Portfolio Activity for “Getting the Civil War Right”

Grades: 9-12
Subjects: Social Studies, Reading and Language Arts
Categories: History

As this Teaching Tolerance story tells us, it’s important to study history—in particular first-hand documents—so that we can continue learning from the past.

(Note: Either print out pages from the PDF or photocopy pages 22 and 26 from the Fall 2011 issue of Teaching Tolerance to provide enough copies for all students. These pages display questions we continue to ask about the Civil War. They also display widely believed myths about the war. When that is finished, write the following quotation on the classroom chalkboard or whiteboard: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner) 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think Faulkner meant when he said “the past is never dead?” In what ways does the past continue to inform the present?
  2. What does he mean by, “It’s not even past?” Can the past ever live in the present? What examples can you give? What are the dangers of that?

Questioning the Causes of the Civil War

  1. Review the questions on the sheet in front of you. Among the questions asked are: “Did America’s most divisive war start over slavery or states’ rights?” “Was the institution of slavery on its way out?” “How important were tariffs and taxes to the decision to secede?” Do you think you know the answers to these questions?
  2. In pairs or small groups, debate one or more of the above questions. Do your answers differ? From where did each of you receive your information? Could where you grew up help determine what you think are the correct answers? For instance, could someone who grew up in the South feel differently than someone who grew up in the North? Why or why not?
  3. As a class, share your small-group experience. What conclusions can you draw from it?

Digging Deeper

  1. Your second handout explains some “myths” about the cause or causes of the Civil War. Before you start this activity, review the word myth. What does it mean? Does a myth have a purpose? Can myths keep us from discovering the truth?
  2. Break up into pairs or small groups. Within your group, prepare a simple T-chart by drawing a vertical line down a piece of paper and a horizontal line at the top. On the horizontal line, write “Myths” on one side of the vertical line. Write “Facts” on the other side. Headline your chart, “Myths and Facts About the Causes of the Civil War.”
  3. Review the myths, explained by James W. Loewen. Within his explanations are several facts based on primary source documents. As you read together, separate the myths from the facts on your T-chart.
  4. Review your chart. Were any of you surprised by what was myth and what was fact? Discuss your experience with the other groups.
  5. As a class, discuss the importance of separating the facts of an event from the myths that surround it. What can we learn from doing that? How can such an exercise help us in the present? How might it help us in the future?

Around the Web
American Civil War Documents 
The Civil War

Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, edited by Heidi Beirich, Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta 

The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause,” edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta