History Behind the Story: Learning to Read in the Sea Islands

McGuffey The Cat on the Mat.jpg

I’m researching Book 2 of the Low Country Series—yes, I know how eager many of you are about it—and I needed to know how children learned their letters in 1862.

The South Carolina Sea Islands were under control of the Union Army for most of the Civil War. Captured in the battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861, the Sea Islands became a social experiment, a “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” in the words of historian Willie Lee Rose. As former slaves poured into the area, the Union Army undertook the effort of aiding them, employing the adults and educating the children.

Book 2 of my Low Country Series takes place in the Sea Islands, where one of the main characters becomes a teacher to the freed children. It made me curious about the reader from which these children would learn their ABCs.

It was McGuffey’s, which published primers for beginners and readers one through six for older children.

The handsome cat is the star of McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer. His adventures with the rat and the mat introduced American children to reading for decades—from the 1840s until well into the 20th century. The books are full of illustrations that assume a life on a northern family farm, and I wonder what the children of St. Helena Island and Beaufort County, formerly enslaved on huge cotton plantations, made of them.

You can see a slightly later edition of the Primer online, text and illustrations both.