Hatred and Vengeance in the Classroom

Hatred and Vengeance in the Classroom

War generates powerful emotions and conveying those emotions to students presents numerous opportunities and a few pitfalls. More specifically, hatred and calls for vengeance inevitably accompanied (if they did not precede) the outbreak of war, and certainly the American Civil War was no exception to that rule. Students in Civil War courses typically learn a great deal about violence and destruction without necessarily understanding how the deployment of language and rhetoric—itself often violent—became part of the war’s narrative. My Fortenbaugh lecture from 2018, which was published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, can be a starting point for such discussions, but there are also other opportunities for bringing such discussions into the classroom.

There are two obvious ways to do this. The first is simply to add some consideration of emotional language to lectures and discussions. For instance, students could learn something about how each side defined the enemy. Although this topic has not received extensive treatment in the literature, there is now enough historical work (not to mention voluminous primary materials) available not only to spice up a lecture, but also to raise important questions that have not been fully addressed by historians.[1] One could easily begin with a discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s moving appeal to his “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” to step back from the abyss of war: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”[2] Ask the students what each side was fighting for and whether those objectives either encouraged or tamped down expressions of hatred. Did such expressions appear more intense on one side or the other and which side was most responsible for spreading such sentiments? Were civilians or soldiers more likely to express strong opinions about the other side and call for vengeance in response to reported atrocities committed by the enemy? Did social norms, including religious values, temper or exacerbate the expressions of hatred? How did public and private comments differ, if at all?

Some of the most colorful and revealing expressions of hatred appeared in the press, and the available secondary literature is replete with quotations that could be readily brought into lectures and classroom discussion.   Instructors interested in exploring religious aspects of Civil War history will also find material on hatred and vengeance in religious publications and sermons—again with some good examples cited in the secondary literature.

Expressions of hatred and calls for retaliation also became part of wartime propaganda on both sides. Official statements and political speeches helped define the nature of the enemy and trumpeted enemy misdeeds. In areas of great internal conflict such as Missouri or East Tennessee, harsh words often led to violent deeds. Union soldiers complained that Confederate women expressed their hatred for the Yankees in particularly strong language, a fact often supported by women’s letters and diaries, so questions of gender often entered into the mix.

In dealing with soldiers’ sentiments, instructors might call attention to a seeming paradox. Soldiers certainly expressed hatred for the enemy, but there are also countless examples of fraternization between Union and Confederate troops including the assertion that if allowed to do so, enlisted men and junior officers could have easily settled matters between themselves. This could be a useful point for discussion and perhaps widen into the larger question of whether hatred ironically grew out of both sectional differences and shared history.

But it was not just hatred for the enemy that demands consideration. Expressions of racial animosity were very much a part of the war years in both sections. This could include fear of slave insurrections specifically, or more generally whether there would be retaliation against slaveholders. Again, there are some useful examples in the secondary literature cited in note 1. Racial animus in the northern states swirled around the question of enlisting black soldiers and more broadly around the emancipation question. Growing wartime partisanship intensified debates about the future of slavery and became connected to questions of loyalty in contests between Republicans and Democrats. Examples from abolitionists, Republicans of various stripes, and both War Democrats and Copperheads would drive home these points.

Here is just one example of a politician deploying the language of hatred and vengeance: “The people will never consent to any cessation of the war, forced so wickedly upon us, until the traitors are hung or driven into ignominious exile,” declared Wisconsin governor Alexander W. Randall. “The Supreme Ruler can but smile upon the efforts of the law loving, government loving, liberty loving people of this land, in resisting the disruption of this Union. These gathering armies are the instruments of His vengeance, to execute his just judgments; they are His flails wherewith on God’s great Southern threshing floor, He will pound rebellion for its sins.”[3] Equally intense expressions from Confederates would help students understand the deeply emotional language of the era.

Of course, students may have some difficulty dealing with disturbing expressions of hatred and calls for revenge. The language is often harsh, and instructors should tread carefully but also avoid sanitizing the topic. Yet some instructors will wish to go beyond lectures and discussions. So a second approach would be to have students research specific documents–whether speeches, editorials, sermons, letters, or diaries–that in turn expose them to some unfamiliar historical references and analogies. They might research the role of the press in reporting enemy actions and in demonizing opponents by reading both news accounts and editorials. Students might also explore some of the vast sermon literature produced in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that often directly engaged questions of hatred, vengeance, and the treatment of Confederate leaders.

A more challenging source but one worth exploring with stronger students is the Congressional Globe. In May 1862, for instance, there was a sharp exchange between a Democrat and a Republican in the House of Representatives over whether there was danger of Union war policies fostering southern hatred. These two speeches could provide both challenging and stimulating subjects for class discussion.[4] In mining the rich documentary sources, students will need to critically note who is speaking and to whom, on what occasion, whether the rhetoric is always to be taken literally.

Finding information on hatred and vengeance in the era of digital history is easier than ever, though the sheer volume of material can be overwhelming. Online access to hundreds of newspapers offers opportunities for looking at contemporary responses to particular events—such as calls for retaliation in the wake of the Fort Pillow massacre. Much of the published primary materials not yet digitized because of copyright restrictions either have no subject indexes or very poor ones. Some of these materials, however, may be searched through a database of indexes to primary sources (both books and periodicals) that I created initially for myself and my graduate students, but which is now available online through the University of Alabama Library. Here, students preparing research projects and simply wishing to sample a few primary sources can find a number of references to “hatred” and “vengeance.”

Studying wartime rhetoric, particularly that dealing with hatred and vengeance, will help students understand that bitter divisions and invective have long been a part of the American political landscape and give them some background for placing the political polarization of their own time in context.


[1] Randall C. Jimerson, The Private Civil War: Popular Thought during the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 124-79; Jason Phillips, Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 147-77; Jason Phillips, “A Brothers’ War? Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy,” in Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 67-90; George C. Rable, Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), 95-117; George C. Rable, “Fighting for Reunion: Dilemmas of Hatred and Vengeance,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 3 (September 2019): 347-77.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1954), 4:271.

[3] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Civil War Messages and Proclamations of Wisconsin War Governors (Madison: Wisconsin History Commission, 1912), 63.

[4] Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 2nd Sess., Pt. 3:2177. 2241.

George Rable

George C. Rable is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama. He is the author of six books on various Civil War era topics. He is currently working on a study tentatively titled, “The Politics of War: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Army of the Potomac.” He is also continuously adding to his database of indexes to Civil War primary sources that may be accessed at https://adhc.lib.ua.edu/rableindexes/.

4 Replies to “Hatred and Vengeance in the Classroom”

  1. Frankly, this is all hooey. All you need to do is assign Marx’s Civil War correspondence (Zimmerman’s volume) to your students, and they will understand precisely how “polarization” and “division” of today mirrors with exactitude that of 1850 to 1861. Not a single difference. I suppose you’ve never studied that, but your students should, and many of them certainly will, whether or not you assign it, at which point they will wonder why you never assigned it.

  2. I would like to suggest that teachers try to book this play to show their students. I have found this to be very engaging to the students so far. I think it is also very important to tell the untold stories of women and the Civil War. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a Civil War SURGEON, and the only woman to receive our country’s highest honor, The Congressional Medal of Honor. Please contact me to see how you can book this theatrical performance. Thank you

  3. Ask your students if their parents would feel if they brought home and slept with a boyfriend or girlfriend of a different race. How about a potential spouse of the same sex?

    How many of them would feel perfectly comfortable lining in an area dominated by a different culture?

    You and your students will find many of their answers reflected in the political and personal discussions of the 1830’s-1860’s political and personal discussions and correspondence.

    The past is not always in the past.

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