March 1863

Illinois schools during the war

While the nation was preoccupied with events on the battlefront, important things were happening on the home front. In Illinois hundreds of thousands of youngsters continued to attend classes in the state’s relatively new system of public schools.


The system in 1861
Laws enacted in the 1850s Illinois created a mandatory system of public schools financed through taxation. The system was overseen by a state superintendent of public instruction. Each county organized itself into districts, each of which operated a school. Persons seeking employment as teachers had to be certified as competent by county school officials. Textbooks were adopted at the local level, though the state superintendent offered advice as to the quality of textbooks offered in the marketplace. An Illinois State Normal University (today Illinois State University) operated as the state’s teacher-training institution.


When Fort Sumter was fired on in April 1861 the Illinois public school system consisted of about 9,300 schools serving almost 473,000 students. This was estimated to be about 80% of the white population between the ages of 5 and 21 years. In 1860 males dominated the field of teaching with 8,200 positions, while just over 6,400 women worked in classrooms. Males also dominated the pay scale, receiving on average over 50% more than their female counterparts. Officials in many counties reported some opposition to public education and consequently slow advances in raising the quality of their teaching staff and in improving school buildings and instructional equipment.


The school laws used the word “white” to designate the clients of the system. Some small provision for African American children was made by declaring that in “townships in which there shall be persons of color, the board of trustees shall allow such persons a portion of the school fund equal to the amount of taxes collected for school purposes from such persons of color…” While this did in the abstract create a right on the part of black children to public education, in the concrete it all but ensured a level of public funding that would make impossible a genuine education.


Ideas about education and the war 
In his 1863 report on the state’s schools Superintendent of Public Instruction Newton Bateman, after outlining the workings of the system, raised “deeper questions… questions that look beyond the domain of means, far out into the realm of results; that… propound to us the earnest inquiry, what then?” The result was a lengthy section about the role of educators in the national life, asking further “What is the great end of popular education? Are our public schools answering that end? How can they be made to do so more perfectly?”


Bateman’s answered his own questions. “The chief end is to make GOOD CITIZENS. Not to make precocious scholars—not to make smart boys and girls-not to gratify the vanity of parents and friends… but simply, in the widest and truest sense, to make good citizens.” What exactly did that entail? Bateman provided a long explanation highlighting some important characteristics. Most important was “cordial submission to lawful authority” -good citizens willingly submitted themselves to the law of God and of the just governments that God ordained. Another important attribute was “moral rectitude,” which could be taught by exposing children to the sad examples of failed individuals and nations. Teachers, though, should also raise positive models and “fail not to point the young to those substantial and enduring honors which cluster… upon the brow of virtue.” A final goal was to engender love of country. “The true American is ever a worshipper. The starry symbol of his country’s sovereignty is to him radiant with a diviner glory than that which meets his moral vision.” The southern rebellion, Bateman argued, was a consequence of ignorance and a resulting lack of true good citizenship.


The war brings a change
Probably the greatest effect the war had on schools was to change the composition of the teaching force. Several county superintendents reported difficulty in finding competent replacements for experienced men who enlisted in the military. Coles County’s superintendent lamented that “I have been compelled to grant certificates… to persons who failed to come up to the standard I have adopted, in order that the schools might all be supplied.”


Local schools responded by hiring women to fill many vacant teaching positions. By 1865 the number of male teachers had dropped to 6,172. Women picked up the slack with 10,843 presiding over classrooms.


Some districts employed women reluctantly, but later reported happy results. Jersey County’s superintendent wrote that many “female teachers have had but little experience in the art of teaching, but, by the assistance of the directors and patrons, have succeeded in giving pretty general satisfaction.” W. L. Campbell of Mercer County proved much more enthusiastic. He noted that 80% of new teachers in his county were women and complained of the injustice of their being paid roughly 60% of the salary awarded their male counterparts. “I cannot see why this difference should exist. The competent, faithful and true female teacher… is entitled to just as much compensation as the male. She performs the same amount of mental labor, undergoes the same wear and tear of mind and body, and accomplishes the same amount of good. The honest truth is, we do not pay our teachers enough, and particularly our females.”


The return of peace in 1865 changed many things in Illinois. One was the trend of women dominating public school teaching. Between 1865 and 1866 the number of male teachers rose by about 650. In that same period the number of women teaching declined by about 400. Though holding a smaller percentage of all teaching positions, women continued to preside in a solid majority of Illinois classrooms. They would continue to do so—a major change from prewar days.


One thing that did not change was the status of African Americans in the public school system. The 1850s statute that allowed but did not mandate public education opportunities for black children remained in effect. State superintendent Bateman put it bluntly in early 1867: “For the education of these six thousand colored children [of school age], the general school law of the State makes, virtually, no provision. By the discriminating terms employed throughout the statute, it is plainly the intention to exclude them from a joint participation in the benefits of the free school system.” He joined the Illinois State Teachers’ Association in calling urgently for the General Assembly to remove the word “white” from the state’s school laws. That would take some time.

Interested in learning more?
The state superintendent of public instruction issued biennial reports that included much statistical information and reports by county school superintendents. Reports covering the war years can be found online at and