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The National Endowment for the Humanities, a major funder of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, offers the following lesson plans for teachers, students, and parents searching for high-quality material. Find even more on the EDSITEment website.


Causes of the War

Life in the North and South 1847-1861: Before Brother Fought Brother
More Americans lost their lives in the Civil War than in any other conflict. How did the United States arrive at a point at which the South seceded and some families were so fractured that brother fought brother?

Lesson 1: Factory vs. Plantation in the North and South
Lesson 2: People and Places in the North and South
Lesson 3: A Debate Against Slavery
Lesson 4: Life Before the Civil War
Lesson 5: Women's Lives Before the Civil War

The Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America: A House Dividing
In this unit, students will trace the development of sectionalism in the United States as it was driven by the growing dependence upon, and defense of, black slavery in the southern states.

Lesson 1: An Early Threat of Secession: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Nullification Crisis
Lesson 2: Slavery's Opponents and Defenders
Lesson 3: The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery
Lesson 4: Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of the American Union and Slavery

Abraham Lincoln and the Course of the War

Lincoln Goes to War
Relive the decisions that led to the attack on Fort Sumter to determine whether Lincoln aimed to preserve peace or provoke the hostilities that led to the Civil War.

Lincoln's First Inaugural Address: We Must Not Be Enemies
Students explore the historical context and significance of Lincoln's inaugural address through archival documents.

The American Civil War: A "Terrible Swift Sword"
This curriculum unit introduces students to important questions pertaining to the war: strengths and weaknesses of each side at the start of the conflict; the two turning points of the war-the concurrent battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg -- as well as the morality of the Union's use of "total war" tactics against the population of the South; Abraham Lincoln's wartime leadership.

Lesson 1: On the Eve of War: North vs. South
Lesson 2: The Battles of the Civil War
Lesson 3: Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics

The Emancipation Proclamation: Freedom's First Steps
Why was the Emancipation Proclamation important? 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. Students can explore the obstacles and alternatives America faced in making the journey toward "a more perfect Union."

Evaluating Eyewitness Reports
Practice working with primary documents by comparing accounts of the Chicago Fire and testing the credibility of a Civil War diary.

Images at War
Explore American attitudes toward conflict through Civil War photographs and World War II poster art.

Picture Lincoln
In this lesson, students will learn about Abraham Lincoln the individual and the president. By examining Alexander Gardner's February 5, 1865 photograph and reading a short biography of Lincoln, students will consider who the man on the other side of the lens was. Students will demonstrate their understanding by writing an "I Am" poem and creating their own multimedia portrait of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln on the American Union: "A Word Fitly Spoken"
By examining Lincoln's three most famous speeches -- the Gettysburg Address and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses -- in addition to a little known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty, students trace what these documents say regarding the significance of union to the prospects for American self-government.

Lesson 1: Fragment on the Constitution and Union (1861) -- The Purpose of the American Union
Lesson 2: The First Inaugural Address (1861) -- Defending the American Union
Lesson 3: The Gettysburg Address (1863) -- Defining the American Union
Lesson 4: The Second Inaugural Address (1865) -- Restoring the American Union.

Slavery and African Americans in Antebellum America

Taking Up Arms and the Challenge of Slavery in the Revolutionary Era
Was the American Revolution inevitable? This lesson is designed to help students understand the transition to armed resistance and the contradiction in the Americans' rhetoric about slavery through the examination of a series of documents. While it is designed to be conducted over a several-day period, teachers with time constraints can choose to utilize only one of the documents to illustrate the patriots' responses to the actions of the British.

Slavery and the American Founding: The "Inconsistency not to be excused"
This lesson focuses on the views of the founders as expressed in primary documents from their own time and in their own words. Students see that many of the major founders opposed slavery as contrary to the principles of the American Revolution. Students gain a better understanding of the views of many founders, even those who owned slaves -- including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- who looked forward to a time when slavery would no longer mar the American Republic.

African-American Communities in the North Before the Civil War
Fully one-third of patriot soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill were African Americans. Census data also reveal that there were slaves and free blacks living in the North in 1790 and after. What do we know about African-American communities in the North in the years after the American Revolution?

From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography
 In 1845 Frederick Douglass published what was to be the first of his three autobiographies: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. As the title suggests, Douglass wished not only to highlight the irony that a land founded on freedom would permit slavery to exist within its midst, but also to establish that he, an American slave with no formal education, was the sole author of the work.

Lesson 1: From Courage to Freedom: The Reality Behind the Song
Lesson 2: From Courage to Freedom: Slavery's Dehumanizing Effects
Lesson 3: From Courage to Freedom

Families in Bondage

Learn how slavery shattered family life through the pre-Civil War letters of those whose loved ones were taken away or left behind.

Perspective on the Slave Narrative
Trace the elements of history, literature, polemic, and autobiography in the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave.

Slave Narratives: Constructing U.S. History Through Analyzing Primary Sources
The realities of slavery and Reconstruction hit home in poignant oral histories from the Library of Congress. In these activities, students research narratives from the Federal Writers' Project and describe the lives of former African slaves in the U.S. -- both before and after emancipation. From varied stories, students sample the breadth of individual experiences, make generalizations about the effects of slavery and Reconstruction on African Americans, and evaluate primary source documents.

Frederick Douglass: "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) was a former slave who became the greatest abolitionist orator of the antebellum period. During the Civil War he worked tirelessly for the emancipation of the four million enslaved African Americans. In the decades after the war, he was the most influential African American leader in the nation. He delivered this speech on July 5, 1852. It is generally considered his greatest and one of the greatest speeches of the 19th century.

Henry David Thoreau's Essay, "Civil Disobedience"
Thoreau is much better known as the author of Walden and other nature writings than as a political writer, but like many Americans in the North before the Civil War, Thoreau was morally opposed to slavery. Thoreau's essay, now popularly known as "Civil Disobedience," was originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government." He delivered it as a lecture in 1848 and published it 1849. The impetus for the essay was Thoreau's refusal to pay the poll tax and his subsequent stay in jail overnight. He was protesting both the Mexican War and the U.S. government’s support for slavery. This essay makes the case for the right to break the law under certain circumstances.

The Art and Literature of the Civil War

Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator
Help your students consider a variety of narrative stances in Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "Tell Tale Heart," and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Homer’s Civil War Veteran: Battlefield to Wheat Field
Students will compare and contrast Winslow Homer’s painting The Veteran in a New Field with Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, 1863. Students will imagine what a returned Civil War veteran might think and remember as he tends his wheat fields back home. Students will read a Civil War soldier’s diary excerpt prior to writing and acting out a monologue.

The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Courage
In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane presents war through the eyes -- and thoughts -- of one soldier. The narrative's altered point of view and stylistic innovations enable a heightened sense of realism while setting the work apart from war stories written essentially as tributes or propaganda.

The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism
The Red Badge of Courage's success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news.

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment: Honoring the Heroes
The focus of this lesson is the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Students will put themselves in the shoes of the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment as they read, write, pose, and then create a comic strip about these American heroes.

Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy
Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. His efforts had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets. In this lesson, students will explore the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" by reading his poetry and prose and by examining daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. Next, students will compare the poetic concepts and techniques behind Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again," and will have an opportunity to apply similar concepts and techniques in creating a poem from their own experience.

Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: The Sweep of the Universe
Clues to Walt Whitman's effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse may be found in his notebooks, now available online from the American Memory Collection. In an entry to be examined in this lesson, Whitman indicated that he wanted his poetry to explore important ideas of a universal scope (as in the European tradition), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the senses.

Reconstruction and After in Art and Culture

The Battle Over Reconstruction
This curriculum unit of three lessons examines the social, political and economic conditions of the Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War and shows how these factors helped to shape the Reconstruction debate as well as the subsequent history of American race relations.

Martin Puryear's "Ladder for Booker T. Washington"
Students examine Martin Puryear's "Ladder for Booker T. Washington" and consider how the title of Puryear's sculpture is reflected in the meanings we can draw from it. They learn about Booker T. Washington’s life and legacy, and through Puryear's "Ladder", students explore the African American experience from Booker T.'s perspective and apply their knowledge to other groups in U.S. history. They also gain understanding on how a ladder can be a metaphor for a person's and a group's progress toward goals.

"Birth of a Nation," the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights
In this lesson, students learn how "Birth of a Nation" reflected and influenced racial attitudes, and they analyze and evaluate the efforts of the NAACP to prohibit showing of the film.

EDSITEment's list of Related Websites

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia
Crafting Freedom

Exploring Amistad
Documents of Civil War Women
Frederick Douglass Papers Edition
Freedmen and Southern Society Project
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Valley of the Shadow
Visualizing Emancipation
Voyages -- The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: the culmination of several decades of independent and collaborative research by scholars drawing upon data in libraries and archives around the Atlantic world.


AMERICAN EXPERIENCE reprints these lessons with permission from EDSITEment and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Nordblom Family Foundation, Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation (owens, death)
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH