Pre-1860 Disunion: Traditional Elementary School Lesson Plan

Grades: Elementary

Approximate Length of Time: 60 min. (not including the final essay) 

Goal: Students will be able to identify major causes leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War.  


  1. Students will be able to compare the cultures and economies of the Northern and  Southern states. 
  2. Students will be able to chronologically organize and summarize major events contributing to the outbreak of the American Civil War. 
  3. Students will be able to discuss the actions of John Brown at Harpers Ferry and the reaction of the country.  

Common Core Standards:

Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

NCSS Standards for Social Studies:

2—Time, Continuity, and Change
3—People, Places, and Environment  
5—Individuals, Groups, and Institutions  
6—Power, Authority, and Governance
10—Civics, Ideals, and Practices


Download the lesson plan packet, which includes the following materials, as well as the John Brown PowerPoint, at the bottom of this page. 

  1. KWL Chart
  2. US Expansion PowerPoint
  3. Comparing Cultures and Economies Chart
  4. Disunion Information Cards (with questions)
  5. John Brown PowerPoint
  6. Disunion Essay

Additionally you will need: Scissors, glue, and large sheet of paper.

Anticipatory Set:

  1. Write on display the term, “Civil War.”
  2. Ask students what they know about this term.
  3. Help them define the term (a war between citizens of the same country).
  4. Begin a “KWL” chart, for the entire class, on the Coming of the American Civil War. Identify what they know and what they want to learn.
    • Ask your students if they know about what happened right before America’s Civil War.
    • Consider discussing what you have already covered in American history up to this point.
    • Ask your students if they know when the war occurred (asking about how long ago), in addition to the following questions:
    • Who fought?
    • What might be some reasons it was fought?
    • Where (in what region or states) it was fought?
    • What were the names of the groups who fought?


Activity 1

  1. View the video on American expansion.
  2. Ask students if there is something they could put in their ‘learned’ section of the ‘KWL’ chart.
    • Something they may have learned is that the country grew vastly at a very quick pace from the time of independence. This would bring up a number of logistical issues that the federal government would have to manage.

Activity 2

  1. Hand out a Comparing Cultures and Economies Chart.
    • The information for this chart was created as a summary using the 1860 US census data, which can be found online at
  2. Read over the information as a class and discuss.
  3. Ask students if there is anything they would like to put into their ‘learned’ section of their ‘KWL’ chart.
    • Something they may have learned from this information is that, by the 1860s, the Northern and Southern regions of the country were seeing some major differences.

Activity 3

  1. Define the following words:
    • Antebellum - occurring or existing before a particular war, especially the American Civil War.
    • Compromise - an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.
    • Abolitionist - a person who favors the abolition (end) of a practice or institution, especially slavery.
    • Secede - withdraw formally from membership of a federal union, an alliance, or a political or religious organization.
    • See our Glossary of Civil War Terms or our Glossary of 18th and 19th Century Political Terms.
  2. Place students into groups of 3 or 4.
  3. Give each group a set of Disunion Information Cards.
  4. Have students cut out the cards and place them in chronological order, gluing them onto a large sheet of paper.
  5. Each small group should read the information on the cards and work as a group to answer the associated questions.
  6. Our Trigger Events of the Civil War article can be useful for you and your students.
  7. Watch the first two-and-a-half-minutes of the War Between the States In4 Video.
  8. Watch The Coming of the War In4 Video.
  9. Discuss with the class what they can now enter into the ‘learned’ section of the ‘KWL’ chart.

Activity 4

  1. Print the John Brown PowerPoint with the notes for yourself and the students.
  2. Hand out copies of the John Brown PowerPoint with those notes.
  3. Present the John Brown PowerPoint.
  4. Complete the discussion questions on the last slide, either discussing as a class or having students write their answers.
  5. Discuss with the class what they can now enter into the ‘learned’ section of the ‘KWL’ chart.


  1. Review the ‘KWL’ chart. Discuss what the students have learned.
  2. Students should complete the Disunion Essay; this can be done for homework or independently in class.

Assessment in This Lesson:

  1. KWL Chart and informal discussion of what was learned.
  2. Disunion Information Cards and question sheet.
  3. Informal assessment during John Brown presentation questions.
  4. A completed Disunion Essay.