The Role of President
Lincoln in Reconstruction 1863-65: A Simulation Activity
Grade level 8-12
Subjects American History
Estimated Time of Completion The first
activity in which students assess the roles Lincoln
played as president could be completed in one class
period. To complete all activities including the simulation
itself would require a minimum of four class periods.
This lesson focuses on Lincoln’s role as president
during the Civil War. After reading a variety of primary
sources written by Lincoln or to him, students analyze
under what provisions of the Constitution he acted as
president. They then try to imagine what a week in the
life of the President might have been like by writing
a diary as Lincoln or his secretary. The lesson then
focuses on Lincoln’s role in reconstructing the
nation, which he initiated in his Proclamation of Amnesty
and Reconstruction of December 8, 1863. Students role
play members of his cabinet as they hear from a variety
of constituents about the effect this document is having
on the course of the war and the future of the Freedmen.
The cabinet considers a variety of amendments to Lincoln’s
plan and through debate, either adopts or rejects them.
• To study the role of the Executive Branch of
government, especially in wartime.
• To learn about Presidential Reconstruction during
the Civil War years.
• To gain an appreciation of the complex issues
the nation would face after the Civil War as Congress
took on the role of reconstructing the nation.
• This lesson uses a variety of primary sources
available in the National Archives, and in the Abraham
Lincoln Papers of American Memory.
• Suggestions are made for using parts of episodes
6, 7 and 8 of the PBS series The Civil War,
but these are not required.
This lesson correlates to the standards of the National
Center for History in the Schools at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/
• Evaluate the Union’s reasons for curbing
wartime civil liberties.
• Compare the human and material costs of the
war in the North and the South and assess the degree
to which the war reunited the nation.
• Contrast the Reconstruction policies advocated
• Explain the economic and social problems facing
the South and appraise their impact on different social
• Analyze how African Americans attempted to improve
their economic position during Reconstruction and explain
the factors involved in their quest for land ownership.
Activity 1: Presidential Hats
Start by asking students what they think a day in the
life of the president would be like today. What kinds
of activities or meetings would the president schedule
or attend? What kinds of issues would cross his or her
desk? What room would there be for a personal life?
What kind of decisions would need to be made?
Now tell students that they are going to look at a variety
of documents written by Abraham Lincoln, or sent to
him, during the Civil War to see how many "hats"
or roles he played. (They will also look at some photographs.)
Divide the class into groups such that each group looks
at a minimum of two of the documents. These can be downloaded
and printed (one copy each), or students can work directly
on their computers.
To find all documents used in this lesson do the following:
For documents in the National Archives go to http://www.archives.gov/research_room/nail/index.html.
Click on "Search Archival Holdings." On the
next page click on "NAIL Digital Copies Search"
and put in the keywords <President Abraham Lincoln>
(or in one case <Mrs. Abraham Lincoln>). Then
look for the documents specified below. Or, search for
them by exact title.
For documents in American Memory of the Library of Congress
go to http://memory.loc.gov/.
Hit "Search" and then scroll down to "Lincoln,
Abraham Papers" for written documents. Then use
the names and dates of the documents listed below. For
photographs scroll down to "Civil War Brady Studio"
and do the same.
Note: For most written documents in the Abraham Lincoln
Papers of American Memory there is an option to hit
"transcription" for a typed version of the
Before starting ask students to review the powers of
the Executive Branch according to the Constitution.
Ask what if any extraordinary powers he or she might
have in war time. List those powers that students can
remember on the board and then ask them to add to that
list by reviewing all of Article II, and Article I Section
Now ask each group to fill in one of the forms from
the National Archives for each of the documents assigned
For Photo Analysis Worksheet go to
For Written Document Analysis Worksheet go to
• Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation,
October 3, 1863. In the National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?tn=299946&nw=y&st=b&rp=summary).
• Antietam, MD. President Lincoln with General
George B. McClellan and group of officers, October 3,
1862. Photograph in American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov).
• Abraham Lincoln, April 30, 1864. List of Sioux
Indians Pardoned. American Memory Collection (http://memory.loc.gov).
Use together with the following document.
• From John Pope to Abraham Lincoln, November
24, 1862 (Telegram concerning execution of 300 Sioux).
In American Memory Collection (http://memory.loc.gov).
• Presidential Proclamation 95 of September 24,
1862 Suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus. National
• President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
of January 1, 1863. National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?&tn=299984&nw=y&rn=1&nh=13&st=b&rp=summary).
• Telegram from General William T. Sherman to
President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of
Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President,
December 22, 1864. National Archives
• President Abraham Lincoln, President U.S. photo.
National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?tn=527808&nw=y&st=b&rp=summary).•
Telegram from President Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lincoln,
April 28, 1864. National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?tn=301625&nw=y&st=b&rp=summary).
• Correspondence, Union Pacific Railroad, January
21, 1863. National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?tn=301988&nw=y&st=b&rp=summary).
• Message of President Abraham Lincoln nominating
Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,
December 6, 1864. National Archives (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?tn=306297&nw=y&rn=1&nh=14&st=b&rp=summary)
• Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, photo. National Archives
• Message of President Abraham Lincoln nominating
Ulysses S. Grant to be Lieutenant General of the Army
March 1, 1864. National Archives
• Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln July 11,
1861 asking Lincoln to sit for a photograph. American
• President Abraham Lincoln and Tad Lincoln. National
Archives photo (http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/digital_detail_summary.jsp?&tn=526270&nw=y&rn=2&nh=8&st=b&rp=summary).
Now ask each group to do the same for the following
Lincoln Document Analysis Form: Lincoln Document
• In this document do we see Lincoln performing
a role as a public or private person, or both? Explain.
• If the document is of a purely personal nature
(relating to his role as father, husband), what if anything
can we surmise about the life of Lincoln during the
Civil War years?
All the following questions pertain to documents of
a public nature:
• Briefly summarize the content of the document.
What is the president trying to accomplish in it, or
what is being asked of him?
• Under what Constitutional authority is the president
acting in this document? Do you feel he is acting within
his powers as president given that the country is at
war, or do you think he may have exceeded them?
Now ask each group to fill in an index card about each
of their documents that state the following:
• Title of the document
• Date of the document if available, including
day and month
• Author or creator of the document
• Nature of the document – personal or private
• Two or three sentence summary of the document
• The document and its relationship to the Constitution
(if relevant). Under what powers of the Executive branch
does it fall, if any?
Create a time line on a bulletin board. Ask each group
to post their index cards on the time line in chronological
order of their creation, as best they can determine.
If possible, also have them post copies of their documents.
As you call the groups up ask one member of each one
to briefly summarize for the whole class the nature
of the documents they are posting.
Activity 2: Discussing Lincoln’s Roles
After all students have an understanding of the scope
of the documents, pose the following questions in discussion:
• What do you think daily life might have been
like for Lincoln in the White House?
• How many roles did he play?
• How do you think daily life is different for
the president today? What might account for some of
• What types of issues other than the progress
of the Civil War did President Lincoln need to address?
• In order to prosecute the war, what extraordinary
powers did Lincoln use? Do you think the President would
be justified in using these powers today in order to
fight the "war on terrorism"? Why or why not?
Next, encourage students to imagine a "Week in
the life of President Lincoln." How many pressing
issues might he have to address at once? Which would
have priority? What about his family? Pick a date during
the Civil War years and ask students to research what
was happening at that time. Then assign students to
write a diary entry for each day of that week, either
as President Lincoln or his secretary.
Activity 3: Lincoln’s Plans for Reconstruction
As students learned in activity 1, Lincoln had many
responsibilities to fulfil simultaneously as president.
One that is often overlooked is that while the war was
being prosecuted on the battlefield, Lincoln had to
think ahead to reconstructing the nation after the war.
Lincoln’s initial plan was elaborated in the document
<Abraham Lincoln, December 8, 1863 Proclamation of
Amnesty and Reconstruction> at American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov).
Access this document and either make an overhead of
it or distribute copies to students.
Two excellent sources that give overviews of Lincoln
and Reconstruction are: James M. McPherson’s Battle
Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University
Press, 1988), pages 698-717, and Eric Foner Reconstruction:
America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper
and Row, 1988), pages 35-60. Eric Foner writes that
"It would be a mistake to see the 10% plan as a
hard and fast policy from which Lincoln was determined
never to deviate. Rather than as a design for a reconstructed
South, it might better be viewed as a device to shorten
the war and solidify white support for emancipation"
After students have read the document pose the following
questions in class discussion or for homework.
• Under what Constitutional powers granted to
the Executive branch of government does Lincoln justify
• If secession was illegal did the Confederate
states ever leave the Union? If the Confederate states
have declared themselves a new nation and a foreign
country, are they subject to the laws of Congress and
proclamations of the President? What is your view? What
is Lincoln’s view?
• Who is pardoned under the proclamation? Who
is not pardoned? What is the purpose of denying many
Southerners a pardon?
• How does President Lincoln insure that the newly
constructed loyal states will abolish slavery? Does
he do so to your satisfaction?
• Other than their freedom, what does the President
provide for the freed slaves? What else could he or
should he provide in your opinion?
• Do you think that a state should be considered
loyal when 10% of its population takes the loyalty oath?
Why or why not? What was Lincoln’s purpose in
arriving at this figure?
• In terms of the Union war effort, imagine what
might happen in a state like Arkansas or Louisiana (among
the first to be reconstructed under this plan). What
benefits or problems could you predict?
• Who has the ultimate responsibility for seating
the representatives of the newly reconstructed states
in Congress? Could they be elected in their states but
refused seats in Congress? Why or why not?
• In what ways do you feel this is a good working
plan for Reconstruction? In what ways do you think it
• Do you feel Lincoln has exceeded his powers
as Chief Executive under the Constitution? Why or why
Activity 4: Lincoln holds cabinet meetings through
1864 and 1865 on the subject of Reconstruction
This part of the lesson is a role play during which
Lincoln’s cabinet will hold a hearing on the Proclamation
of Amnesty, listen to a variety of people who have written
to Lincoln on this matter, and then consider adapting
revisions to Lincoln’s proclamation. Seven students
will play letter writers. Each one in turn will present
an issue to Lincoln’s cabinet based on a request
or complaint expressed in one of the primary source
documents below. A portion of the class will play Lincoln’s
cabinet. They will hear and discuss the letters. Five
students will listen to the letters and the cabinet
session and then write amendments to Lincoln’s
Proclamation of Amnesty which they will propose to the
cabinet. The teacher can play Lincoln, or appoint a
student to do so.
Students who role-play the letter writers should be
instructed to "be" the letter writer. First
they need to try to figure out who the letter writer
might be (Freedman, military leader, etc.), where he
is writing from, and what it is he wants to see changed
(or left as is) in the Amnesty Proclamation. Ask the
student to try to present the contents of the letter
without reading it, and to make us believe he has some
first hand experience of a situation that he or she
has "lived through." (Note that Salmon P.
Chase’s letter was written within days of Lincoln’s
Overall questions for the cabinet to consider:
Is the Amnesty Proclamation an effective way to restore
the Union as the war proceeds? Is the Amnesty Proclamation
a fair way to restore the Union? How can the Amnesty
Proclamation best be revised?
Cabinet Session 1: The first four letter writers come
before the cabinet and present their cases in the American
Memory Collection (http://memory.loc.gov).
• Russell A. Alger to John G. Nicolay, February
9, 1864. (He views the Amnesty Proclamation as an effective
way to undermine the Confederacy.)
• Bland W. Ballard to Abraham Lincoln, June 11,
1864 (Recommends revoking the Amnesty Proclamation on
the basis that the Rebels are merely using it to plot
further treachery against the Union.)
• Horace Maynard to Abraham Lincoln, February
2, 1864. (He complains that men always loyal to the
Union are being put on the same footing as men who had
joined the Confederacy and later pledged loyalty under
Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation.)
Give the cabinet open debate time on these issues and
the questions they raise.
Cabinet Session 2:
• Ask students impersonating the following people
to present the issues in their letters. Then give the
cabinet time for open unstructured debate.
• E.D. Jennings to Abraham Lincoln, January 22,
Jennings wants to know what Lincoln plans to do for
the Freedmen. The student playing this role can make
a variety of his or her own suggestions in this case.
• John F. Dent to Abraham Lincoln, February 16,
Dent complains that slaves and Freedmen are being "enticed"
and "coerced" off lands that needs workers.
• Norreddin Cowen to Abraham Lincoln, January
24, 1864 (http://memory.loc.gov).
Cowen is reporting on the condition of Freedmen in Louisiana
and asking for seed for them to plant.
• Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, April 11,
Chase believes that Freedmen must be given the vote.
After having listened to the two cabinet meetings, ask
each amendment writer to write one amendment that changes
one aspect of the Amnesty Proposal as it would apply
during war time. Assign students the following topics
such that the next day the cabinet will have amendments
to consider on all of the following topics:
• Changes to the oath of loyalty.
• Changes as to who is eligible or not eligible
to be pardoned.
• Changes as to the percentage of oath takers
required to make a state eligible for reconstruction.
• Changes as to who is eligible to vote in the
• Changes as to what will be provided to the Freedmen
either by the Federal government or the reconstructed
I hereby submit the following amendment:
The following portion of the Proclamation of Amnesty
and Reconstruction of December 8, 1863 which reads:
Shall henceforth read as follows:_______________________________________________
The reason for the suggested change is that:________________________________________________
Depending upon how many class sessions you can devote
to this activity, you may need to set a time limit
on debate on each of these issues. If the cabinet
cannot reach consensus within that time then the proposed
change does not take effect.
Viewing video segments (optional):
As the cabinet is holding hearings, or in between
sessions, play some of the following segments from
episodes 6, 7 and 8 of The Civil War. This will help
students to understand that while reconstruction was
under discussion, Lincoln needed to get reelected,
Sherman was cutting through the South on his march,
and Lee and Grant were facing off towards Richmond.
The rather intellectual arguments about reconstruction
under discussion by "the cabinet" would
result in real life consequences as the Confederate
government faced defeat and the slaves were emancipated.
From Episode 6 show Chapter 6 from 21:27-36:50 about
the Union war strategy and Grant and Lee in the Battle
of the Wilderness.
From Episode 7 show Chapter 6 from 14:09 to 9:15 and
Chapter 13 from 54:59-59:42 both about Lincoln’s
From Episode 8 show Chapter 2 from 3:10-4:59 about
the passage of the 13th Amendment, the formation of
the KKK and the defeat of Atlanta.
Activity 5: Debriefing
This lesson provides an excellent bridge into the
study of the Reconstruction era itself. Topics to
be discussed in a debriefing session include:
What might the Reconstruction era have been like had
Abraham Lincoln lived? Would Lincoln’s policies
on Reconstruction have evolved over time had he lived?
If so, speculate on how. Would we consider him a greater
or lesser president had he steered the nation through
this most difficult time period?
Discuss Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in
terms of how it relates to Reconstruction. To whom
is the speech addressed; are Americans living in Confederate
states included? Does Lincoln view the end of slavery
as incidental to the war or central to its meaning?
What does the speech bode in terms of Lincoln’s
understanding of the process of Reconstruction?
The lesson can conclude with the assignment of one
of the essay topics listed in Assessment.
• Students can be assessed for their participation
as letter writer, cabinet member, or amendment writer.
Did they demonstrate a good grasp of the issues? Did
they voice their opinions clearly and with conviction?
• Students can be assessed for the care and
accuracy with which they filled in any or all of the
document analysis sheets.
• Students can be assigned one of the following
essay topics to write about. (In some cases the presentation
of a graphic chart using a compare/contrast model
would be appropriate.)
• Compare Lincoln’s Amnesty Proposal to
the Wade-Davis bill and analyze why he vetoed it.
• Compare the Reconstruction goals of Democrats,
Republicans and Radical Republicans after the war.
• Compare Lincoln’s Amnesty Proposal with
Congressional Reconstruction after the war.
• Analyze the role that freed men and women
played in shaping Reconstruction policy.
• Hold a Reconstruction Congress in which Democrats,
Republicans and Radical Republicans present bills
before Congress, debate them and formulate a program.
• Compare and contrast how the Reconstruction
era was interpreted in U.S. history books before and
after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s
This lesson was written by Joan