About half of the 12 million school-age children in the country went to school. More white children attended school than black children; more native-born Americans attended school than immigrant children. Children in rural areas began classes after the harvest in December, and ended classes before the spring planting in March. While children on farms generally received less education than urban children, the growing numbers of poor urban children forced to work rather than go to school reduced the enrollment rates in cities as well College education was not prevalent in the United States in the Civil War period.

Most Americans worked on farms, on which the technology was simple and experience was a better guide than school learning. Even teachers, doctors and lawyers did not need to have a college degree. Apprenticeship was a more common way of learning the skills needed for professions such as medicine, law and business. While there were about 500 colleges and universities in the United States in 1870, there were only 50,000 students and about 5,000 faculty members. While curricula gradually broadened beyond the somewhat antiquated regiment of a "classical" education, entrance requirements became more challenging. Nevertheless, few colleges educated their students beyond today's high school level. College students were often still in their mid-teens, and most professors used few educational methods beyond recitation. Students interested in studying engineering or other such technical fields usually sought an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point, which provided the best education in such a field.