How did the institution of slavery lead to the Civil War?
First edition. May 2019.
PREVIEW THIS UNIT. The preview includes the table of contents, a student reading excerpt, and one lesson plan. PREVIEW ALL UNITS. Additional unit descriptions for the U.S. History Series that summarize key events, people, and terms, as well as underrepresented histories and skill development are available, along with a timeline, on this MIRO BOARD.

The Civil War is a key moment in U.S. history. Its causes can be traced to the colonial era; its legacies remain visible today. At its center is the indelible issue of slavery. In an 1864 speech, President Abraham Lincoln identified a fundamental disagreement at the center of the Civil War: What does liberty mean? Whose liberty, and what kind of liberty, should the United States prioritize? Did liberty mean that the United States should abolish slavery and that enslaved people should achieve freedom? Or did liberty mean protecting the ability of slaveholders to own people as property and exploit their labor? The Civil War and the Meaning of Liberty helps students consider the experiences of many groups of people as well as the issues driving the political confrontation over slavery and the meaning of liberty. The unit is divided into four parts. Each part includes:

  • Student readings
  • Accompanying study guides, graphic organizers, and key terms
  • Lessons aligned with the readings that develop analytical skills and can be completed in one or more periods
  • Videos that feature leading experts

This unit also includes a Perspectives Lesson as the key lesson and additional synthesis lessons that allow students to synthesize new knowledge for assessment. You do not need to use the entire unit; feel free to select what suits your classroom needs.

“Students must learn the truth about the Civil War to understand all that came after, from Reconstruction to today’s conversations about monuments and memorialization. This unit will equip learners to understand past and present.” – Kate Shuster, Director of the Teaching Hard History Project

Part I: Antebellum America

Part I readings discuss the economy and society of Antebellum America, the politics of Native removal, and international competition for territory. There are two lessons aligned with Part I: 1) The Geography of Slavery and the Cotton Economy: 1830-1860, and 2) Interpreting Political Cartoons.

Part II: Abolition and the National Politics of Slavery

Part II looks at various abolitionist movements and their key actors, and the national politics of slavery. There are two lessons aligned with Part II: 1) Who Were the Abolitionists? and 2) The Black National Conventions, Abolition, and the Constitution.

Part III: The Civil War

Part III readings present the Confederate States of America, the Civil War, and key battles in the war. There are five lessons aligned with Part III: 1) Spies, Nurses, and Organizers: Women During the Civil War, 2) Letters from Black Soldiers and Their Families, 3) Food as History, 4) Battle of Gettysburg, and 5) Civil War Photographs as Sources.

Part IV (Epilogue): The War's End

The Epilogue discusses the aftermath of the Civil War and its legacies today.


The Geography of Slavery and the Cotton Economy

Students analyze and map demographic and economic data to explore the relationship between the expansion of slavery and the cotton boom in the antebellum United States.

Interpreting Political Cartoons

Students analyze political cartoons of the antebellum era and place them in their historical context.

Who Were the Abolitionists?

Taking on the roles of a range of abolitionists, students gain familiarity with the ideas and values of individuals in a broader historical context.

Black National Conventions, Abolition, and the Constitution

Students examine an address delivered at the Black National Convention held in Philadelphia in 1855 and analyze the ways its authors made arguments based on the U.S. Constitution.

Spies, Nurses, and Organizers: Women’s Participation in the Civil War

By examining excerpts from diaries, letters, and narratives, students collect and compare evidence about women’s contributions to the Civil War.

Letters from Black Soldiers and Their Families

Students closely analyze the language and craft of letters by Black soldiers and consider their experiences in the Union Army.

Students analyze primary sources about food and identify the role of food shortages in the lives of people in the South during the Civil War. This lesson is being provided online for free as part of a special promotion of this unit during the months of December and January.

The Battle of Gettysburg

Students use different types of sources including maps, images, diary entries, and letters to deepen their understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg. The lesson includes a close reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

Civil War Photographs as Sources

After analyzing photographic sources from the Civil War, students assess the significance of photography to people’s understandings of the war both at the time and afterward.

Congress Debates the Thirteenth Amendment

Perspectives Lesson: This is the key lesson in this unit. Working collaboratively, students take on the roles of historians and analyze primary sources from two Congressional debates in 1864 about whether to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

Historical Memory: Commemorating the Civil War

Synthesis Lesson: Students explore the purpose of memorials and consider the idea of historical memory. Students then design a memorial to commemorate the Civil War.

Synthesis Lesson: In this online lesson, students apply the concept of historical memory to the controversy over Confederate monuments. Students examine media sources that express a range of views on the controversy.

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