Race as Depicted in Civil War Era Textbooks

A few days ago, I wrote about how the United States and Confederacy impacted education during the Civil War, through the portrayal of the Confederacy in Confederate textbooks and the requirement of many loyal states for teachers to take oaths of allegiance. Today I wanted to address a common theme found in Civil War textbooks: racism.

Unpacking racism in Civil War textbooks requires some characterization. Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race;” there is also another definition of “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”[1] The term racisme was earliest mentioned in France in the 1890’s; it first appeared in English dictionaries in 1902.[2]

So even using the term racism to describe Civil War textbooks may seem a bit off, since the word did not exist at that time, but I think it best fits common themes in these books. Geography textbooks, both from loyal and rebelling areas, examined physical and human geography, emphasizing religion, government, economics, and peoples. This is where things get dicey. The first half of the nineteenth century was a time when European naturalists crossed the globe. By the 1860s, Darwin’s writings were being found in North America. Because of these efforts, people of the time took greater efforts to classify animals, with some of these efforts resulting in a desire to classify humans as well.

Civil War era textbooks classify humans into five races. Smith’s First Geography for Children classified these as European (identified as “white”), Chinese (“yellow”), Malay (“brown”), Indian (Indigenous Americans identified as “copper color, or nearly red”), and African (“black”).[3] That book contained an entire lesson on the races of men and illustrated each race on its back cover. Colton and Fitch’s Introductory School Geography classified races “by the color of their skin” as Caucasian, Mongolian, American, Malay, and African.[4] First Lessons in Geography described Indigenous Americans as “savages” while people of Africa, Asia, and Pacific islands were “idolaters,” though the book happily explained “Missionaries have been sent from the United States and Europe to teach those ignorant people about the True God.”[5] Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas even included a map of where each race lived.[6] All of these books were published in New York City.

The cover of Roswell Smith’s First Geography Reader for Children, published in New York, displays the five races of humans that the book classified people into. (Roswell Smith, Smith’s First Book in Geography (New York: Cady & Burgess, 1850), Third Edition, Back Cover.)

Confederate textbooks mirrored this racial classification. Miranda Moore’s The Geographical Reader described “the Caucasian race” as people “mostly white,” “civilized,” and “far above all the others.” Asian peoples were “of a yellow color” and “heathen.” Indigenous Americans were described as “a red or copper colored race” who “now have books, schools, and churches” thanks to Caucasian interactions. The “negro race” [lowercase in original text] was described as “slothful and vicious,” adding that “slaves who are found in America are much better… fed, better clothed, and better instructed,” again thanks to their enslavement. Finally, Moore described “Malays” as “cunning and treacherous, and will have little dealings with white men. They eat the flesh of their enemies.”[7]

Moore’s First Dixie Reader also proclaimed enslavement’s institutional morality. It included a story titled “Uncle Ned” about an enslaved family who “lived near the Yan-kee lines, and when the Yan-ee ar-my come, old Ned and his wife and children, went a-way with them.” The passage concluded with Ned returning to his “kind master” after discovering “He did not fare so well” in Northern states “as he did at home with his master.”[8] Another story in the same textbook titled “Old Aunt Ann” explained that an elderly enslaved woman knew her enslaver “will take care of her as long as she lives.”[9]

Still more textbooks were created to benefit Freedmen. Mostly adopted by Freedmen’s Bureau schools, these often surprisingly took a tone of conciliation against former enslavers to both “mould former slaves into a subservient labour force” and “promote and maintain white supremacy.”[10] One 1865 reader for Freedmen included a story titled “The Meeting in the Swamp” about the War of 1812 where enslaved laborers discuss potential British attacks, with some suggesting supporting an invasion by revolt. There follows significant backlash, with enslaved characters calling out “’Dey don’t all cruelize us.’ ‘Dar ‘s Massa Campbell,’ pleaded another. ‘He neber hab his boys flogged. You would n’t murder him, would you?’ ‘No, no,’ shouted several voices; ‘we would n’t murder him.’ ‘I would n’t murder my master,’ said one of Mr. Duncan’s slaves.”[11]

Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas also classified humans into five races, even including a map on where these races lived. (J.H. Colton and A.J. Johnson, Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas (New York: Johnson and Ward, 1862), 21.)

Other books counseled Freedmen to undertake agricultural ventures, even if it meant returning to plantations. “If you are invited to go in as field laborers,” one advised, “go in and work.”[12] Another 1866 book advised Freedmen should “think kindly of your old master. You have grown up with him, it may be, on the same plantation. Do not fall out now, but join your interests if you can, and live and die together.”[13]

Certainly, these textbooks were products of their time. Almost all were written by Anglo Americans and books written both north and south included such a pro-Anglo stance, highlighting the superiority of Christianity and Western civilization. Regardless, Civil War era textbooks generally classified humans into five distinct races, including a hierarchy of social and economic abilities. As products of their time, these books were meant to showcase Anglo racial superiority.

Also of note is that many educators today (especially in social studies) do not adhere to textbooks and thus, what is printed in them are less important as the knowledge of a good teacher. I have taught at the middle school. high school, and college level, and have ignored textbooks in most all my curriculum choices, though textbooks can be good resources to inexperienced history and geography educators. However, in nineteenth century single-room schoolhouses educators relied on textbooks, having students memorize and restate textbook material, including “such characteristics and the rank of each race in the accepted racial hierarchy.”[14]

Understanding what was included in these 160-year-old textbooks is valuable today in highlighting how Americans thought then and how students were taught. It also highlights how society impacts education, and how social norms or changes can be reflected in both school textbooks, and the debates over them.

There has been much secondary research regarding Civil War era textbooks. Here is a brief listing of some (though not all) of this research:


  • Ronald Butchart, Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  • Ruth Elson, Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1964).
  • Robert C. Morris (ed.), Freedmen’s Schools and Textbooks (New York: AMS Press, 1980) volumes 1-6.
  • Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).


  • AnneMarie Brosnan, “Contested Goals and Competing Interests: Freedpeople’s Education in North Carolina During the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1861-1873,” Ph.D. Thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, 2016.
  • Laura Elizabeth Kopp, “Teaching the Confederacy: Textbooks in the Civil War South,” Master’s Thesis, University of Maryland, 2009.


  • AnneMarie Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism in the Textbooks Used in Southern Black Schools During the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1861-1876,” Pedagogica Historica, vol. 52 (2016), 718-733.
  • L. Davis Jr. and Serena Rankin Parks, “Confederate School Geographies, I: Miranda Branson Moore’s Dixie Geography,” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 40, no. 5 (1963), 265-274.
  • Keith Whitescarver, “School Books, Publishers, and Southern Nationalists: Refashioning the Curriculum in North Carolina’s Schools, 1850-1861,” The North Carolina Historical Review, 79, no. 1 (2002), 28-49.



[1] “Racism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https:www.merriam-webster/com/dictionary/racism. Accessed January 2, 2024.

[2] Nathan G. Alexander, “Towards a History of the Term ‘Racism,’” May 2019, Monitor: Global Intelligence on Racism, http://monitoracism.eu/towards-a-history-of-the-term-racism/, Accessed January 2, 2024.

[3] Roswell Smith, Smith’s First Book in Geography (New York: Cady & Burgess, 1850), Third Edition, 60.

[4] George Fitch, Colton and Fitch’s Introductory School Geography (New York: J.H. Colton and Company, 1858), 17.

[5] James Monteith, First Lessons in Geography (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1862), 32, 61.

[6] J.H. Colton and A.J. Johnson, Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas (New York: Johnson and Ward, 1862), 21.

[7] M.B. Moore, The Geographical Reader for the Dixie Children (Raleigh, NC: Branson, Farriar, & Co., 1863), 10-11

[8] M.B. Moore, The First Dixie Reader (Raleigh, NC: Branson, Farrier, & Co., 1863), 38-39.

[9] Ibid, 22.

[10] AnneMarie Brosnan, “Contested Goals and Competing Interests: Freedpeople’s Education in North Carolina During the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1861-1873,” Ph.D. Thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, 2016, 253, 256.

[11] L. Maria Child, The Freedmen’s Book (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865), 107.

[12] J.B. Waterbury, Friendly Counsels for Freedmen (New York: American Tract Society, 1864), 7

[13] Clinton Fisk, Plain Counsels for Freedmen (Boston: American Tract Society, 1866), 11.

[14] Ruth M. Elson, Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 66.

2 Responses to Race as Depicted in Civil War Era Textbooks

  1. I am so old that the kids sincerely ask me if I participated in some of the historical events I describe. I don’t use the textbook much, especially around topics I have a lot of knowledge already, in fact for about 20 years we didn’t have enough textbooks for the entire class.

    America Revised by Frances Fitzgerald, and Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen are excellent ways to understand what textbooks can and can’t(or won’t) do.

  2. Higher Education was gripped by the Dunning School writings on the CW and Reconstruction well into the 20th Century. One of its zealots Joesph Hamilton of UNC-CH was famed as a builder of the Southern Historical Collection but as a Dunning adherent taught generation a special twist on CW/Reconstruction history. UNC-CH is the process of removing his name from the building that has housed the history department at that storied institution .

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