Civil War Lesson Plans: Make it Relevant

Civil War Lesson Plans: Make it Relevant
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Making American History Lessons Engaging in the Classroomn

Teachers can make their Civil War lessons interesting and pertinent by asking students to go beyond memorizing facts. These activities will help your students to increase their learning.

Activities to Make Lessons Relevant

The war between the states that put brother against brother lasted from 1861-1865 and included over 5050 battles, with 50 battles counted as major battles. It is a major landmark in United State’s history and includes many important war heroes, battles, and events.

However, this war on American soil happened a long time ago, and some students do not see the importance of this historical event. Also, some students do not understand why it is important to learn about our history that includes successes and failures.

The key is to make lesson plans relevant to the students' lives or to allow them to learn in ways that they enjoy. For example, students can work in groups to argue a case, write creatively or use the Internet and computer to create a PowerPoint.

Set up a Mock Classroom Court Room

Students will need to complete research before making the classroom a courtroom. The Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois website has great directions to set up a mock trial. The following are a few ideas for trials:

  • Should Robert E. Lee have been tried for treason? He was originally a Union soldier and then became the general for the Confederacy.
  • Who was right, the South or the North? Students could choose a historical representative from each side to “stand trial” and be judged on who was right and who was wrong.
  • Was Trace Sherman a hero or a villain?

Writing about the Historic Event

Reading textbook and memorizing information is not enough. Students can complete Civil War creative writing activities to analyze or better understand events in the war. One of the easiest ways to write about it is to complete a research paper about a battle, prison camps, or an important person in the war.

Make a PowerPoint Using Digital Photos


The Library of Congress has photos on its Prints and Photographs Division of the American Memories section. Students can learn a great deal about the the war by visiting this site. In addition, they can use the photos to create powerful PowerPoint presentations .

The photo included with this article is from July 1861 and is a view of the battlefield of First Bull Run in Virginia from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Choose Great Civil War Novels and Stories

One strategy that teachers can use to get students to find the war relevant in their own lives is to assign them to read historical fiction. Through the characters, students can see that many of the people involved or affected by the war were just like them.

There are many reading choices that have the Civil War as the setting. The following are a few suggestions of novels and short stories that can be used in the middle school or high school classroom.

Historical Fiction Novels & Short Stories

  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story by Ambrose Bierce for high school students. This depiction of a hanging definitely will give the students something to talk about in class.
  • Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt is a Newberry Honor book. A family in Illinois is changed by the battles happening far away when their sons and beloved teacher are drawn into the war. Some middle school students may struggle with the language or dialect; however, the story is captured on CD for those who need a book on tape.
  • Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling tells Harriet Tubman’s story of slavery herself and then helping others on the Underground Railroad. This novel is for younger middle school students.
  • Killer Angels by Michael Shaara details the Battle of Gettysburg and begins with a spy following the Union Army. This book is for high school students.
  • Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane is the classic novel. However, students sometimes struggle to finish the important American novel that shows the horrors that a soldier endures during a war. This is definitely a high school read and should have many teacher directed discussions to help the average reader finish the book.
  • Rifles for Waite by Harold Keith gives the perspective of a young man fighting for the Union Army. This novel is great for middle school and high school students.
  • Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder is mainly for younger middle school students. The main character is a young boy who has been left orphaned and is sent to live with relatives in Virginia.

The Civil War was a war between brothers that should never be repeated. Reading these novels will help students to understand the personal struggles and the actual events that occurred during the war. If the students do not understand the personal struggles or the events, it will just be another historical event that some students will learn and then forget.

References & Resources:

Civil War Photos,

Guide to Conducting Mock Trials,

Kidport Reference Library Civil War,

Photo Credit:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, cwpb 00618, Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0004