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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.