makes trains go, and why the North and South are at war.

Suffer the Little Children

Smaller children may have been spared some of the geopolitical musings of more advanced spellers and readers, but they got a healthy dose of morality and good behaviour advice:

5. God does not love boys and girls who say bad words. Christ did not say a word that was bad or ug-ly, in all his life.

  –   The First Dixie Reader

The author of this reader, a Mrs Moore, is very specific about what God does and does not like:

1. You all know what a calf is. All it cares for is to go with the cow, and get her milk.
2. You can-not learn a calf to spell. When a boy will not learn to spell and read; and cares only for good things to eat, and fine clothes to wear, we call him a calf.
3. Such boys will not make wise men. No one cares to have a calf pay him a vis-it.
4. God has giv-en boys minds to learn ; and He ex-pects them to do it.

  –   The First Dixie Reader

Obviously, children who were 'learned' from The First Dixie Reader were not going to be trained in 'critical thinking' – but the sciences were not entirely neglected in this volume:

2. The moon has a dark side and a light side, and when she turns all of her bright side to us, we have a full moon.
3. When her dark side is to us we call it new moon.

  –   The First Dixie Reader

Clearly there was room for improvement here, both in content and in presentation. No doubt the end of the war and the following period of Reconstruction put a premature end to what could have been an interesting experiment in education.


Although the Southern states (and Texas) were returned to the Union in 1865/66 (or whenever their legislatures ratified the 14th Amendment and promised to stop holding their fellow citizens in bondage, which in some cases required as long as ten years), influences of the Confederate system of education persisted for nearly a century. To be sure, in the immediate aftermath of the war itself, the states formerly in rebellion were too impoverished to think much about textbook publishing, and had to get their new materials from the still-hated North. But educators were sensitive to slights, real or imagined, against their regional pride. Magazine articles warned about 'Yankee influence', especially in students' views of the war.

For a century after the conflict, US history was taught in two different versions: basically, one in which William Tecumseh Sherman4 was a hero, and one in which the general was a war criminal. Romanticised views of 'The Lost Cause' were commonly taught in the South, as late as the 1960s.

Today, history courses in all regions of the US prefer to deal with such issues as The March to the Sea in a more nuanced manner – often taking the questions from the 1860s as opportunities to discuss contemporary parallels in a way that avoids hot-button issues of the day. After all, all of those people are dead now, and parents are less likely to get exercised about Sherman, Lee, and Grant than they are about names such as Bush, Cheney, and Obama.

Even so, state school boards might want to take a closer look at the Confederate textbook phenomenon, if only to see how far curriculum design has come.

Further Reading

  • Laura Elizabeth Kopp's 2009 Master's thesis, entitled Teaching the Confederacy: Textbooks in the Civil War South, is an excellent study which offers a good overview of the themes of Confederate textbooks and a discussion of the aftermath of the war in terms of education.
  • is a rich source of primary materials. Just search for 'Confederate reader/speller' or the word 'Dixie' for a trip back to the 1860s schoolroom.

1For the purposes of this Entry, it should be noted that the Republican Party and its goals changed considerably between 1860, when it won its first Presidential election, and 2012, going basically from liberal to conservative in its orientation.2The pledge of allegiance to the flag of Texas is 'Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.'3600,000 people died in this conflict, but labelling it an armed rebellion as opposed to a war was a legal issue. Nonetheless, most observers refer to the military events of 1861-65 as 'the Civil War'.4William T Sherman was the general who burned Atlanta, Georgia, to the ground and pursued a scorched-earth policy from there to the Atlantic Ocean, thus shortening the war considerably.

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