An injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us.
Black lives matter.
But here’s a sobering thought – at various early points in the history of our nation, certain people decided very consciously that they absolutely should not. And many of our modern institutions – from the police to the courts to the schools – were built on this cracked foundation.
The historical decisions that have shaped our moment are often invisible to us – like water to fish, we swim in the choices our ancestors have made.
But we when we realize that this is the case – that our reality is not set, but a sum total of historical choices – we become responsible for our own actions.
And then, we are truly free.
Here are a selection of free history lessons from our archives – suitable for middle or high school classrooms – that shed a light on our current moment. If you aren’t teaching lessons like these in your social studies classes, ask yourself – why not?
Comparing Slavery and Factory Life – Apologists for slavery often argued that, in their day at least, their system of slavery was better than free market capitalism. Let’s put that to the test… (primary source analysis with guided questions)
Were the Freedmen Really Free? – After the Civil War, Southerners sought to reconstruct slavery in everything but name. We are the direct inheritors of this system, which was only partly deconstructed in the 1950s and 60s. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
Social Reform Movements – Who Should Be the New Face of the $20 Bill? – Progress has always been earned, never granted. Give students the change to reimagine our national pantheon to include the social reformers and progressives who are often more responsible than any president or general for the way of life we cherish today. (research activity)
Choose one of the following events from the Revolutionary War. Pretend you have been hired to adapt this historical event into a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Script a key scene for this film, including scenic directions and dialogue.
Remember that in film, images tell much of the story, serving to evoke the emotions and thoughts of the viewer. Integrate dialogue into the action of the scene. Rather than have characters deliver speeches, for example, let them talk while they are moving or doing something that will add visual interest to the scene. Your scene can be dramatic, humorous, even musical, feel free to subvert gender roles – but it should be based firmly on the facts with plenty of references to identifiable historical individuals and situations. It should also give your audience a sense – through dialogue, symbolism, or narration – of the significance of the event they are witnessing. Why was is this scene important – to the story of the war and/or to future generations?
Check here for an explanation of how a screenplay is written.
Battles of Lexington and Concord
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot leaders had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. On the night before the battle, warning of the British expedition had been rapidly sent from Boston to militias in the area by several riders, including Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott, with information about British plans. The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The British pushed on to Concord. The Americans had taken away most of the munitions, but they destroyed whatever was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside had mobilized to harass the British on their long return to Boston. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, militiamen from “every Middlesex village and farm” made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time Gage’s weary detachment stumbled into Boston, it had suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.
Characters to include: John Parker
Adoption of the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation, but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one influence in particular stands out: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all humankind. The Declaration’s familiar opening passage echoes Locke’s social-contract theory of government:
We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Characters to include: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin
Winter at Valley Forge
Valley Forge in Pennsylvania was the site of the military camp of the American Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War. It is approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Starvation, disease, malnutrition, and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.
With winter almost setting in, and with the prospects for campaigning greatly diminishing, General George Washington sought quarters for his men. Washington and his troops had fought what was to be the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill) in early December. He devised to pull his troops from their present encampment in the White Marsh area (now Fort Washington State Park) and move to a more secure location for the coming winter. Though no battle was fought here from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778, a struggle against the elements and low morale was overcome on this sacred ground.
“Naked and starving as they are we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.” –General George Washington at Valley Forge, February 16, 1778.
Characters to Include: George Washington, Baron von Steuben
The Service of Deborah Sampson
Deborah Sampson wore men’s clothes and joined an Army unit in Massachusetts under the name “Robert Shirtliff” (also spelled in some sources as “Shirtliffe” or “Shurtleff”). She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the command of Captain George Webb (1740–1825). This unit, consisting of 50 to 60 men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and later mustered at Worcester with the rest of the regiment commanded by Colonel William Shepard. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average. Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move. Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson’s disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman among soldiers who were specially chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.
Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers to let her die and not take her to a doctor, but a soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to her leg. Fearful that her identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other one was too deep for her to reach. Her leg never fully healed.
Characters to Include: Deborah Sampson
Surrender at Yorktown
A series of battles left British General Cornwallis’s armies in retreat toward Yorktown, Virginia, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet retreated out to sea after a brief battle, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the American and French armies on land and the French fleet at sea. Finally, on October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.
Characters to Include: Washington, Lafayette, Cornwallis
George Washington resigns as commander in chief
By the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally bade his officers farewell and he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783, to the Continental Congress in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md. “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.” Historian Gordon Wood concludes that the greatest act in his life was his resignation as commander of the armies. King George III called Washington “the greatest character of the age” because of this.
Washington later submitted a formal account of the expenses that he had personally advanced the army over the eight-year conflict of about $450,000. It is said to have been detailed regarding small items and vague concerning large ones, and included the expenses incurred from Martha’s visits to his headquarters, as well as his compensation for service—none of which had been drawn during the war.
If you had to explain the causes of the American Revolution to your kid sister, how would you do it?? Believe it or not, being able to streamline and simplify your explanation of key events is a great way to check your own understanding.
For tomorrow: Take one page of notes filled with basic facts and chronology of the colonies from French and Indian War to American Revolution, drawn from the pages above, all with the general question in mind — “Why did the colonists declare independence?”
Use the information contained in these notes to create a minimum eight page storybook, illustrated, answering the question — “Why did the colonists declare independence?” Your book should tell the story of how the Revolution came to be – roughly from the French and Indian War to the Declaration of Independence. It should utilize at least 10 vocabulary words or key terms and tell a story that makes sense.
Your book will be read aloud during a class-wide story time – so make sure it has cadence (and maybe rhymes?)
Bonus points if you include a cute talking animal to gloss over uncomfortable social truths.
What does it mean to say that South Carolina and – in total 11 states – seceded from the Union?
According to their own statements, why did these states secede?
What was the Anaconda Plan? Why did the Union think it would work?
What was the effect of the Battle of Antietam?
What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
How did African Americans serve their country during the Civil War?
Secession and Civil War
Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of November 1860 made South Carolina’s secession from the Union on January 31 a foregone conclusion. The state had long been waiting for an event that would unite the South against the antislavery forces. By February 1, 1862, five more Southern states had seceded. On February 8, the six states signed a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. The remaining Southern states as yet remained in the Union, although Texas had begun to move on its secession.
Less than a month later, March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he declared the Confederacy “legally void” and denounced secession as anarchy, explaining that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of republicanism:
“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”
Desperately wishing to avoid this terrible conflict, Lincoln ended with this impassioned plea:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
But the South turned a deaf ear. On April 12, Confederate guns opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union,” which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states. A war had begun in which more Americans would die than in any other conflict before or since.
In the seven states that had seceded, people responded positively to the Confederate action and the leadership of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Both sides now tensely awaited the action of the slave states that thus far had remained loyal. Virginia seceded on April 17; Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed quickly.
No state left the Union with greater reluctance than Virginia. Her statesmen had a leading part in the winning of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, and she had provided the nation with five presidents. With Virginia went Colonel Robert E. Lee, who declined the command of the Union Army out of loyalty to his native state.
Between the enlarged Confederacy and the free-soil North lay the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which, despite some sympathy with the South, would remain loyal to the Union.
Each side entered the war with high hopes for an early victory. In material resources the Union, or the North,enjoyed a decided advantage. Twenty-three states with a population of 22 million were arrayed against 11 states inhabited by nine million, including slaves. The industrial superiority of the North exceeded even its preponderance in population, providing it with abundant facilities for manufacturing arms and ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. It had a greatly superior railway network.
The Confederacy, or the South nonetheless had certain advantages. The most important was geography; the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory. It could establish its independence simply by beating off the Northern armies. The South also had a stronger military tradition, and possessed the more experienced military leaders.
Lincoln had never called for the immediate abolition of slavery, but for Southern states, the writing was on the wall – their political clout had diminished in the face of the North’s larger population, and they feared that his policies would lead to abolition in the future. Although the South was fighting a pro-slavery war, it’s important to note that, at least in the beginning, the North was not fighting an anti-slavery war. The North was fighting to preserve the Union – fighting for the principle that no state had the right to secede. After all, where in the Constitution is the clause describing the process by which a state may leave the United States? Lincoln’s argument is that divorce, so to speak, was impossible.
Many Southerners today like to claim that the Confederacy was not primarily about slavery or racism, but about pride and states’ rights against federal power. Back in the time of the Civil War, however, Confederate leaders were much more honest about their motives. They believed that blacks were inferior to whites. They believed that slavery was a good thing. They were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery and they said so openly over and over again.
In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said that the Declaration of Independence had been wrong to say that all men are created equal: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
The Southern states that published declarations setting forth their reasons for seceding from the Union all said that a commitment to the institution of slavery and a belief in black inferiority were at the heart of their cause.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” said Mississippi’s declaration.
Georgia declared, “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
South Carolina justified its secession on the basis of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”
Texas declared that it was committed to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race.”
Western Advance, Eastern Stalemate
The first large battle of the war, at the First Battle of Bull Run, near Washington, DC, stripped away any illusions that victory would be quick or easy. It also established a pattern, at least in the Eastern United States, of bloody Southern victories that never translated into a decisive military advantage for the Confederacy.
In contrast to its military failures in the East, the Union was able to secure battlefield victories in the West and slow strategic success at sea. Most of the Navy, at the war’s beginning, was in Union hands, but it was scattered and weak.
In April 1861, Lincoln announced the Union blockade of all Southern ports – the so-called Anaconda Plan, which sought to suffocate the Southern economy. The South had almost no factories of its own, meaning that guns, ammunition, clothing, shoes, and most everything else had to be traded for, mostly with the North or with Britain, and both of these avenues were now closed. “King Cotton” was dead, as the South could export less than 10 percent of its cotton. The blockade shut down the ten Confederate seaports with railheads that moved almost all of its cotton, including New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. By June 1861, warships were stationed off the principal Southern ports, and a year later nearly 300 ships were in service.
The Southern economy nearly collapsed during the war. There were multiple reasons for this: the severe deterioration of food supplies, especially in cities, the failure of already limited Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, foraging by Northern armies, and the seizure of animals and crops by Confederate armies.
In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces won an almost uninterrupted series of victories. They began by breaking a long Confederate line in Tennessee, thus making it possible to occupy almost all the western part of the state. When the important Mississippi River port of Memphis was taken, Union troops advanced some 320 kilometers into the heart of the Confederacy. With the tenacious General Ulysses S. Grant in command, they withstood a sudden Confederate counterattack at Shiloh, on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. Those killed and wounded at Shiloh numbered more than 10,000 on each side, a casualty rate that Americans had never before experienced. But it was only the beginning of the carnage.
In Virginia, by contrast, Union troops continued to meet one defeat after another in a succession of bloody attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates enjoyed strong defense positions afforded by numerous streams cutting the road between Washington and Richmond. Their two best generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson, both far surpassed in ability their early Union counterparts. In 1862 Union commander George McClellan made a slow, excessively cautious attempt to seize Richmond. But in the Seven Days’ Battles between June 25 and July 1, the Union troops were driven steadily backward, both sides suffering terrible losses.
After another Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland. McClellan again responded tentatively, despite learning that Lee had split his army and was heavily outnumbered. The Union and Confederate Armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, in the bloodiest single day of the war: More than 4,000 died on both sides and 18,000 were wounded. Despite his numerical advantage, however, McClellan failed to break Lee’s lines or press the attack, and Lee was able to retreat across the Potomac with his army intact. As a result, Lincoln fired McClellan.
Although the Battle of Antietam was inconclusive in military terms, its consequences were nonetheless momentous. Great Britain and France, both on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, delayed their decision, and the South never received the diplomatic recognition and the economic aid from Europe that it desperately sought.
Antietam also gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in states rebelling against the Union were free. In practical terms, the proclamation had little immediate impact; it freed slaves only in the Confederate states, while leaving slavery intact in the border states. Politically, however, it meant that in addition to preserving the Union, the abolition of slavery was now a declared objective of the Union war effort.
The final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, also authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, a move abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass had been urging since the beginning of armed conflict. Union forces already had been sheltering escaped slaves as “contraband of war,” but following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army recruited and trained regiments of African-American soldiers that fought with distinction in battles from Virginia to the Mississippi. About 178,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops, and 29,500 served in the Union Navy.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first black regiment recruited in the North. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the 25 year old son of very wealthy abolitionist parents, was chosen to command – a position still limited to white men. On July 18 came the supreme test of the courage and valor of these black soldiers; they were chosen to lead the assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort on Morris Island at Charleston. In addressing his soldiers before leading them in a charge across the beach, Colonel Shaw said, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”
While some blacks chose to join the military, others fought by other means. An American teacher named Mary S. Peake worked to educate the freedmen and “contraband.” She spent her days under a large oak tree teaching others near Fort Monroe in Virginia. (This giant tree is now over 140 years old and called Emancipation Oak). Since Fort Monroe remained under Union control this area was somewhat of a safe location for refugees and runaways to come to. Mary’s school would house around 50 children during the day and 20 adults at night.
Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth) is a holiday celebrating the liberation of those who had been held as slaves in the United States. Originally a Texas state holiday, it is now celebrated annually on the 19th of June throughout the United States, with varying official recognition. Specifically, it commemorates Union army general Gordon Granger announcing federal orders in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that all people held as slaves in Texas were free.
The Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and the other states then in rebellion against the U.S. almost two and a half years earlier, but Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, so enforcement there had been slow and inconsistent before Granger’s announcement. Although Juneteenth is commonly thought of as celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, it was still legal and practiced in Union border states until December 6, 1865, when ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished non-penal slavery nationwide.
Despite the political gains represented by the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the North’s military prospects in the East remained bleak as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued to maul the Union Army of the Potomac, first at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and then at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But Chancellorsville, although one of Lee’s most brilliant military victories, was also one of his most costly. His most valued lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, was mistakenly shot and killed by his own men.
The war was far from over, but increasingly, the writing was on the wall – the North’s will to fight was just as strong as any rebel in the South, but the North had the economic drive and manpower to go the distance.