Oct 24

Fighting Words 4-6.3

In this lesson, students explore the causes of the American Civil War using documents and resources from a number of different institutions and online collections.  The lesson requires students to work with a partner to analyze primary documents and report back to the class in the form of a cartoon.  Students will be engaged from beginning to end.

Click here to download the full lesson with attached handouts. Fighting Words


Historical Background                                                                                 

Events related to westward expansion led to the Civil War including the Missouri Compromise, the annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision (4-5.7). Sectionalism was the result of the growing cultural and economic differences between the regions (4-6.1) particularly their differences over issues of slavery in the territories. Sectionalism means that the interests of each section of the country- the North or the South was more important to the people of that region than the interests of the country as a whole.


The Northern and Southern sections of the country also had different philosophies about the power of the federal government. Southerners supported the idea of states’ rights because they feared that federal authorities might take away the right to own slaves as they had in the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise north of the 36 30 (4-5.7). Southerners preferred the idea behind the Articles of Confederation (4-4.1). They argued that authority rested with the states not with the people as represented by the federal government. The North recognized the authority of the national government.


The election of 1860 brought sectional conflict to the breaking point. The Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories and nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. The Democratic Party split their nomination between two candidates both of whom supported the rights of southerners to take their slaves into the territories. Stephen A Douglas was one of the Democratic candidates. A third party nominated a fourth candidate. The southern states feared that if Abraham Lincoln was elected they would lose power in the government as new states were admitted as free states and the balance of power in the United States Senate shifted to the free states. This loss of power might lead to the federal government outlawing slavery throughout the United States. Slavery in the territories was a key issue for the four candidates who competed for the presidency. Lincoln won the election of 1860. Many in the South mistakenly thought that Lincoln would free the slaves because he was a Republican even though he repeatedly said that he would respect the existence of slavery in the states in which it already existed. Claiming that they were protecting states’ rights, eleven southern states seceded from the Union. As a result of this secession, these states declared that they were a new country, the Confederate States of America, and elected Jefferson Davis president of the Confederacy. When Lincoln was inaugurated president of the United States he promised to uphold the laws and the Union. Although slavery caused the Civil War, Lincoln did not support the freeing of slaves. When the war began in 1861, neither the Union nor the Confederacy entered the war with any intention or desire to change the status of African Americans.


South Carolina Social Studies Support Document, Grade 4, 2008 http://ed.sc.gov/agency/Standards-and-Learning/Academic-Standards/old/cso/social_studies/social.html

South Carolina Standards (2011)                                                           

4-6.3    Explain the specific events and issues that led to the Civil War, including sectionalism, slavery in the territories, states’ rights, the presidential election of 1860, and secession.

3-4.3    Explain the reasons for South Carolina’s secession from the Union, including the abolitionist movement and the concept of states’ rights.

8-4.2    Analyze how sectionalism arose from racial tension, including the Denmark Vesey plot, slave codes and the growth of the abolitionist movement.

8-4.3    Analyze key issues that led to South Carolina’s secession from the Union, including the nullification controversy and John C. Calhoun, the extension of slavery and the compromises over westward expansion, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and the election of 1860.

USHC-2.4     Compare the social and cultural characteristics of the North, the South, and the West during the antebellum period, including the lives of African Americans and social reform movements such as abolition and women’s rights.

USHC-3.1     Evaluate the relative importance of political events and issues that divided the nation and led to civil war, including the compromises reached to maintain the balance of free and slave states, the abolitionist movement, the Dred Scott case, conflicting views on states’ rights and federal authority, the emergence of the Republican Party, and the formation of the Confederate States of America.


  • Students will analyze and interpret historical images.
  • Students will explain the causes of the American Civil War.
  • Students will summarize their findings using visual imagery.


Time Required                                                                    Recommended Grade Level

3-4 class periods                                                                          Elementary/Middle/High


Lesson Materials

  • Civil War historical documents provided in this lesson packet
  • Causes of the Civil War cartoon sheet
  • Question Guide
  • Assessment Question
  • Vocabulary sheet


Lesson Preparation

  • Print class copies of the question guide.
  • Print a copy of the vocabulary sheet that goes along with this lesson.
  • List these six causes of the Civil War on the board or post them in the room as a reminder to students.
    • Differences between the North and South
    • Abolition
    • Slavery in the Territories
    • States’ Rights
    • Election of 1860
    • Secession
    • Check out Two miserable presidents : Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War by Steve Sheinkin from your local library or media center.


Lesson Procedure

Phase 1

  • Start the lesson by reading “How to Rip a Country Apart”, a section from the book.
  • Then explain to students that they will be looking at six causes of the American Civil War. Refer to your list on the board.
  • Pass out the vocabulary sheet. Definitions for each term are written. Explain each term verbally.  Next, model for students how they would write their own meaning and draw a picture for the remainder of the words in the list.
  • Students should then write their own meaning and draw a picture that helps them understand the term.  Circle the room and give assistance where needed.  You may want to allow students to work in pairs for this portion of the lesson.


Phase 2

  • First, use the “Young America” and “Innocent Cause” images to model how students should gather information from documents.  Allow time for student feedback and interaction with the documents.

*Note: Depending on your class, you may want to introduce each cartoon, one by one and analyze them as a group.  For more advanced learners follow the next steps.

  • Divide students into five groups. Each group will explore a different cause by analyzing primary documents. Assign causes as you divide students.
  • Distribute the remainder of the primary documents and question guide to groups. Allow sufficient time for analysis. Let students know that they will need to report their findings and ideas when they are finished.
  • Direct one student in each group to place their image under the appropriate cause.
  • Images go along with pictures as follows.  Please note that images are subject to interpretation.  If a student gives a rational explanation for a choice that does not match the ones below, they may not be wrong but simply interpreting the information differently.
  • Differences between the North and South – Young America; Innocent Cause
  • Abolition – Uncle Tom; Dred Scott
  • Slavery in the Territories – Map
  • States’ Rights – Throne; Slave Cabin; Cotton Yard
  • Election of 1860 – Star of North; Electoral Votes
  • Secession – Tree, Union Dissolved


Phase 3

  • Have one student from each group act as reporter after analysis.  This student will need to share the following: – What was your image about? Which of the six causes that we have talked about does your image match? Explain why you chose this cause.
  • After all groups have reported, distribute the cartoon sheet to each student. Explain to students that they are to draw a picture or cartoon that represents each cause of the Civil War.
  • When students finish their cartoon, they will share their cartoon panel with 3 people outside of their group. 



  • Essay question evaluation: What were the main causes of the American Civil War?  Explain each cause.


Digital Collections Information                    

This lesson plan is based on images and/or documents from several institutions including the University of South Carolina Libraries, The National Archives, and The Library of Congress. See individual images for institution information.


To see other collections that may be helpful to your search, visit the Digital Collections homepage or visit SCDL’s collections.

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