What was the Civil War really about?- Using Historical Thinking

What was the Civil War really about?

For my historical thinking activity, I want my students to use the skill of corroboration to answer the question about the causes of the Civil War. I chose this question because it is one that is still be hotly debated today, yet the issue is awash in primary source material. I will also be asking the students to use the skill of background knowledge to discuss why interpretations of the Civil War changed.

Reading List

1860s Primary Sources:

Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” March 21, 1861 Savannah, GA. As reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War, Philadelphia, 1886, pp. 717-729.

South Carolina Secession Proclamation, December 24, 1860, Yale Avalon Project

Mississippi Secession Proclamation, January 1861, Yale Avalon Project.

John Wilford Overall, “The New Heresy,” Southern Punch, Sept. 19, 1864.

20th Century Primary Sources :

John S. Mosby, Letter to Samuel Chapman, June 4, 1907. Transcript from the Gilder Lehrman Collection.

Confederate Principles Today and Yesterday,” United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine, October 1957,  pgs 45, 58 and November 1957 pg 39.

After reading all of the documents, answer the following questions:

  1. According to Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, what was the cause of the Civil War?
  2. Do the statements of secession by Mississippi and South Carolina disagree with Stephens’ argument?
  3. John W. Overall, a Richmond editor, wrote an article in 1864 disagreeing with many contemporaries over the cause of the war. In 1907, former Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby penned a letter with similar sentiments. What did these men identify as the cause of the war? What do these sources demonstrate about evolving interpretations of the Civil war?
  4. The Daughters of the Confederacy suggest a different cause of the Civil War. What cause do they suggest from the article written in 1957? How does the author use that logic to condemn school segregation?

Write a 1-2 page essay explaining the cause(s) of the Civil War. Using your knowledge of 20th century race relations and the Civil Rights movement, discuss your thoughts on why the interpretation of the war changed over time. Include evidence from the primary source documents.


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2 Responses to What was the Civil War really about?- Using Historical Thinking

  1. Lacey says:

    Are all of these primary sources showing a change in what was said to be the case for the South? If so, isn’t that an important bias? Would you find another activity depicting what was said to be the cause from the North’s perspective? I imagine comparing the two changing perspectives over the course of the war and even after has been done, but that would be interesting follow-up activities.

  2. Jenna Scholz says:


    I like how you used sources both during the Civil War and modern interpretations. I think this will be a great exercise on historical memory and recognizing those changes over time. I agree with Lacey though that a couple of Northern sources would give students a better overall understanding, but for the assignment goals these sources will work good without clouding the North vs South narrative.

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