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Teaching the American Civil War in the High School Classroom

Teaching the American Civil War in the High School Classroom

I was on a Facebook group for U.S. History teachers today, and someone asked how much time members spent on the Civil War and what we spend our time on. I responded, and then decided to expand my response into a full blog post.

As a historian of religion and war, teaching the American Civil War is one of my big teaching interests. I spend three weeks on the Civil War Era, one on the political situation leading up to the election of 1860, one on the war itself, and one on Reconstruction.

I spend a lot of time on the election of 1860 and secession in the first week, how Lincoln was elected without being on Southern ballots, what the Republican platform on slavery actually was (to limit the expansion of slavery, not to abolish it), and the fact that the South overreacted to the election and basically guaranteed the end of slavery with secession. For primary sources, we take a look at the ordinances of secession from the various Confederate states, which clearly spell out the causes of secession and the war (protection of slavery and the fact that the North has enough electoral votes to elect Presidents without the South). We also look at the Secession Commissioners who traveled the South convincing Southerns to vote for secession, and their stated reasons for secession (again, to defend slavery).

In week two, I don’t spend much time on operational military history other than Gettysburg as a major turning point in the conflict. I spend time on Lincoln and Civil Liberties, the emancipation proclamation as a military measure and what it actually did and did not do. This disrupts the myth of Lincoln as the ideal President. I then look at the agency of enslaved persons and their efforts to free themselves throughout the war.

During the Reconstruction Week, I have them watch the PBS special on the topic as flipped classroom homework. We then compare this version of Reconstruction to secondary sources from the Dunning School, which viewed it as a failed effort that harmed Southern civilization. This affords us a chance to examinebhistoriography and how historians have reinterpreted Reconstruction over time.

My students come away appreciating how different a scholarly narrative of the war is versus the public memory of the war that is often quite politically biased. It’s a great lesson for them with regard to what primary sources actually show versus what groups with an agenda will push.

I also use the three weeks to conduct several role plays. Role plays have recently gotten a bad name in History Education, however, the right role play, designed correctly with principles of social justice in mind, can be edifying and also will not create a nightmare in your classroom. I have found that roleplays from the Zinn Education Project are especially good. I use the Seneca Falls Convention roleplay (which has a.component about slavery), the American Abolition Society roleplay, and the Election of 1860 roleplay. I have found that role plays help students learn historical empathy, help them use their historical imagination, and provides them with a much more significant window into the past than a simple reading can do.

War of 1812: Classroom Debate On The Causes

War of 1812: Classroom Debate On The Causes

The War of 1812 may not have been so just. At least that was the conclusion slightly more than half of my students at Walters State Community College reached.

As a historian and a college instructor, I frequently look for ways to do more than lecture in my courses. But I don’t want classroom activities simply for activities’ sake: I want my students to understand the complexities, the contingencies of history. So, here’s a look at how I ran one of my 55-minute courses, based on the help of a range of scholarly work and textbooks:

  • The causes of the War of 1812 were the subject for the day. So I gave a roughly 15 minute overview lecture. I displayed statements from the 1790s by James Madison declaring war unjust, yet it was Madison who became a war President. I noted some of the international conflicts brewing in the years before 1812. I explained how some legendary nineteenth-century politicians campaigned in 1810 on a war with the British. I also told the students how the congressional vote to go to war was incredibly close.
  • After that, I divided my class into three groups. I gave each group one of the key reasons for war. The reasons I chose: impressment, tensions with Native Americans, and the British Rule of 1756. I gave each group a paragraph or two that concisely explained each reason. I gave the groups 20 minutes to accomplish two things: discuss if their particular reason was a just enough reason to declare war and then vote, based solely on their reason, on whether or not war was justified.
  • The voting was extremely close. On impressment, the vote was 4-3 against war. As for tensions with Native Americans, the vote was 5-2 for war. And the Rule of 1756: 3-5 against war.
  • I put the vote totals on the board, and I invited students to voice their perspective. It was interesting, to say the least. I was probably most surprised that the group who had impressment didn’t find it a solid reason for war; their textbook reading emphasized impressment above all else. My students concluded that while impressment was unsatisfactory, a war shouldn’t happen given United States debt and the fact that the nation was still relatively new. Impressment, bad as it was, they said, wasn’t worth the risk of facing the British military.