Civil War: Before the War


Student notebooks, research materials, computers with Internet access, and Abolitionists Research Planner 


Related episode

Spotlight on an original weapon that was used by the supporters of the abolitionist John Brown in his historic raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.



Was this weapon used in an attack that is thought to have helped provoke the Civil War?



Estimated time required

1-2 class periods






Students watch an excerpt from the episode John Brown Pike, in which they learn about abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. They then research and create posters depicting prominent abolitionists and the tactics they used to advance the cause of ending slavery.


Related Reproducible

Students use the prompts on this research planner to research a Civil War abolitionist


Before Viewing

Do a think-pair-share activity, starting with students responding in their notebooks to the following prompt:

In the 1800s, before the Civil War, if you were anti-slavery, what could you do to advance the cause of abolition? Jot down at least five ideas.

After a few minutes, have students pair up to share their ideas. Tell them to choose their favorite strategy to share with the whole group. Have each pair share these ideas, and write them on the class board.

Invite the class to share what they notice about the list:

  • Did any strategies come up multiple times? If so, which ones? 
  • Why might that be? 
  • Which, if any, involve violence? 
  • Which might be most effective? 
  • Which do you think were actually used by pre-Civil War abolitionists?
  •  Do any specific abolitiionists or historical episodes associated with these strategies come to mind?



After they have watched the History Detectives episode John Brown Pike, tell the class that they will find out about other prominent abolitionists who helped advance the cause of ending slavery. Who were they? What strategies, symbols, and tools did they use? How did they handle the obstacles in their path? How successful were their efforts?

Put the class into small groups, and assign each group to investigate one prominent abolitionist. Using John Brown as an example, briefly outline the research process they should go through. In the end, each small group should present what they learn on a paper poster or a virtual one, using a tool like Glogster. Give them the Abolitionists Research Planner to guide their research.

When the posters are complete, have students share them and then discuss what they think may have been the most effective tactics used by abolitionists.


Going Further

Which of the abolitionists' tactics might be used effectively today to advance a social cause? What strategies for mobilizing change are used today in protest movements in the United States and around the world? (For example, democratic protests in the Middle  East, Occupy Wall Street, and others.) Students write one-page proposals for how one specific strategy should be used or adapted today by an advocacy group, existing or imagined, to advance the cause of their choice, drawing on their understanding of how tactics were or are used effectively for abolition.



'I Will Be Heard!' Abolitionism in America

Information about the abolition movement, including brief profiles of prominent figures and their strategies, from the Cornell University Library


Resource for creating and sharing interactive posters

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”  

Classroom guide to the award winning PBS series

Civil War Resources 

Themed resources for teachers, including primary sources, images, and documents


McRel Standards

United States History

13. Understands the causes of the Civil War 

14. Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people


Historical Understanding

1. Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns

2. Understands the historical perspective


Life Skills - Working with Others

1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group

4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills