Teaching the Civil War to 8th Graders, Day-By-Day

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JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
I've reached the point in the school year where I am teaching my 8th grade class Unit 10, otherwise known as the Civil War. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to post my thoughts day-by-day as we go through the unit.

First, let me start by quoting the state-mandated requirements:

The student understands individuals, issues, and events of the Civil War. The student is expected to:

(A) explain the roles played by significant individuals during the Civil War, including Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln, and heroes such as congressional Medal of Honor recipients William Carney and Philip Bazaar;

(B) explain the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery, and significant events of the Civil War, including the firing on Fort Sumter; the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg; the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation; Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House; and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and

(C) analyze Abraham Lincoln's ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address and contrast them with the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis's inaugural address.
We've spent the last two weeks discussing the causes of the war. They had already learned about the Missouri Compromise and the overall reality of slavery in earlier units. We started with a few lessons about the rise of abolitionism in the North, with Frederick Douglass and his escape to freedom receiving particular attention. Then, one-by-one, we went through Nat Turner's Revolt, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Acts, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Raid on Harper's Ferry, and the election of 1860. They also learned about Lincoln's life up to 1860.

Today was the first day of the Civil War unit. I started by covering the secession of the seven Southern states and the Montgomery Convention, telling the students the details of Jefferson Davis's birth, upbringing, and education, and a brief personality profile. One student commented that Davis was like Andrew Jackson, just rich and with an education. I talked about the respective inaugural address of Davis and Lincoln and had the students read excerpts from Lincoln's speech. We discussed what Lincoln meant by the "mystic chords of memory" and the "better angels of our nature".

We discussed why it was important to Lincoln that federal property in the South be protected, while it was equally important to the South that such facilities be taken. When I told the story of Lincoln sending a supply ship to Fort Sumter, without weapons, one student compared it to how President Polk sparked the Mexican War by sending troops to the Rio Grande, although the student thought Lincoln's move was simply clever while Polk's was just greedy. I talked about the firing on Fort Sumter and the students expressed astonishment that no one was hurt.

We went over which states were in the Confederacy, which in the Union, and which were the Border States. I took time out to mention that many Southerners remained loyal to the Union and briefly mentioned George Thomas. We discussed how the Confederates moved their capital to Richmond, with many students asking why on earth they would move their capital so close to Northern territory.

We then went into a discussion about the respective advantages of the two warring sides, how the Union's manpower, industrial, and naval superiority was pitted against the fact that the South was fighting a defensive war and initially had a population more adapted to military life. There was a discussion about whether the slaves would fight for the South, with every class (and especially my African-American students) overwhelmingly deciding that the thought was absurd.

We ended the lesson with a brief discussion of First Bull Run, and the students thought it was hilarious that people actually came out from Washington with picnic baskets to watch the battle. I mentioned how the battle initially seemed to be going in the Union's favor, until the Confederate defense rallied behind Stonewall Jackson's brigade (mentioning how he got his nickname and telling the students that we will soon learn more about him) and ended the lesson with everyone realizing that the war was not going to be quick or easy.

Any thoughts or observations would be appreciated. Tomorrow, I am teaching about Robert E. Lee and the early stages of the war in the Eastern Theater.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Feb 14, 2012
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Central Pennsylvania
You must be presenting history awfully well to provoke some of those responses.

I don't know. None of this sunk in, on a level which evoked rampant curiosity of the past until taking it home, where my parents opened pages to what on earth personal costs families paid for the war. Dad drew a thread through generations on how the ACW of his great grandparents impacted him as a child- and he was born in 1931. Mom was able to do the same thing- sepia photos became awfully real and the whole thing so closely linked to the present the coin finally dropped. Had a relative who went out to Bull Run in one of those carriages, albeit to see troops from his state ( politician ), was a captured civilian and died of typhoid in Richmond.Brings it closer.

It's silly recommending anything to teachers because no one does better homework- just think it's frequently a shame history is considered ' the past '. It's all so relevant, you know?
 
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JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
Seems pretty thorough to me. What is the duration of Unit 10?
We have four weeks to cover the Civil War and Reconstruction, but next week will be disjointed because that's when the kiddos have their annual major standardized tests for English and math. I will lose two days entirely because of this, and the students' brains will be utterly friend for the remainder of the week. So I have some different activities planned for them.
 

Potomac Pride

Sergeant Major
Joined
Oct 28, 2011
Location
Georgia
That sounds really comprehensive. You mentioned that you have spent the last two weeks discussing the causes of the war. Some of the posters on this site have stated that the war had only one cause which was slavery. I guess there could possibly be more than just one cause despite what some people say.
 

Crazy Delawares

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Sep 16, 2008
Location
South Jersey
Sounds to me like you have it "hit in the head" pretty much. (That's a good thing.) I'd like to know what kind of activities you'll have when the kids' brains are fried from the testing. Have you considered bringing in a reenactment unit? Let the kids participate in that as far as time and curriculum will allow?
 
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Booner

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Boonville, MO.
When my son we in the 9th grade, I actually taught two, two hour classes about the CW to him and his fellow students. His teacher announced that they would be studying the CW in the next week and my son said, "You should have my dad teach the war, he knows everything about it." His teacher called me and we agreed that I would speak to his two classes on what the war was like for the common man; his background, how he lived while in the army, sanitation, how they fought, etc.

I enjoyed the whole experience so much. The kids were polite and paid attention, and asked some very intelligent questions. I was treated so well, and it's one of my favorite memories.
 

JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
Day Two:

I started by talking about how, after the First Battle of Bull Run, both sides realized that the war would not be short and easy and eventually developed long-term strategies. I discussed the Anaconda Plan and the Confederate to hold out long enough to either secure European recognition or for the Northern public to grow war-weary and give up the fight.

I talked about how the fighting was roughly divided into an Eastern Theater and a Western Theater, with some other fighting going on along the Atlantic Coast and west of the Mississippi. I told them that we would be concentrating on the early phase of the war in the Eastern Theater today, with the Western Theater to come tomorrow.

I told them the background of Lee, how he came from such a distinguished family, how he had an amazing record at West Point, and how he served as a U.S. Army office for thirty years. I discussed how he was not a strong supporter of slavery, while also making it clear that he was not an abolitionist, either - I pointed out that many people have tried to exaggerate Lee's anti-slavery views to make him look better. I talked about how Lee did not support secession and how he had a terrible decision to make when Lincoln offered him command of the federal army.

The students generally agreed that Lee made the wrong choice in siding with the Confederacy, but few agreed with the few that he was a traitor. The general feeling was one of disagreement but understanding.

I gave general summaries of the Seven Days Battles and Second Bull Run (it's always a challenge to avoid being bogged down in battle details) and a description of Lee's qualities as a general - speed, willingness to take risks, anticipating the moves of the enemy. I talked about Lee's effective team of subordinates, mentioning Longstreet, Stuart, and Jackson, and contrasted it with the lackluster leadership the Union displayed in the east during this time. This led to an interesting discussion about how an athletic team cannot function well if it is led by a poor coach.

I then talked about the pressure Lincoln was under in the summer of 1862, with European nations threatening to recognize the Confederacy and political troubles with both the abolitionists and Border State men over slavery. This will set the stage for Friday's lesson.

We discussed the reasons for Lee's invasion of Maryland, with one student asking why the South would do such a thing when their strategy called for a defensive war. The students universally reacted with astonishment that something as minor as a guy dropping a couple of cigars could change the course of history. One student suggested something we had occasionally seen on this board - that it actually was a trick by Lee.

I went into more detail about Antietam than in the other battles, including pictures of the Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside's Bridge. The students all expressed anger and disappointment that McClellan missed an opportunity to end the war.

I ended with Fredericksburg, though I clearly bit off more than I could chew and only had a minute or two to go over it before the classes ended. The students were extremely impressed with Burnside's "epic" facial hair.

Tomorrow, Grant and the Western Theater.
 
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Pat Young

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Day Two:

I started by talking about how, after the First Battle of Bull Run, both sides realized that the war would not be short and easy and eventually developed long-term strategies. I discussed the Anaconda Plan and the Confederate to hold out long enough to either secure European recognition or for the Northern public to grow war-weary and give up the fight.

I talked about how the fighting was roughly divided into an Eastern Theater and a Western Theater, with some other fighting going on along the Atlantic Coast and west of the Mississippi. I told them that we would be concentrating on the early phase of the war in the Eastern Theater today, with the Western Theater to come tomorrow.

I told them the background of Lee, how he came from such a distinguished family, how he had an amazing record at West Point, and how he served as a U.S. Army office for thirty years. I discussed how he was not a strong supporter of slavery, while also making it clear that he was not an abolitionist, either - I pointed out that many people have tried to exaggerate Lee's anti-slavery views to make him look better. I talked about how Lee did not support secession and how he had a terrible decision to make when Lincoln offered him command of the federal army.

The students generally agreed that Lee made the wrong choice in siding with the Confederacy, but few agreed with the few that he was a traitor. The general feeling was one of disagreement but understanding.

I gave general summaries of the Seven Days Battles and Second Bull Run (it's always a challenge to avoid being bogged down in battle details) and a description of Lee's qualities as a general - speed, willingness to take risks, anticipating the moves of the enemy. I talked about Lee's effective team of subordinates, mentioning Longstreet, Stuart, and Jackson, and contrasted it with the lackluster leadership the Union displayed in the east during this time. This led to an interesting discussion about how an athletic team cannot function well if it is led by a poor coach.

I then talked about the pressure Lincoln was under in the summer of 1862, with European nations threatening to recognize the Confederacy and political troubles with both the abolitionists and Border State men over slavery. This will set the stage for Friday's lesson.

We discussed the reasons for Lee's invasion of Maryland, with one student asking why the South would do such a thing when their strategy called for a defensive war. The students universally reacted with astonishment that something as minor as a guy dropping a couple of cigars could change the course of history. One student suggested something we had occasionally seen on this board - that it actually was a trick by Lee.

I went into more detail about Antietam than in the other battles, including pictures of the Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside's Bridge. The students all expressed anger and disappointment that McClellan missed an opportunity to end the war.

I ended with Fredericksburg, though I clearly bit off more than I could chew and only had a minute or two to go over it before the classes ended. The students were extremely impressed with Burnside's "epic" facial hair.

Tomorrow, Grant and the Western Theater.
You teach in Texas? Do the students favor one side or the other?
 

JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
I'd like to know what kind of activities you'll have when the kids' brains are fried from the testing. Have you considered bringing in a reenactment unit? Let the kids participate in that as far as time and curriculum will allow?
@Phil McBride has kindly agreed to come in and do a presentation for the students, which will be on April 11. He will be speaking in first person, give a presentation, and then the students will have the chance to ask him questions.
 
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JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
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Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
Day 3:

Yesterday was about Lee in the Eastern Theater, so today was about Grant in the Western Theater. I started with a general description of Grant's background. Some students commented on how different it was from Lee's. In one class, we had an extended discussion about how one can go through hard times in life but need to remember that things will eventually get better. The kiddos seemed impressed by how much Grant cared for his wife and children.

I went over Fort Donelson and Shiloh. The students found the fact that Shiloh means "place of peace" very ironic. I talked about Grant's strengths as a commander and a man, focusing specifically on his ability to remain calm in a crisis. This generated a lot of interesting discussion about how the mind doesn't function when we "freak out" and also about how panic is contagious. We went over again how important control of the Mississippi River was Union strategy and then moved on to a discussion of Vicksburg. We talked about the importance of being willing to take risks and some students contrasted Grant's decision to move south of Vicksburg with McClellan's unwillingness to risk his reserves at the Battle of Antietam.

Afterwards, there was a very brief discussion of Chattanooga, during which I lamented that I did not have time to teach the students about the battles between the Army of Tennessee and the Army of the Cumberland.

There was a little time left over, in contrast to the previous day. I reminded the students that we learn about important politicians like Lincoln and Davis and famous generals like Lee and Grant, but that it was important to remember that millions of Americans fought the Civil War. To show just one voice, I played the clip from Ken Burns of the Sullivan Ballou letter. Each class listened in complete silence and some were deeply affected, including the students who try to act the toughest and act like they don't care.

I loved the elements of being able to talk about perseverance, the virtue of remaining calm, and balancing risks with caution using Grant's life as an exemplar. Most "character education" curriculum materials are nonsense and some of them are insultingly stupid. The best way to teach young people the virtues of a good character is through the examination of admirable historical figures.

Tomorrow: Emancipation.
 

Belle Montgomery

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Oct 25, 2017
Location
44022
Don't forget to at least mention how women aided the effort on both sides! Plenty did more than just cooked, did laundry and nurse wounds. That way the girls can relate too. :wink: The everyday citizen smugglers and spies like Confederate- Belle Boyd or Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who affected the South's win at Manassas or Union- Elizabeth Van Lew who planted Mary Bowser in Jefferson's white house. There were literally hundreds (maybe thousands but never got caught) of them I speak about in my presentations. Some are well known more than others but back then the idea of a "lady" spying or smuggling was thought of as "absurd" at the beginning of the war but THEN they found out how dangerous they were and put them in prison! Of course there are also the females who fought dressed as men, again "absurd" thought so easier than you think it was back then. (Velazquez's account has been pretty much debunked now) Also the conundrum many women like Mary Todd Lincoln faced having relatives fight on the other side!
I wish they would've touched on these gals when I was in school...lots for girls to discover on the internet how integral they were!
Civil War spy cartoon Buckner.jpg
Civil War arrest Frank Leslie spread 1861 Washington DC (2).jpg
Civil war cartoon smuggle boots.jpg
Civil War Nashville 12-21-1862 Daily Union warning.jpg
 
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Robtweb1

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Good to hear students are getting that much on the CW these days. Didn't think they were. Sounds like a sharp bunch. For what it's worth, I still wonder why the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
 
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