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Civil War History 52.3 (2006) 282-302

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"To Forget and Forgive":

Reconstructing the Nation in the Post–Civil War Classroom

In John Bonner's A Child's History of the United States, published in 1866, schoolchildren read about the brave actions freedmen took on behalf of the Union cause. They read, for instance, about a "black man, Tillman, a steward on board a [Union] vessel seized by a rebel privateer, and left on board of her with the prize crew, [who] rose one dark night, . . . and killed the prize captain and mate with an axe, and brought the vessel safely to the port of New York." Students were also introduced to a freedwoman washing the floors at a Union hospital who saved the life of a wounded and sick Union soldier whom doctors insisted was going to die. After days and weeks of caring for him "carefully and tenderly," feeding him with a spoon "as though he had been a baby," and sleeping on the floor while the sick soldier occupied her bed, the woman "had the pleasure of seeing her soldier completely restored to health." These and other events, Bonner explained, "dispel[led] the prejudice" against freedmen and opened the door for freedmen to serve as soldiers. Stories of brave freedmen and women convinced wartime Americans, and presumably Bonner's young readers, that "there was something manly in the negroes after all."1 [End Page 282]

Written in the heady days after Appomattox, Bonner's classroom history was similar to many texts written in the North before and immediately after the American Civil War. In the midst of heated political battles about the Mexican War and slavery's expansion, slavery played a central role in classroom histories of the nation. Texts sought to establish an emancipationist legacy for the nation, and Bonner's history celebrated the realization of this legacy in the wartime enlistment of black soldiers. Samuel Goodrich had similar intentions in his Pictorial History of the United States. A picture portraying the arrival of the first slaves to Virginia in 1619 is included in the 1846 edition (fig. 1).

The accompanying text describes the slave trade and the emancipationist energy that followed the Revolutionary war and suggests that resistance to slavery grew in proportion to the extension of the trade. Recognizing slavery's central role in the narrative of American history, Goodrich wanted young schoolchildren to remember their ancestors who worked to end slavery and to block colonization schemes to send freedmen back to Africa.2 But whereas the images and stories of individual slaves—and Northern abolitionists—grace the pages of antebellum Northern texts and texts written in the first decade after the war, slaves and slavery are conspicuously absent from later classroom histories. Indeed, the image of the first slaves arriving in the colonies was unceremoniously removed from the 1877 edition of Goodrich's Pictorial. Later editions of the text eliminated slavery altogether, an editorial decision that gave Goodrich the space to add glowing predictions for the nation's future rather than burdening his history text with the weight of the nation's slave past. In the 1877 edition of Pictorial, all images of slaves and slavery were gone, and Goodrich applauded national reconciliation efforts, because "the time had come to bury the past [for] both North and South were ready to forget and forgive."3

In the thirty-one years between editions of Goodrich's popular school history, Americans on the battlefield and on the home front argued about the end of slavery and the meaning of American nationalism. Wartime government policies such as emancipation and freedmen's civil rights, the wartime draft, and the income tax extended the scope and the powers of the federal government, permanently redefining the relationship between the individual citizen and the nation. The postwar nation that emerged held great possibilities for freedmen. Congress considered legislation requiring [End Page 283]

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Figure 1
[End Page 284]

federal monitoring of elections and a generous aid to education bill...


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