7 Ways to Teach Kids About the Civil War

“Southern states are filled with thousands of historical markers, tourist sites and other remembrances of the Confederacy that entirely omit the racism behind the Confederate project.” James Loewen in Lies Across America; What our Historic Sites get Wrong

Harpers Ferry in winter-8
1. The National Park Service operates historic towns like Harpers Ferry. Learn about John Brown’s uprising against slavery at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia’s National Historic Park.

As controversy grows over whether statues and memorials honoring Confederate soldiers should remain in public parks, this is a teachable moment for families. How can parents and educators best respond? I think one important way is to teach children about American Civil War history.

Kevin Levin is an AP history teacher in Charlottesville. As a historian and founder of cwmemory.com, Levin’s blog focuses on remembering all aspects of the Civil War past and present. The educator believes, for the most part, students are often less emotionally invested than many adults, “They are able to see both sides of this argument.” Levin says learning factual Civil War history helps prepare students to become better citizens: “The history of race, and changing role of the Federal Government, is a prism to understand what is happening around us.”


2. Stonewall Jackson Statue at the Manassas Battlefield Park is the perfect place for Civil War Statues. Visit the many preserved battlefields in the region with your kids. 

Levin explains why the Civil War remains controversial: “Popular culture is still wedded to Gone with the Wind. There’s been a gulf between popular culture and academics, but signs point to dramatic change. People reading my blog want to tackle the difficult questions.”

Manassas Reenactors-30
3. Take your kids to see a re-enactment of the Civil War. The events offer a living history experience that kids won’t forget. They include perspectives of all those involved, including citizens and enslaved people. Visit the Virginia Battle Reenactment website for information.

Nora Hui-Jung is a sociology professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. She challenged her students with questions in her classes on race and racism. One lesson she presented was to consider how people may or may not benefit from institutional racism. “Even if you’re not personally a racist, you’re part of a system where the institution is set up to favor certain ethnic groups. And that institution has existed for a long time.” She cites how the 1950’s GI Bill favored white soldiers over black soldiers returning from war. “That’s when many white Americans first entered middle class status. There is less official segregation, but passive discrimination still exists,” explains Hui-Jung.

4. Frederick Douglass was a game changer! This former slave had the ear of Abraham Lincoln. Learn more about him at his preserved homestead in Washington DC, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

When public discussions about the Civil War emerge, Levin suggests parents delve into them at home. He suggests history teaches empathy: “It’s a moral exercise. What happened in the past shapes what we now know. It shapes our identity by forcing us to see a broader world.”

Talking About the Civil War:

As a parent who sought to teach my children about American history whenever possible, I have seen how visiting historic sites helped them better understand complex issues. It also provided them an opportunity to formulate their own ideas and develop empathy.

Lincoln Cottage
5. Tour the Lincoln Cottage in Washington DC. This is where President Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and a tour teaches children not only about American slavery but also about how human trafficking is still enslaving people today. 

Parents can consult sources like the National Park Service and CivilWar.org for factual information on the American Civil War. But consider visiting some of the many American Civil War sites that exist in our communities. Talk about it. Ask them what they think. The American Psychological Association has studied the effects of negative racial messages on children. They assert that these messages, when mediated by parents, peers, and other important adults, help children become more resilient in adverse conditions. (American Psychological Association 2008)

6. This statue of Abraham Lincoln and a young boy is at Historic Tredegar Museum an American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. This museum complex is an outstanding place for families to learn Civil War History.
“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”

7. Take kids to Arlington Cemetery. Here’s a slideshow of Arlington Estate inside Arlington National Cemetery—it was the home of the Robert E. Lee family before the Civil War. You can learn so much about American Civil War history with a visit to this important site.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

10 Facts To Know about the American Civil War:

Fact #1: The Civil War was fought between the Northern and the Southern states from 1861-1865.

Fact #2: Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States during the Civil War.

Fact #3: Before the United States was formed, many different civilizations existed on the American continent.

Fact #4: The issues of slavery and central power divided the United States.

Fact #5: The Civil War began when Southern troops bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Fact #6: The North had more men and war materials than the South.

Fact #8: The North won the Civil War.

Fact #9: After the war was over, the Constitution was amended to free the slaves, to assure “equal protection under the law” for American citizens, and to grant black men the right to vote.

Fact #10: Many Civil War battlefields are threatened by development.

Source: CivilWar.org


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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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