Michael T. Bernath: Confederate Teachers United in a War of Their Own

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Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South by Michael T. Bernath[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]

We welcome a guest post today from Michael T. Bernath, author of Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South, which is now available in a new paperback edition. During the Civil War, some Confederates sought to prove the distinctiveness of the southern people and to legitimate their desire for a separate national existence through the creation of a uniquely southern literature and culture. Bernath follows the activities of a group of southern writers, thinkers, editors, publishers, educators, and ministers—whom he labels Confederate cultural nationalists—in order to trace the rise and fall of a cultural movement dedicated to liberating the South from its longtime dependence on northern books, periodicals, and teachers. Bernath makes provocative arguments about the nature of Confederate nationalism, life within the Confederacy, and the perception of southern cultural distinctiveness.

In the following guest post, Bernath highlights April 28 as the sesquicentennial anniversary of delegates from the Confederate states forming the South’s first and only national teachers’ organization.

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2013 will mark many of the Civil War’s most famous sesquicentennial anniversaries—January 1 (Emancipation Proclamation), May 10 (Stonewall Jackson’s death), July 3 (Pickett’s Charge), July 4 (the fall of Vicksburg), November 19 (Gettysburg Address), just to name a few. By contrast, April 28 will pass with little notice (except perhaps among the most dedicated Civil War buffs interested in the fight at Choctaw Bayou, Louisiana). It was on that day, however, one hundred and fifty years ago, in Columbia, South Carolina, that nearly seventy delegates from six Confederate states met to form the South’s first and only national teachers’ organization, The Educational Association of the Confederate States of America.

Over the course of three days, the men (membership was restricted to male Confederate citizens) of the newly founded Association drew up a constitution, elected officers, and passed a series of resolutions that were then distributed and reprinted throughout the Confederacy. Their stated purpose was to aid the South in casting off its longtime dependence on northern textbooks and northern teachers and to ensure that a victorious Confederacy emerged from the war with both its political and its intellectual independence intact. Theirs was an essential component, a separate front, of the larger war effort against the North, and they resolved “That the unexampled heroism and devotion of our soldiers, imperatively demand of those to whom is committed the mental and moral development of our infant Republic, corresponding exertions in their appropriate sphere,” the schoolroom.[1] It was there that the “mind of the State” would be properly prepared so that while “the casualties of war are carrying off the present adult generation . . . those who are to succeed them should be able to appreciate the greatness of the trusts committed to their hands.” Thus these southern educators directed their attention to their new nation’s future, even as soldiers and politicians fought for its immediate survival.

At their meeting, the delegates discussed teacher training for native-born southerners and the establishment of statewide public education systems (still a relative rarity in the South), but their primary focus was encouraging the rapid wartime production of southern-authored and southern-published textbooks. Confederate independence required that southerners no longer depend on their enemies for their books and that southern children no longer be exposed to the poisons suspected to lurk within those pages. “Considering our former dependence for books, for teachers and for manufacturers, on those who now seek our subjugation, it is especially incumbent on this Association to encourage and foster a spirit of home enterprise and self-reliance,” these educators declared, and they pledged “to encourage our own citizens by every means in our power, to prepare and publish suitable text-books for our schools; and in all cases where such books are of equal merit with foreign works, to give them the decided preference.” To this end, the delegations presented reports on the textbooks recently published or in preparation in their respective states, compiling an impressive list of sixty-one titles.

Dignitaries from across the South sent letters of support. Confederate president Jefferson Davis, for instance, assured the delegates that their “object commands my fullest sympathy, and has, for many years, attracted my earnest consideration. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of primary books in the promotion of character and the development of mind. Our form of Government is only adapted to a virtuous and intelligent people, and there can be [no] more imperative duty of the generation which is passing away, than that of providing for the moral, intellectual and religious culture of those who are to succeed them.” North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance likewise congratulated the educators “that the desolation of war does not prevent the good men of the country from looking after this great and important matter. This is certainly the time to inaugurate the system of supplying our schools with our own books, and of impressing the minds of our children with the effusions of Southern genius.” Theirs was a cause “so patriotic,” he concluded, as “to be commended by every true Southern heart.”

Having adjourned on April 30, the members of the Educational Association of the Confederate States of America vowed to reconvene on September 2, 1863 in Atlanta. The difficulties of war, however, prevented it. Nevertheless, the organization did manage to assemble one last time before the southern nation that gave it purpose collapsed—meeting for one day on November 9, 1864, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Travel had become ever more difficult in the shrinking Confederacy, and most delegates, not surprisingly, hailed from the host state.

Ultimately, the significance of the Educational Association of the Confederate States of America lay more in what it symbolized than what it accomplished. These southern educators fought a different war for Confederate independence, one that in their view would legitimate southern nationhood and ensure the Confederacy’s future. They sought to separate the South from the North culturally as well as politically. In the end, their struggle for Confederate educational independence was inextricably linked to the war itself and their national organization could not survive without a nation. April 28, then, if it is to be commemorated, is to be remembered as a moment of optimism, a day when a group of white southern educators came together to imagine a great national future.

Michael T. Bernath is Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor in American History at the University of Miami and author of Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South.

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  1. [1] All quotations from Proceedings of the Convention of Teachers of the Confederate States, Assembled at Columbia, South Carolina, April 28th, 1863 (Macon, GA: Burke, Boykin & Co., 1863): Available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/teachers/menu.html.