Students should begin with background overview of the United States prior to the Civil War. One resource is

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  1. Students should begin with background overview of the United States prior to the Civil War. One resource is The American Odyssey text, Chapter 6: Section 1 titled Slavery and Politics. However, any overview of the context of slavery, politics, compromise and sectionalism can suffice to give students a general overview of events leading to the Civil War.

  1. Next, pose the central inquiry question to the class: “What caused the Civil War?”

  1. In groups of 3-4, students will develop a list of possible answers to this question. There is no right or wrong answer to the question at this point. They will base some answers on their reading, and some may be completely based on speculation or prior knowledge. Later they will reinforce or eliminate answers based on further data.

  1. Introduce the first data card to each small group, which suggests a possible answer to the question. Students will add to their list of answers, and possibly eliminate answers that are not supported by the data.

  1. As each of the five data cards are introduced, students should go through this same process, adding or eliminating answers on their list, until the group has a number of answers for the central inquiry question.

  1. As a large group, with facilitation by the teacher, students should discuss what they believe are the most likely causes of the Civil War. Note their responses on the board. Students should support their answers with the evidence.

  1. Assessment: Pose the final writing assignment, having students work individually to develop their answer to the central question, What caused the Civil War? Students will use the data cards to write their one-page responses, explaining the cause/s of the Civil War. The teacher should look for an understanding of multiple factors and the use of historical evidence to back up any answer.


Data Cards – Each presents evidence to support answers to the central question

Data Card #1: Slavery

Passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Image of John Steuart Curry’s Mural of John Brown

“Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d----d b---h.

After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now, you d----d b---h, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!" and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.”
Image of John Brown:


Northern Abolitionists and Activists pressured the South to change its racist and violent system. John Brown’s violent raid inspired the North to morally oppose the Southern slavery, while the South defended the rights of its states.

Data Card #2: Politics

The Compromise of 1850

  • California was admitted as a free state.

  • The people of Utah and Nevada could decide the issue of slavery for themselves.

  • Slavery was legally outlawed in Washington DC.

  • The fugitive slave law was put into effect, forcing Northern states to help return slaves.

Caption: This political compromise actually split the nation further, as only 4 senators voted for all of these bills, and states’ rights were hurt on both sides, leaving further frustration in the North and the South. Northern politicians opposed slavery for political reasons – to prevent the South from gaining more influence in Congress.

Data Card #3: Southern Secession
Image of the Confederate Flag

Caption: In late 1860 and early 1861, seven southern states declared themselves a new nation, after pro-Northern president Abraham Lincoln was elected. In April 1861, the Confederate army attacked the Union at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Thus began the Civil War.

Data Card #4: Northern Industry and The Mill
Image of women working in a mill:

Caption: Northern mills produced flour and textiles for profit and depended on the paid labor of free men and women. The North wanted to defend its industry from the spread of slavery.

Data Card #5: Southern Industry and The Cotton Gin

“Eli Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.

Because of the cotton gin, slaves now labored on ever-larger plantations where work was more regimented and relentless. As large plantations spread into the Southwest, the price of slaves and land inhibited the growth of cities and industries. In the 1850s seven-eighths of all immigrants settled in the North, where they found 72% of the nation's manufacturing capacity. The growth of the "peculiar institution" was affecting many aspects of Southern life.”

Caption: The invention of the cotton gin increased the growth of plantations in the South, and led to more immigration in the North. This increased the divide and the sectionalism of the two regions. The South wanted to defend the profitable institution of slavery.

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