Teaching the Civil War
Teaching U.S. history can be overwhelming for teachers, both experienced and new. There are so many important people, places, and events that it can seem daunting to teach a unit cohesively and clearly. This can be especially hard when you’re teaching about a major US historical event like the Civil War.
I want to empower teachers like you to feel comfortable and confident when teaching history. In this blog post, I will outline the most important things you need to know about teaching the Civil War.
Civil War Overview
The American Civil War was a war between the Union and 11 Southern States that seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The Civil War lasted four years, from 1861-1865. The Civil War began primarily over a disagreement about the existence and role of slavery in the United States.
Slavery in America
When teaching about the Civil War, it is essential that students have an understanding of slavery, how it led to the Civil War, and how its legacies still influence us today. One of my favorite resources for teaching about slavery is Teaching Tolerance. They have great frameworks to help teachers know how to discuss this difficult topic.
Here are some of the basics that you will need to teach students:
- What is freedom?
- What is slavery?
- Where did slavery exist?
- What was life like for enslaved people in the United States?
- How did enslaved people resist bondage?
- How was slavery in the United States connected to race?
- How was slavery ended in the United States?
- How was slavery connected to the Civil War?
You can read a brief history of slavery in the United States here.
Life Before the Civil War
Before the Civil War, there were important regional differences between the North, the South, and the West. One significant difference was the legality of slavery. Just before the Civil War, there were 19 free states (states where slavery was illegal) and 15 slave states (states where slavery was legal). All of the slave states were in the South.
Life in the North
Most Americans lived in the Northern United States. The North had an agricultural economy growing crops like corn, wheat, and oats. However, the industrial revolution brought great changes to the North. Thousands of Northern workers moved from farms to cities to work in factories, households, and small shops. By 1860, one-fourth of all Northerners lived in cities. In addition, immigrants from Europe rushed to America to work and settled in the North.
Before the Civil War, most Northerners accepted Southern slavery and did business with enslavers. However, many did not want slavery to expand to the Western territories. There was a very small group of Northerners called abolitionists who wanted to end slavery altogether. Many Northern abolitionists were free Black Americans.
Life in the South
The South had an agricultural economy growing crops like cotton, tobacco, and sugar. Eighty percent of Southern laborers worked on farms.
Slavery was inextricably tied to the South’s economy. Around 20-25% of white Southern families were enslavers. Enslavers used enslaved people to generate profit. Enslaved people were forced to work without hope for freedom. They did many different kinds of work, like fieldwork, household chores, and skilled trades.
Large farms called plantations existed but not in great numbers. Those who owned plantations were called planters. They typically enslaved twenty or more people but some even enslaved hundreds of people.
Southern farmers not only supported slavery, they also supported the expansion of slavery to the Western territories.
Life in the West
Many Americans moved west because of an idea called Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was destined by God to cover the entire North American continent. Many believed that white Americans should spread their culture, democracy, and capitalism all the way to the West Coast. This idea ignored the fact that many people (including many Indigenous Peoples and Mexicans) were already living in the western United States. For more information, read The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Westward Expansion.
Emigrants began settling in California, Oregon, and other parts of the West during the early 1800s. Western pioneers generally worked small family farms. They plowed the natural grasses of the plains to plant crops that they could trade like corn, barley, and oats.
Before the Civil War, most Western farmers accepted Southern slavery and did business with enslavers. However, many did not want the Western territories to be open to slavery.
Events Leading to the Civil War
During the first half of the 19th century, there were several important trigger events that led to the Civil War. Some of these events are:
- The Compromise of 1850
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Bleeding Kansas
- Dred Scott vs. Sanford
- John Brown’s Raid
- The Election of 1860
Painting of Dred Scott, Public Domain, Link
The Election of 1860 & Secession
By the election of 1860, tensions between the North and South were high. The four Presidential candidates were Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell.
Abraham Lincoln, a Northern Republican, won the election. This was the last straw for slave states who saw Lincoln as an abolitionist. By mid-1861, eleven Southern states had secceeded and formed the Confederate States of America.
Important People During the Civil War
- Abraham Lincoln – President of the United States during the Civil War
- George B. McClellan – Union General
- William T. Sherman – Union General
- Ulysses S Grant – Union General (and President of the United States after the war)
Photograph of Abraham Lincoln, Public Domain, Link
- Jefferson Davis – President of the Confederate States of America
- Robert E. Lee – Confederate General
- Stonewall Jackson – Confederate General
- J.E.B. Stuart – Cavalry Commander
Photograph of Robert E. Lee, Public Domain, Link
- Frederick Douglas – Abolitionist
- John Brown – Abolitionist
- Harriet Tubman – Aboltionists and spy for the Union (Click here to read about more women who worked as Civil War spies)
Photograph of Harriet Ross Tubman, Public Domain, Link
Events of the Civil War
Civil War Battles
In April, the first shots of the civil war were fired at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. In this “battle,” the Confederacy captured the U.S. Army fort.
Other significant battles include:
- First Battle of Bull Run
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Siege of Vicksburg
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Battle of Atlanta
- Battle of Appomattox Courthouse
The Emancipation Proclamation
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states were now free. It also declared that people who had escaped slavery and entered the Union were also free. The Emancipation Proclamation made the abolition of slavery an explicit Union war goal. It also laid the foundation for the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States.
A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slave by Eastman Johnson, Public Domain, Link
The Gettysburg Address
The Battle of Gettysburg was a famous Union victory. This battle, fought in July of 1863, resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire war. Gettysburg is considered a turning point because after the battle Lee’s army no longer acted offensively but reacted against Grant’s army.
Perhaps even more famous than the battle is the speech Lincoln gave afterward called The Gettysburg Address. This is one of the most famous speeches in American history. In the speech, Lincoln honored the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg and spoke of the importance of continuing the task of preserving the Union.
The End of the War
After two more years of fighting, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. This event triggered a series of surrenders across the South.
Just days later, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by Jon Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer.
Civil War Timeline
When teaching the Civil War, or any historical period, it can be helpful for students to have a general timeline of important events and when they occurred.
Here are some of the most important events to know when teaching the Civil War:
- November 1860 – Lincoln is elected sixteenth US President
- January 1861 – Seven Southern states Secede
- February 1861 – The Confederate States of America is formed and Jefferson Davis is elected president
- April 1861 – Confederate victory at Fort Sumter
- April 1861 – Four more states join the Confederate States of America
- July 1861 – Confederate victory at the Battle of Bull Run
- April 1862 – Union victory at The Battle of Shiloh
- June-July 1862 – Confederate victories at the Seven Days Battles
- September 1862 – Union victory at the Battle of Antietam
- January 1863 – Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation
- May-July 1863 – Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg
- November 1863 – Lincoln gives the Gettysburg Address
- July 1864 – Atlanta falls, Union Victory
- November-December 1864 – Union General Sherman leads his March to the Sea and takes over Atlanta
- November 1864 – Abraham Lincoln is re-elected
- April 1865 – Confederate General Lee surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse
- April 1865 – President Lincoln is assassinated
I recommend displaying a timeline like this in your classroom. Even better, have students help you create the timeline as you go through the unit! Click here to get my free Civil War Timeline Worksheet.
Teacher Resources for Learning about the Civil War
Now that you know the basics, here are a few excellent resources to help you learn more. These resources will help you better understand the Civil War!
- American Battlefield Trust – This is my favorite website for learning about the Civil War
- Civil War 1 and Civil War 2 Crash Course US History – In these two fast-paced videos John Green’s covers the important factors and outcomes of the Civil War
- Battles of the Civil War Crash Course US History – John Green quickly covers the Civil War’s most important battles in this informative video
- Free Online US History Textbook – Chapter 15 of this online textbook discusses the events of the Civil War
- Britannica Online – Britannica’s American Civil War article is full of key dates, important factors, and major events of the Civil War.
Civil War Pacing Guide
Here is the pacing guide I used in my three-week Civil War Unit:
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5|
|Life in Antebellum America||Slavery in America||Events Leading to the Civil War||Election of 1860 Simulation||Election of 1860 Results|
|Day 6||Day 7||Day 8||Day 9||Day 10|
|Union vs. Confederacy||Who Did They Fight?||Who's Who of the Civil War||Perspectives on the War||Emancipation Proclamation|
|Day 11||Day 12||Day 13||Day 14||Day 15|
|Gettysburg||Lincoln's Assassination||Reconstruction||Reconstruction Amendments||Civil War Reflection|
Free Civil War Lessons
This timeline activity will teach students about how to create a Civil War timeline and what makes a historical event important. This is such an important skill, and one that your students will use over and over again!
I created a lesson where students learn about 8 important Civil War battles by analyzing clues around the room. The “clues” are actually primary and secondary sources like an 1861 newspaper article, a map, a letter from Ulysses S. Grant, and more!
This lesson can be printed or assigned via Google Classroom!
Enter your email below to grab your free Civil War battles lesson!
Civil War Primary Sources
If you aren’t using primary sources to teach about the Civil War, you’re missing out! No matter what historical period you’re teaching about, primary sources help history come to life for your students.
The main difficulty with primary sources is finding the time to search for them when you already have a million things to do.
To help save you time, I’ve created a list of teacher-approved Civil War Primary Sources.
Here is one of my favorite Civil War primary sources:
Photograph of Private William Sergent (Union soldier) after the amputation of both arms
Description of Primary Source:
This photo is a powerful Civil War primary source. Amputations were the most commonly performed surgery during the Civil War. In fact, historians estimate that over 60,000 amputations were performed during the war! This photograph is an example of a Union soldier who had both arms amputated. Learn more about amputations from this 4-minute video from the American Battlefield Trust (warning: it is gory!).
Class Discussion Questions:
What do you see?
Describe the man. Who do you think he is?
Why do you think this photo was taken?
How does this photo compare to modern times?
Resources for this Primary Source:
Civil War Videos
Another great way to engage students is through high-quality history videos. Videos can teach a lot of information in a short period of time. They are also engaging and fun!
However, most teachers know that not all history videos are created equal. To help provide you with awesome, informative videos, I’ve created this list of 5 Civil War Videos.
One video that your students will love is “North vs South” by Mr. Betts’ Class.
North vs South (Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” Parody) by Mr. Betts’ Class
This video by Mr. Betts’ Class is a hilarious song parody about the strengths and weaknesses of the Union and the Confederacy
My Rating: age 9+
Notes: Your students will go crazy when Mr. Bett dabs at 2:12! Mr. Betts’ Class has several other song parodies about the Civil War which you can browse here.
Civil War Picture Books
The final resource I want to cover for teaching the Civil War is picture books.
Picture books are an amazing resource for teaching history! They tell personal stories and help students make connections between their lives and the lives of historical figures.
Pink and Say is one of my favorite Civil War books.
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
This emotional picture book tells the true story of two young union soldiers: one White, and one Black. Pinkus, a Black Southerner, finds Say, a White Northerner, injured after a battle. Pink takes Say back to his mother, where she cares for Say until he recovers. The two boys form a friendship and Say learns the true meaning of bravery and how to fight for what is right.
This story is very special because it is a story passed down from generation to generation in author Patricia Pollacco’s family. Although it is a children’s book, it is a book about war, and involves the death of two characters.
This book is appropriate for students ages 6 and up.
Ideas for Using this Book:
This book is a great way to discuss which groups fought in the Civil War. For example, Pinkus, a Black Southerner and Say, a Northerner, both fought for the Union army.
It also shows the risks that individuals took to do what was right. Pinkus and his mother risk their lives to save Say.
Some themes of this book are bravery and the cost of war.
Note: The book link is an Amazon affiliate link. This means that I may earn commissions for purchases made through the link.
Civil War Unit
How would it feel to have your Civil War Unit completely planned for the next 3 weeks, including 15 lessons, worksheets, and answer keys completely ready to go?
I’m a former 5th grade teacher myself, so I’ve been in your shoes and understand the struggle of creating meaningful lessons. In particular, I never had the time, energy, or support to teach social studies the way I wanted to.
Now, I work full-time creating US History curriculum because I want to help you fall in love with teaching history.
My Civil War Unit has been used by thousands of 5th-8th grade teachers, so keep reading to find out why it is my #1 selling unit.
What’s included in the Civil War Unit?
15 detailed lesson plans
3 weeks of activities
Answer keys (of course)
100+ pages with a variety of activities (PowerPoint presentation, jigsaw, simulation, task cards, and so much more)
Civil War Unit Table of Contents
Part 1: Before the Civil War
Life in Antebellum America—students read about life for different groups (such as slaves, western farmers, northern workers, etc.) and complete worksheet
Slavery in America—powerpoint presentation, worksheet, and opinion writing
Causes of the Civil War—newspaper articles, jigsaw activity and student worksheets
Election of 1860 Simulation—speeches, campaign posters, listening guide and opinion writing
Election of 1860 Results—article on electoral college, map, and worksheet
Part 2: Events of the War
Union vs. Confederacy—article on succession, infographic on Union and Confederacy, and student worksheet
Why Did They Fight?—page with quotes on why various people fought and opinion writing
Who’s Who of the Civil War—informative task cards on Civil War leaders and student recording sheet
Perspectives on the War—four fictional letters demonstrating different viewpoints on the war and group worksheet
Emancipation Proclamation—article on Emancipation Proclamation, comprehension check and creative writing
Gettysburg (Battle and Address)—article on Battle of Gettysburg, vocabulary list, and annotating worksheet for the Gettysburg Address
Part 3: Reconstruction
Lincoln’s Assassination—newspaper article, article about Lincoln’s assassination, comprehension questions, and creative “epitaph” writing activity
Reconstruction Problems, Solutions, & Failures—group brainstorming worksheet, note-taking page and article on Reconstruction failures
Reconstruction Amendments—transcript and vocabulary for 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments with student worksheet
Civil War Reflection—student reflection page and writing opportunity
This bestselling Civil War unit has 500+ positive reviews on Teachers pay Teachers, and here’s what teachers are saying…
Literally the best resource I’ve ever purchased for my 5th grade classroom!
This has been the best purchase I’ve made on TPT! My 8th graders struggle with most assignments made for their level, but these were perfect for them. I was able to add these to my lessons with ease, and they filled in the gaps nicely. Thank you!
I’ve purchased all of your history units and my students thrive off of them. The activities are fantastic and it includes material that they can comprehend. Thanks for your hard work on this! I hope to see more in the future.
Love your units! They really take it so much deeper than the book ever could. My kids love social studies.
For an engaging, time-saving solution, check out my 3-week Civil War Unit.