Closer Readings Commentary

The American Civil War

Whether it is called the Civil War, the War between the States, the War of the Rebellion, or the War for Southern Independence, the events of the years 1861–1865 were some of the most traumatic in the nation's history.

The secession of the southern states, and President Lincoln's decision to prevent them forcibly from leaving the Union, triggered a conflict that would see fighting on battlefields as far apart as Pennsylvania and Texas, Missouri and Florida, and would leave nearly a million Americans on both sides dead or wounded. Indeed, casualties in the Civil War exceeded those of every other war in which the United States has ever participated, combined.

EDSITEment has put together a collection of our lesson plans, student interactives, multimedia presentations, and vetted websites which will allow teachers, students, parents and lifelong learners to learn more about these events

Historical Background

How did the United States arrive at a point at which the South seceded and some families were so fractured that brother fought brother? What was it exactly about that way of life that southerners were so determined to preserve? A complex series of events led to the Civil War.

 For decades prior, tensions between the North and South escalated as both regions traveled down different paths of advancement. The North, fueled by an immigration boom, industrialized, whereas Southern reliance on "King Cotton" kept them agriculturally tied to the land and dependent on the institution of chattel slavery.

The curriculum unit Life in the North and South 1847–1861: Before Brother Fought Brother is designed to help middle school students develop a foundation on which to understand the basic disagreements while the four lesson unit A House Dividing the Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America, introduces high school students to developments that grew out of the growing dependence upon — and defense of — black slavery in the southern states.


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Slavery and Political Polarization

What kind of a person would defend slavery and why? Who were the leading advocates of slavery and who were the leading abolitionists? What were their arguments pro and con? Slavery’s Opponents and Defenders, exposes the wide ranging debates over slavery through the arguments of two of the leading abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and two of slavery’s advocates, John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh. Teachers and parents will also want to visit the EDSITEment curriculum unit From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography.

In the 1850s American politicians sought to tamp down the controversies over slavery, yet each time making things worse. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery asks students to examine the significance of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise which opened the heartland west of the Mississippi to the expansion of slavery.


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The Election of 1860

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also altered the political balance between free and slave states and drove the former one term congressman, Abraham Lincoln from his comfortable and lucrative law practice back into national political prominence. In Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of American Slavery, students examine the political alternatives regarding the spread of slavery and the preservation of the American union leading up to the presidential election of 1860. (For a full online biography of Lincoln up through this period, consult Lincoln/Net, an NEH-funded Web site.)


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On the Eve of the War, the Commanders and Crisis at Fort Sumter

The decision-making process that precipitated the Union defense of Fort Sumter is the subject of Lincoln Goes to War. Students can put themselves in the President’s shoes, reconstructing the policy formation and decision that led to the Crisis at Fort Sumter, an EDSITEment-reviewed interactive historical simulation website. Two other interactives, On the Eve of the Civil War and On the Eve of the Civil War allow students to examine the strengths and weakness of North and South  and the compare the military leadership on both sides.


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“And the War Came”

After the first shots at Fort Sumter, both the North and South rushed to mobilize for war. Few had any notion that this war would last four grueling years. Most northerners believed that their advantages in men and materiel would bring a quick victory; nevertheless, the first two years proved to be quite trying for the Union as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia scored a number of spectacular victories in the Eastern theater of the war. It was only after the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that the tide of the war turned; thereafter the war became a slow grind that ultimately exhausted not only the Confederacy's army, but its economy and society as well.

In the Battles of the Civil War, students use an interactive map and original documents to focus on the key battles of the war and how they contributed to its outcome. They also examine the "total war" strategy of General Sherman, and the role of naval warfare in bringing about a Union victory. Episodes of the American Experience are devoted to the careers of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.


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The Emancipation Proclamation and the Role of African Americans

While the Civil War began as a war to restore the Union, not to end slavery, by 1862 President Abraham Lincoln came to believe that he could save the Union only by broadening the goals of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation is generally regarded as marking this sharp change in the goals of Lincoln's war policy. Under his authority as the Commander in Chief, President Lincoln proclaimed the emancipation of the enslaved African Americans living in the states of the Confederacy which were in rebellion.

The Proclamation was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages." Through examination of the original document, related writings of Lincoln as well as little known first person accounts of African Americans during the war, students can return to this "first step" and explore the obstacles and alternatives we faced in making the journey toward "a more perfect Union." This agitation by Douglass and other Black abolitionists is chronicled inJudgment Day, PBS's Africans in America companion website to the series.  

At the request of President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass urged African American men to enlist in the army to support the Union. The first regiment of these men recruited in the North, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Robert Shaw. Students will be fascinated to learn more about story behind the bronze monument created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens which is included among the images in Picturing America as no. 10-A. in The Massachusetts 54th Regiment: Honoring the Heroes.


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Lincoln as War Time Leader

While armies clashed on battlefields from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, partisan politics continued in Washington, DC. Congress—as well as the nation at large—hotly debated issues related to the president's handling of the war. Abraham Lincoln and War time Politics examines the controversies arising from Lincoln’s role as a wartime president. Students examine the result that the stresses and strains of this conflict had on Lincoln by examining Alexander Gardner photograph of the president, taken a few months before his assassination. Gardner’s famous photograph is part of a new EDSITEment lesson, Picture Lincoln, which is built around the rich significance of this image.

Lincoln was not only a successful war leader and spell binding orator; he was also a persuasive thinker, who, in a time of confusion, returned to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to illuminate the essence of his era's controversies. A Word Fitly Spoken: Abraham Lincoln on Union, explores this rich vein of political reflections on the subject of American union. By examining Lincoln's three most famous speeches—the Gettysburg Address, the First and Second Inaugural Addresses, and a little known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty, students trace what these documents say regarding the importance of the Union for the future of republican self-government.

List of the many relevant pre bellum and Civil War history lessons and materials available through EDSITEment can be found at EDSITEment’s Civil War index.


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