Echoes of Reconstruction: Learning About Reconstruction in South Carolina Schools in 1918

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

I wanted to look at what South Carolina school children learned about the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era in the early 20th century by reading the leading textbook on the history of South Carolina. The Simms History of South Carolina had been published by William Simms in 1860. In 1916, the South Carolina state superintendent of education asked his granddaughter Mary Simms Oliphant to author a new adaptation of the book. It would become the standard eighth grade South Carolina history textbook in that state for nearly half-a-century.

Oliphant’s book was revised over the decades, but in one edition or another it was used from World War I until the 1970s. Many South Carolinians have written recollections of reading the books as children. These children got a very dishonest portrayal of slavery. The book says in the 1958 edition:

“The Africans were used to a hot climate. They made fine workers under the Carolina sun….Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.” 

Imagine a Black child reading that? She goes on:

“Most masters treated their slaves kindly … the law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick….Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter’s interest to have them healthy and contented.”

You can find the 1918 edition of the book here.

Unlike later Lost Cause versions of this history, the 1918 edition sets the dispute over the spread of slavery into the territories as the root cause of the “Sectional Crisis” of the 1850s. Also identified as a cause is the dispute between Northern and Southern states over the Fugitive Slave Act. The Underground Railroad, described as “deliberate theft of property,” is a third cause. [1918 edition Sec. 344-349]

Oliphant was perfectly at ease with the extrajudicial infliction of physical pain on those opposing slavery. This use of violence was only sanctioned for those defending slavery. After describing Senator Sumner as a man who “got only what he deserved” when he was beaten at the Capitol, Oliphant described the violence in Kansas as a series of abolitionist provocations when there was violence on both sides. The focus sharpens on John Brown and his rebellion.

As the author describes the election of 1860, she squarely describes it as a battle between the pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North. Oliphant had not yet gotten the memo that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery! [1918 350-357]

The book gives a fairly standard white Southern version of the course of the war, which I have treated extensively elsewhere. The textbook narrates a fairly standard Lost Cause interpretation of the downfall of the Confederacy, beginning with Sherman marching into South Carolina after capturing Savannah right before Christmas in 1864. The book correctly says that there was a “decided animus against the ‘original secessionists’” of South Carolina by Union troops. The author says that this view was not just held by the Union commanders, but by the “common Federal soldiers.” She says that Sherman’s army “pursued a course of wanton destruction and vandalism, ” in the Palmetto State. She does not mention that as the Union army advanced, more than half of South Carolina’s citizens were freed from slavery.

The book then gives a straightforward account of the end of the Confederacy, which the author basically equates with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox. She describes the Army of Northern Virginia in April of 1865 as “tattered heroes” and bemoans the fact that Lee was outnumbered by nearly three-to-one in this last campaign for his army without mentioning the numerous desertions occurring in the last weeks before the surrender.

In the textbook history, the author says that 7/8ths of South Carolina’s wealth was eliminated by the Union advance at the end of the Civil War. Here is what she says:

“Its loss in slave property was $200,000,000. The assets of its banks, all of which were lost, amounted to $5,000,000. The burning and seizing of cotton meant a loss of $20,000,000.”

Oliphant estimates that $350,000,000 of property was lost by the people of the state. However, when we remember that more than half of this “property” was “lost” when slaves were freed (“$200,000,000” according to Oliphant) a more honest historian might reach a different conclusion. The products of the labor of enslaved Black men and women used to belong to white “masters,” now it belonged to free Blacks. The “wealth” was not lost; instead it went to the laborer rather than the master. When you read old books published in the South along what is known as a “Lost Cause” interpretation of this era and they complain about the state being reduced to ruin by Lincoln or Grant, always remember that most of the economic damages that are complained of are from the freeing of the slaves. The capacity of labor to produce was not reduced, only the profits to white slave owners.

In the next section, the textbook looks at elections right after the Confederate surrender. Contrary to Lost Cause apologists of the 21st Century, the textbook correctly points out that the elections in 1865 and 1866 in South Carolina allowed most Confederates to vote. There were no bars on white men voting either. There were some prohibitions on men educated at West Point or Annapolis, or former members of Congress and other high officers who left their positions to join the Confederacy. The people who were not allowed to vote were Black South Carolinians according to the laws made by white South Carolinians.

The governor of South Carolina was Benjamin Franklin Perry, a white politician who had opposed secession, but who had supported the Confederacy during the war. He was appointed governor by President Andrew Johnson, and he called a convention for the drafting of new laws. Every person elected to this convention was white, many of whom had supported the Confederacy.

The all-white legislature elected by only white citizens of South Carolina made one of its first acts the passage of the “Black Code,” which even the author of this Lost Cause narrative describes as “very severe legislation enacted for the protection of the white man against the negro.”

The book explains to Black and white middle school children why the “Black Codes” were passed: “South Carolina…had no intention of submitting to negro domination…[and] was decidedly unwilling to give him the ballot…” Oliphant calls on children to put themselves in the place of their grandparents a half-century before being confronted by “the sudden liberation of thousands of irresponsible, uneducated, unmoral, and in many cases, brutish Africans.” This justified denying them their basic rights.

The author was particularly peeved in looking at the situation in 1865 that Black troops made up part of the occupation forces in South Carolina. Since many of the Black troops had been born in South Carolina, you might think she would find the United States Colored Troops to be a welcome substitute for Yankee-born soldiers. However, she writes that when the Black troops were withdrawn at the end of 1865, it prevented “bloody race riots.” Now, of course, most South Carolina citizens were Black, and many South Carolinians would have assisted U.S.C.T. soldiers if they had been attacked.

4 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Learning About Reconstruction in South Carolina Schools in 1918

  1. I am a native of the SC Lowcountry which was decimated by Sherman during his Carolinas Campaign. I am also the author of “The Civil War in my South Carolina Lowcountry.” First, I agree with almost everything you wrote. I am now 77 years old and one of the children who learned from the text books you mention. My hope is that you will also report an accurate summary of the text books used to teach the northern children. I just believe that the entire history of the Civil War, good and bad for both sides, should be wrtten truthfully. A lot has been left out by historians and continues to be left out today. Thank you.

  2. With respect to the $200 million lost, I have read that it was common to use slaves as collateral. If so, then noteholders would have no recourse should debtors go into default. As far as the debtors, I assume plantation economy was such that no money was actually spent on care/upkeep of slaves, rather they were responsible for their own upkeep. So after emancipation there wouldn’t be any new expense, though I suppose plantation owners could demand rent or threaten eviction. Even in the best of circumstances I don’t see that a transition to a wage-based economy could be simple. So generating some sort of cash flow to service loans seems like a major problem. I assume there would be a general lack of specie, and obtaining greenbacks seems like it wouldn’t be so simple either. So beyond simple barter I don’t see there being much in the way of trade.

    1. It is only natural that once the thief has their thievery ended, he will face some financial difficulty.

  3. Of course a similar review of northern school literature of the time would probably contain much of the same evaluation of Reconstruction, if less overtly racist. In the “Progressive” Era the Civil War was presented less as a struggle to restrict the spread of slavery or avenge Sumter’s insult to the Union than as a rather cold clash between competing economic systems. In the absence of Union ongoing commitment to racial egalitarianism, or assisting or insisting in southern reform, there is no surprise that the defeated got away with rebounding and writing the history.

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