In the wake of the Civil War, higher education in the South was at an impasse, and many historians have tended to view Southern colleges and universities of the era as an educational backwater that resisted reform. As Thinking Confederates demonstrates, however, defeat in fact taught many Southern intellectuals that their institutions had failed to supply antebellum graduates with the skills needed to compete with the North. Thus, in the years following the war, educators who had previously served as Confederate officers led an effort to promote academic reform throughout the region.
Dan Frost shows how, inspired by the idea of progress, these men set about transforming Southern higher education. Recognizing the North’s superiority in industry and technology, they turned their own schools from a classical orientation to a new emphasis on science and engineering. These educators came to define the Southern idea of progress and passed it on to their students, thus helping to create and perpetuate an expectation for the arrival of the New South.
Although they espoused a reverence for the past, these Civil War veterans were not blindly wedded to old ideals but rather fashioned a modern academic vision. Drawing on private correspondence that offers telling insight into the minds of these men, Frost shows that they recognized that the eradication of slavery had been necessary for Southern progress. He also explains how they upheld an idea of a New South that embraced beliefs both in the “Lost Cause” and in national reconciliation.
Challenging the view that the Confederacy’s military leaders were too conservative to entertain any notion of progress, this book offers a fresh and provocative analysis of postbellum Southern thought and higher education.
The Author: Dan R. Frost is an assistant professor of history at Dillard University in New Orleans. He has previously written on the history of higher education in the South in a two-volume work on the LSU College of Engineering.