My favorite way to teach the causes of the Civil War in grades 4 and 5 is with primary sources. There are so many rich sources you can use – especially photographs – to help students understand the events and choices that led to war.
But it can be really frustrating to search for appropriate primary sources for the causes of the Civil War for elementary students. And it can be tough to come up with activities to help students analyze them without getting overwhelmed.
What worked for me was to choose one primary source for each major event that led to the Civil War. That way, students can get an overview of the causes without needing to take weeks for this lesson.
Causes of the Civil War Worksheets
I decided to create primary source worksheets for these topics:
- the economic differences between the North and South
- slavery, abolitionists, and the Underground Railroad
- Nat Turner’s Revolt
- John Brown’s Raid
- the election of 1860
- the creation of West Virginia
First, students read a little background information. And then they analyze the primary source by answering a couple of questions. I’ve found that keeping it simple helps keep the activity accessible!
And bonus, the questions get students to practice critical thinking skills like determining cause-and-effect relationships, comparing historical events, and interpreting ideas from different perspectives.
Students can complete the worksheets alone, but these work really well in small groups. And then I like to have a class discussion so they can share their thinking and we can look at the causes of the war together.
Using a PowerPoint Slideshow
With my causes of the Civil War activity, I’ve also included a PowerPoint slideshow with just the primary source images. This is really nice to use so that students can see them at a larger size. You can still use the questions from the worksheets or an open-ended prompt like “I see, I think, I wonder…”
You can also print them or set up devices for a gallery walk. Students can walk around and write observations on sticky notes.
Where to Find This Civil War Primary Sources Activity
This activity includes 7 primary source worksheets, a 2-page review/assessment, a PowerPoint slideshow, and answer keys. If you’re looking for a no-prep resource that is tried and tested with upper elementary students, this is it!
Where to Find More Resources
I know how frustrating it is to hunt for primary and secondary sources for causes of the Civil War for elementary students (reading 1800s cursive, anyone?). But here are a few places to start:
- 1860 slavery map
- the cotton gin and the expansion of slavery
- the work of abolitionists
- the nation moves toward war
- 1860 presidential election political cartoon
Using primary sources can really help students connect with historical events that have happened long ago. I hope you’ve found some ideas to use primary sources to plan your causes of the Civil War lessons for elementary students.