The Civil War at 150: Exploring Legacy




The Civil War was arguably the greatest crisis in U.S. history. This war divided then united the nation, its outcome helped abolish slavery, and it was all under the watch of the man many consider to be our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

Historical anniversaries are a time to reflect on legacies. Discovery Education recently hosted a virtual field trip from Ford’s Theatre to mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The field trip was titled, “Ford’s Theatre: Where Lincoln’s Legacy Lives.” [Click link to watch re-broadcast] What is the legacy of the Civil War? What is the legacy of President Lincoln? How have these legacies shifted over time? How does the Civil War provide rich opportunities for skill development in a 21st century social studies classroom? Let’s unpack some of the answers to these questions.

One of my favorite features of Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook is the historical perspectives simulations. Students assume the role of average folks in a historical time period to help contextualize an era.

“A Nation Divided” is a historical perspectives simulation that has students assume the roles of four citizens in 1860 America: A female abolitionist from Maine, a Free Soiler from California, a merchant’s wife from Missouri, and a plantation owner and slave-owner from Alabama.


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I cringe when students think the slavery debate in antebellum America was completely binary, meaning students think there were diehard abolitionists and diehard slave-owners, that the North was a haven for equality and tolerance, and the South was a hotbed of radical discrimination. These narratives are far too simplistic and the historical perspectives simulation helps students understand the nuance. They learn about Free Soilers, who were against the expansion of slavery out of economic self-interest, not because they believed slavery was a moral evil. They learn that abolition was a pretty radical idea, even in the North and West, and non-extension was a much more mainstream view. Students, through this activity, are better able to contextualize Lincoln’s views. Lincoln, at least publicly, was not an ardent abolitionist until he was already president, until the Civil War already commenced. Through the perspectives simulation students can align his non-extension view with a major viewpoint of the time period.

Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes the full letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley. James Loewen surveyed American history textbooks for his bestselling book Lies My Teacher Told Me. He found that many traditional U.S. history textbooks include the famous Lincoln quote :

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.


This quote, used in isolation, can be used as evidence to support the claim Lincoln was indifferent to slavery, that his paramount objective was preserving the union. Loewen points out another quote from the letter, traditionally absent from textbooks:

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.


Another legacy of the Civil War often misunderstood by many Americans is the role of the Emancipation Proclamation. Rather than lecture the point, teachers can provide students with a prompt for a historical investigation: What is the difference between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment? Why were both needed? What was Lincoln’s role in both? Students could read about the Emancipation Proclamation in Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook, to better understand it as a strategic move, to assess the extent to which it freed slaves.

James Loewen also devotes a section of his book on how secession was traditionally treated in textbooks. One legacy of the Civil War believed by many Americans is the war was fought over states rights, not necessarily slavery. James Loewen vigorously argues this point. He listed “The South seceded over states’ rights” as the #1 myth in his Washington Post editorial, “Five myths about why the South seceded.” In his book, Loewen claims the Civil War was entirely about slavery, and American textbooks in the 20th century invented this narrative to redeem the South. Bold claim. Ever since I read his book and listened to him speak at the National Council for Social Studies Conference in 2011, I had my students do a little detective work on this. I’d pose the question, and probably with some snark say, “If only the states that seceded wrote up some sort of explanation of why they seceded we could answer this question! Oh wait….” I’d then give students the secession declarations. Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes a downloadable copy of the South Carolina Declaration of Secession. In it, the reasons for secession become pretty clear.

We all know Lincoln was murdered just days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Students need to contextualize his assassination. A Wikipedia style narrative that explains when and where he was shot is not enough. Assessment of this critical event in U.S. history should assess historical understanding and not regurgitation of rote facts. Students can access the context of the assassination at Ford’s Theatre through the re-broadcast of the recent virtual field trip. They can also read the passage in Social Studies Techbook, Tragedy at Ford’s Theatre. I especially appreciate two of the assessment questions for that reading passage, for how they assess historical thinking and not simply basic recall:

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The historical perspectives simulation, the full Lincoln to Greeley letter, the South Carolina Declaration of Secession, the reading on the Emancipation Proclamation can all be used in class to really contextualize views of slavery during the Civil War and reassess the legacies of the war and Lincoln. How would I use these sources in class? It’s not enough to hand these things out and say “read!” I have an extensive collection of vintage U.S. history textbooks. So I would provide my students with an old textbook narrative on Lincoln’s views on slavery and provide students with the full Lincoln to Greeley letter, with the secession declarations, with secondary readings to corroborate, then have students rewrite a textbook account on Lincoln’s views on slavery. I would use that writing, along with some close reading questions like those from the Ford’s Theatre reading, to assess their understanding.

Here’s a very small sample of some of Discovery Education’s Civil War related resources:

On this 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln, I hope students explore the conflict with depth, with inquiry, and with artifacts. I hope they understand how the perpetual quest to form a more perfect union is wrought with struggle, oppression, sacrifice, activism, leadership, and ultimately triumph.



  1. Cynthia Day said:

    At first glance (have read text of blog, but haven’t checked out discovery tech text) my first thought is:
    if the war was about slavery, why are there only four white man perspectives in the text?
    why not an enslaved person, why not a free black person?
    Why not a woman? a black woman?
    A native person?
    Until these perspectives are included, all the best things about the tech text are still skewed
    will have to investigate who collaborated on it. Was it a diverse group?
    would appreciate your reply. This is not a gotcha. Seek convo.

  2. Cynthia Day said:

    Apologies. See that there is a woman. She looked like a dude in the little avatar. My bad.

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