College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

MPB: Teaching Tough Topics: Civil War History in Mississippi

December 3, 2015

In Mississippi, the Civil War still stirs emotions. It’s not so much that teachers disagree on how it should be taught, but that ongoing attempts by the University of Mississippi and several cities across the South to shed Confederate symbols have called up old ghosts. Sandra Knispel reports for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Listen >>


History Professor John Neff at Confederate cemetery in Oxford, Miss. | Photo by Sandra Knispel

Historian John Neff, director of the University of Mississippi Center for Civil War Research and associate professor of history, explains some of the history found right in the middle of the campus.

“This is the cemetery established in 1862, following the Battle of Shiloh,” he says. “Buried under our feet, right on campus, absent markers or headstones, lie the remains of at least 400 soldiers…The Confederate wounded who were brought South from Shiloh to Corinth were then redistributed to a number of northern Mississippi cities. The young men that did not survive their wounds in hospital were then buried here. “

Steeped in tradition, the Ole Miss campus is alive with reminders of its Confederate past. To become more inclusive, the school renamed a road from “Confederate Drive” to “Chapel Lane” this summer. It recently decided to stop flying the state flag because of its Confederate battle flag emblem. Progressives and traditionalists clash here regularly over whether history should celebrate and embrace the past.

“We are all of us pursued by our history. We are shaped by it. But our current everyday environment should really reflect our values as much as they reflect historical values,” Neff says.

That leaves teachers to focus on an objective historical narrative while trying to ignore the biases of the moment.

“It really isn’t down to a debate between states’ rights or slavery causing the Civil War,” says Melissa Jones, editor of the website Mississippi History Now. “What really caused the Civil War is the expansion of slavery. It was really important to the South after the conclusion of the Mexican War.”

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