Bringing the Civil War to the Classroom

I received a letter from a fellow teacher today and thought that given that a fairly large number of k-12 teachers read this blog I would respond in a way that might benefit all those interested:

I am teaching a class next year called “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is a semester class. We are the only school in my district, and maybe the state, to offer the class. I am searching for an appropriate text with supporting materials to use. The students will be college bound 11th and 12th graders. Any ideas would be appreciated. I will use Furgurson’s book as supplemental. (Freedom Rising) Any books I buy have to come out of my pocket since there is no budget. I am also looking for a good primary source packet. I would appreciate any ideas to help me get this class going. I have taught U.S. History survey courses for almost twenty years.

First, let me say that it is always nice to see teachers introducing the Civil War on the high school level.  The material literally teaches itself and you are likely to inculcate a love for history through the material.  There is an abundance of materials and much of it is worthless so it is important to be able to judge for quality.  As far as a textbook is concerned I tend to use titles that serve as supplements for other documents.  I assign pages for students to read as background and rarely as their primary reading.  You want to find something that is short, concise, and written by a competent scholar who understands historiography.  The best book I can recommend is Brooks Simpson’s America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996).  It is 217 pages long, relatively inexpensive, and does an excellent job of balancing the relevant military, political, social, and economic factors.  I’ve also used This Terrible War: The Civil War and It’s Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland but it is too expensive and a bit more difficult to use in the type of class that I teach. 

There are a number of decent primary source texts that should be considered.  I’ve used with some success the volume from the Major Problems Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin.  It includes some very good primary sources as well as excerpts from various secondary sources.  Of course you can find pretty much anything online if you know where to go.  Check out some of the links on the left hand side of the blog as a place to start. 

I’ve taught my Civil War course as both a readings class and as a research seminar.  In the case of the former my textbook supplements articles and chapters from various secondary sources.  One of the best sources is North and South Magazine which I’ve used with great success.  The articles are authored by some of the top scholars who understand the complexity of the subject and are able to convey these issues to a wide audience.  Back in 2005 I published an article on how I use this source in the OAH’s Magazine of History.  I want my students to understand that the Civil War is incredibly complex, and the best way that I’ve found to introduce students to this is by using the work of professional historians.  My classes are structured as seminars where students take turns leading the discussion and focusing the class on thesis evaluation.  In addition to printed material I’ve used segments from Ken Burns to illustrate interpretive points through film as well as music.  Last semester I used Ken Burns and a chapter in a recent edited collection to highlight the way we perceive Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army.

I have also organized the class as a research seminar where students spend the semester researching various topics from the Valley of the Shadow.  Students are introduced to every aspect of the research process from the formulating of questions to learning how to properly document sources.  Throughout the semester students are required to update the class on their progress and share both ideas and source material.  Fortunately, I have a mobile laptop lab with 16 computers, but you could conceivably use a computer lab on campus if available. 

4 comments… add one
  • Jim Apr 26, 2007 @ 15:06

    Gotta love Sam Watkins. What a fantastic description of a soldier’s experience, and what an individual. I didn’t recognize any melodramatic parts, however.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2007 @ 11:11

    Chris, — I’ve also heard good things about that book but have not been able to get a copy. Rable is a dynamite historian. I think his Fredericksburg book is one of the best military studies of recent years. Field trips are absolutely essential if possible.

  • Chris Paysinger Apr 25, 2007 @ 10:00

    I also teach a Civil War class. I’m fortunate enough to have it sponsored by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute. Their money makes resources pretty accessible. I’m able to buy class sets of books for one thing, which has been great. One book in particular that I like is, Boisterous Sea of Liberty. It is a collection of primary documents from the Gilder-Lehrman collection. It was out of print at one time but I’ve heard that it is available again.

    The grant from the Institute has been amazing. George C. Rable has been to my school to speak at “Civil War” night. We get to take trips also, typically Shiloh and Franklin. At Franklin, I was able to line up a tour of the McGavock Houes with Ed Bearss. He walked my students (and me) into the ground!!!

    The Simpson book is good and I try to use a lot of local info too. There are a couple of good local diaries that I like. I’ve also used Company Aytch by Sam Watkins. Probably a bit melodramatic rememberence of the war, but students love Sam.

  • Cash Apr 24, 2007 @ 17:00


    Like you I applaud your colleague for the effort in teaching this class. I was wondering if there is an online text available somewhere. Failing that, since cost is a very limiting factor, perhaps going without a textbook is the best solution. Your colleague can purchase one copy of a good source such as McPherson’s _Battle Cry of Freedom_ and use that as a guide, relying more on primary sources available on the internet for outside reading. I’m sure there are a number of options available to allow a teacher to have a successful class without a textbook.


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