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Lesson Plans Library 6-8 > U.S. History
The Civil War: A Nation Divided
The Civil War: A Nation Divided
Grade level: 6-8 Subject: U.S. History Duration: Three class periods

lesson plan support
Students will
  • Discuss major differences between the North and South and how these differences led to the Civil War.
  • Examine conflicting opinions about Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
  • Explore and analyze a famous speech or writing by Abraham Lincoln
  1. After watching The Civil War: A Nation Divided , discuss how regional differences contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. The following questions will help guide the conversation.
    • How did the economies of the North and South differ before the Civil War? (The North was industrialized; the South was agricultural.)
    • Why was slavery so important to the South? (Landowners depended on slaves to work in the fields; the South's economy was entirely dependent on slavery.)
    • How did the addition of new states to the Union create dispute? (Free states and slave states both worried about the other side having an advantage. The Missouri Compromise, for example, was designed to maintain a balance of power.)
  2. Review some of the significant events that, from 1860 to 1861, led 11 Southern states to secede from the Union. For example:
    • Compromise of 1850
    • Fugitive Slave Act
    • Publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin
    • Dred Scott Decision
    • Kansas-Nebraska Act
    • John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia
  3. Discuss conflicting opinions of Abraham Lincoln during the war. Ask students: Did most Northerners and Southerners feel the same way about the President? What was the Emancipation Proclamation? How did it affect peoples' feelings towards Lincoln? How did it change the war? Help students understand that the Confederates were angered by this edict to abolish slavery, believing it would ruin the Southern economy. The Emancipation Proclamation also shifted the emphasis of the war from keeping the nation together to a struggle to free the slaves.
  4. In the video, students learned about several assassination attempts on Lincoln's life. Ask: Why would people want to kill the president? (They believed that removing Lincoln from power would leave the Union weak and help the South win the war.)
  5. Explain that students will read and analyze a famous speech or writing by Lincoln to better understand his views. Either assign of have them choose one of the following:
    • First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861)
    • Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863)
    • The Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)
    • Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

    Students can find these online at these sites:
  6. To help students with historical context, remind them that the war began April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and that it ended on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. For other important dates, direct them to this online Civil War Timeline:
  7. Once students have read through their speech or writing, ask them to write a brief essay that addresses the following.
    • When did Lincoln make this speech or present this writing?
    • Briefly summarize Lincoln's message.
    • Describe the tone or language he used, giving at least one significant quote as an example.
    • How do you think most Northerners and most Southerners responded to the speech or writing. Why?
    • What reaction do you imagine Americans today would have to the speech or writing?
    • How do you think this speech or writing affected the Civil War?
  8. During the next class period, give students an opportunity to share their essays. Then discuss their ideas and findings. Ask: What impact did the speeches and writings have on the Civil War? In what ways did the responses differ between the North and South? How do most Americans respond to Lincoln's words today?

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Use the following three-point rubric to evaluate students' work during this lesson.
  • Three points: Students were active in class discussions; demonstrated a strong understanding of differences between the North and South, significant events leading to the Civil War, and conflicting opinions about Abraham Lincoln; wrote a thorough, engaging essay about Lincoln's speech or writing.
  • Two points: Students participated in class discussions; demonstrated a satisfactory understanding of differences between the North and South, significant events leading to the Civil War, and conflicting opinions about Abraham Lincoln; wrote a clear, complete essay about Lincoln's speech or writing.
  • One point: Students did not participate in class discussions; demonstrated a weak understanding of differences between the North and South, significant events leading to the Civil War, and conflicting opinions about Abraham Lincoln; wrote a vague or inaccurate essay about Lincoln's speech or writing.

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Definition:Person who worked to end slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries
Context:Abolitionist John Brown had a bold plan to strike against slavery.

Confederate states
Definition:Southern states that that seceded from the U.S. to form their own nation, the Confederate States of America
Context:Lincoln's push to end slavery angered the Confederate states.

Dred Scott Decision
Definition:Supreme Court decision that stated Congress had no power to ban slavery anywhere, including the territories
Context:While the fighting went on in Kansas, the Supreme Court issued the controversial Dred Scott Decision, named after a slave.

Emancipation Proclamation
Definition:An edict issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, making slavery illegal in the Confederate states
Context:The Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the 11 rebelling Southern states, but it left slavery in place in the states that had stayed loyal to the Union.

Fugitive Slave Act
Definition:A law passed by Congress in 1850 that required the return of runaway slaves
Context:Northerners protested the Fugitive Slave Act.

Kansas-Nebraska Act
Definition:A law passed in 1854 that allowed the majority of settlers in each territory to decide whether or not they would allow slavery in the area
Context:Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

popular sovereignty
Definition:The pre-Civil War doctrine asserting that settlers within each territory should decide whether or not to allow slavery
Context:The Kansas-Nebraska Act proposed the idea of popular sovereignty.

Definition:To withdraw from the nation
Context:In late 1860 and early 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.

Union states
Definition:Northern states that remained loyal to the federal government during the Civil War
Context:President Abraham Lincoln asked Union states to send troops to put down the rebellion in the Confederate states.

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Academic Standards

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
McREL's Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education addresses 14 content areas. To view the standards and benchmarks, visit
This lesson plan addresses the following national standards:

  • U.S. History: Era 5-Understands the causes of the Civil War; Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has developed national standards to provide guidelines for teaching social studies. To view the standards online, go to
This lesson plan addresses the following thematic standards:

  • Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption

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