Civil War Lesson Plans

April 2018 marks the 157th anniversary of the American Civil War.

The American Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, and was for much of the nation a turning point in history. More than 600,000 American soldiers died, more than in any other war we’ve fought, and the total loss of civilian lives can’t be counted.

Here are some of our favorite lesson plans for studying the Civil War:

Casualties Math

We’ve done this lesson in very elaborate forms, having students find wounded paper soldiers and bring them into the field hospital for diagnosis by the school nurse, but it’s quite effective in this simplified form:

  • Use people cutouts, or make your own from construction paper. Prepare paper cutouts of soldiers by marking one third of them with battle wounds (being shot or stabbed by a bayonet were common battle wounds) and two thirds of them with symptoms of diseases. Typical symptoms of disease include sunken eyes (dehydration from diarrhea or cholera, which caused about 25% of the deaths), spots (measles), and coughing. Many also died of septicemia, which would show up in infections. About 2% of the casualties should be dead,.
  • Have students sort the casualties and make a chart showing the ailments. The main thing they should discover is that actual battle wounds were not the most common cause of death or disability in the Civil War. Disease killed twice as many as battle wounds. There’s more than one kind of graph that will show this well: bar graphs and pie charts are a couple of possibilities. Students might do this task in small groups, with each group choosing its own style of graph. Assess the graphs by how well they show the information.
  • Discuss the reasons for this with students. Primary reasons were, first, a lack of basic hygiene which led to many deaths from septicemia following wounds and also to many cases of illness from contaminated food and water; and second, the number of rural soldiers meeting new germs for the first time. In many Civil War camps, as many as 20% of the soldiers fell ill with measles and similar diseases before they ever saw a battle.

Civil War Music

The music of the Civil War era includes Victorian ballads, African American spirituals, songs that romanticize slavery, and songs about the experience of war — among other things. Explore this rich vein of teachable moments with a simple research-oriented lesson plan.

  • Have students search online for a song published between 1861 and 1865 (here’s a website if you don’t want to work on search skills: American Civil War Music) and have each student choose a song.
  • For each song, have students examine the lyrics, the tune, and the subject matter of the song. Ask students to compare their popular song from the 1860s with current popular songs. You might notice that the popular 1861 song “Aura Lee” has the same tune as the 1956 Elvis Presley hit “Love Me Tender.”
  • As a class, see whether it’s possible to make generalizations about the songs of the Civil War era. Some scholars say that those songs were more sentimental than modern songs, for example. Does your class agree? Can you draw any conclusions about the time period based on the music?
  • Have students type or write out the lyrics and illustrate them, and make a class Civil War songbook.

Time and Place

Create a classroom timeline for the Civil War. If you already have a classroom timeline, you may need to expand the section from 1861-1865. If you don’t have one already, this is a good time to start.

  • Do some initial research on the Civil War to plan the timeline. Decide how many events you might want to include, how long your timeline should be, and how you’ll divide it. There’s quite a bit of math in this project, from measurement to division, so take advantage of it.
  • Create the timeline on sentence strips.
  • Put up a map of the United States. Put the timeline across the center of it. Each time you add an event, stretch a bit of yarn from the spot on the timeline to the location of the event on the map. Color-code your yarn, using one color for battles, one for new technologies discovered during the time, another for world events unrelated to the Civil War, etc.
  • Have each student choose an event to add to the timeline. For each event, have a description of the event, an illustration, and the student’s idea of why the event was important.
  • Add events to the timeline throughout your study of the war.

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