Reading Writing and Arithmetic


Thomas P. Lowry

            In 2015, the author published “Galvanized Virginians in the Indian Wars,” a study of 292 Virginia soldiers in Union prison camps, who volunteered into the US Volunteers and were sent West. Their enlistment papers showed that 47 percent signed with an “X.”  Nearly half of these men were totally illiterate, unable to sign even their own names, a remarkable and unexpected finding. Was this normal for the 1860s?

The 1860 US Census, covering the entire nation, recorded literacy and illiteracy. This data is included in the gigantic database of the IPUMS Project at the University of Minnesota. Their gracious staff provided this author with a tabulation, which is presented here, with state followed by percent of illiteracy. The first paragraph presents the future Confederate states; the next paraph is Union states. The outlier areas such as Arizona and New Mexico, with large Hispanic populations are omitted. The states are designated by their standard US Postal abbreviations (MA = Massachusetts, and so on).

AL 9.9; FL 7.5; GA 13.2; LA 7.0; MS 6.4; NC 16.8; SC 8.6; TX 7.5, and VA 13.4. The average for the future Confederate states was 10.5% illiteracy.

AR 13.0; CA 4.2; CT 3.2; DE 13.3; IL 6.3; IN 6.9; IA 5.1; KY 12.7; ME 2.3; MD 6.9; MA 5.4; MI 3.7; MN 4.8; MO 9.9; NH 1.0; NJ 4.7; NY 4.2; OH 4.1; PA 3.9; RI 7.1; TN 13.5; and VT 5.4. The average for the Union states was 5.8% illiteracy. If the border states are excluded, the Union illiteracy rate is 5.0%.

Whether these North-South differences influenced military efficiency and the war’s outcome can only be a matter of speculation. There is no obvious explanation for the 47% figure for the Galvanized Virginians. One Virginia historian suggests that “only a dolt would leave his comrades, to join the Yankees.”

Utah did not have troops in the Civil War, preferring to keep the State of Deseret out of the fray. Their illiteracy rate, though, is worth mentioning: 0.7%, less than one percent, a tribute to the Mormon emphasis on education.

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