Pre-1860: Disunion: Inquiry High School Lesson Plan

This photograph depicts an up-close portrait of John Brown.

Grades: High School

Approximate Length of Time: 2 hours

Goal: Students will develop an argument for the major source of disagreement that leads to the outbreak of the American Civil War, supporting their argument with research.


  1. Students will be able to answer questions related to the content of primary and secondary source documents.
  2. Students will be able to complete a graphic organizer, finding key information within primary and secondary sources.
  3. Students will be able to address a question about a historic event, providing evidence from primary and secondary sources.

Common Core Standards:

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

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—Civic, Ideals, and Practices


This is an inquiry lesson where students will do research to answer the main, inquiry question about the Cause of the American Civil War. Students will develop a hypothesis, search for evidence in multiple primary and secondary sources, and complete a graphic organizer. Through this process, students will develop a strong answer to the inquiry question posed at the beginning.

Inquiry Question:

What is the major source of disagreement which ultimately leads to the conflict known as the American Civil War?


  • Documents Packet
  • Graphic Organizer
  • Highlighters
  • Civil War In4 Video: Coming of the War


  1. Have students begin with a hypothesis to answer the inquiry question.
  2. Students will then read through the Document Packet, filling out the Graphic Organizer as they progress.
  3. Students should watch the Civil War In4 Video: Coming of the War. Students can take notes about the video on the back of their Graphic Organizer sheet.


  • Students will answer the inquiry question either orally or in essay form. They should use evidence from their primary and secondary sources. They can use the documents, their notes, the video and their graphic organizer. Students can do additional research to bolster their argument.
  • Students can share their responses with the class.

Assessment in This Lesson:

  1. A completed graphic organizer
  2. Notes taken on graphic organizer, documents, or other notes sheets
  3. A complete answer to the inquiry question with quotes from the provided documents


These resources can help you prepare for teaching this unit and can also help students with their essay and understanding.

  1. Glossary of 18th and 19th Century Political Terms
  2. Glossary of Civil War Terms
  3. National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets
  4. Trigger Events of the American Civil War
  5. The Missouri Compromise
  6. The Nullification Crisis
  7. The Wilmot Proviso
  8. Bleeding Kansas
  9. The Caning of Charles Sumner
  10. The Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  11. John Brown’s War
  12. Primary Document Collection
  13. Virginia Center for Digital History (For Virginia SOL’s, but useful for other states.)