Lesson Plan 8 | Civil War (1861-1865)


Revisionist historians tell us that “The Civil War was about state’s rights, not about slavery,” but what was the seceding states’ right to do what? It was about the states’ rights to continue slavery.  Wallbuilders.com compiled four categories of Confederate documents to prove that the reason for the formation of the Confederacy was to preserve slavery: Southern Secession Documents; the Declarations of Congressmen who left Congress to Join the Confederacy; The Confederate Constitution; and the Declaration of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.

“When Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 without winning a single electoral vote and with scarcely any popular votes in the slave states, Southerners knew they had lost control of the government. A Northern antislavery party would dominate the future. Slavery was doomed if the South remained in the Union. So, seven slave states seceded (followed by four more after the firing on Fort Sumter) and formed the Confederate States of America.”  (The Reader’s Companion to American History by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty)

After South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the Union, they adopted their provisional constitutions. Two months later, on April 12, 1861, the Confederate military launched a terrorist attack on Fort Sumter - this was the beginning of the Civil War.


To examine the 1860 Party Platform Differences of Democrats and Republicans
To understand how the election of Abraham Lincoln affected the Southern states
To learn about the contributions that blacks made during the Civil War

Time: Two class periods


Party Platform comparisons in 1860
Political cartoon “The Political Quadrille”
Primary source political illustrations for comparison/discussion
Letters from/about black Union soldiers
Photographs for historical reference

 The Election of 1860:

Political Party Platform Differences:

1860: Democratic Party Platform, “The Democratic Party will abide by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States upon these questions of constitutional law…the enactments of the state legislatures to defeat the faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Law are hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution, and revolutionary in their effect.” http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29577

“This plank affirms the support of the Democrat Party for the recently delivered 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that blacks were not persons but instead were property and therefore had no rights…Not only did Democrats affirm their support for this decision with this plank in their platform but they even distributed copies of the Dred Scott decision along with their platform to affirm their belief that it was proper to have slavery and to hold African Americans in bondage.www.wallbuilders.com/resources/misc/civilrightsplatforms.pdf

1860: Republican Party Platform, “We brand the recent reopening of the African slave trade – under cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power – as a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age; and we call upon Congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic.” http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29620

“Republicans won the election of 1860 and, in accordance with this plank in their platform, they begin to take action to end slavery. For example, in 1862, they passed a federal law prohibiting slavery in the federal territories – a direct affront to the 1856 Dred Scott decision in which the U.S.  Supreme Court had forbidden Congress form ending slavery in any territory. In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – another act directly refuting the Supreme Court decision. The Republican Congress had indeed begun pursuing measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic.” www.wallbuilders.com/resources/misc/civilrightsplatforms.pdf

The Election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860:

When the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator William Henry Seward, failed to receive a majority of votes on the first ballot, Lincoln won the Republican nomination on the third ballot.  Below is a breakdown of the various political party electoral votes and a cartoon parody of the 1860 presidential contest.

Democrats were angry, particularly southern Democrats at the election of Abraham Lincoln.  South Carolina seceded from the Union, while other Democrats made threats to assassinate the new anti-slavery President.

                                                                                                                                              Political Party Nominees and Electoral Votes

John Bell

Stephen Douglas

Abraham Lincoln

John Breckenridge

Complete HarpWeek Explanation:

A general parody on the 1860 presidential contest, highlighting the impact of the Dred Scott decision on the race. That controversial decision, handed down in 1857 by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that neither the federal government nor territorial governments could prohibit slavery in the territories. The burning question of the future of slavery in the United States was addressed by several of the contenders during the 1860 race. Here the four presidential candidates dance with members of their supposed respective constituencies. The music is fiddled by Dred Scott, the former slave whose suit precipitated the court's decision. Scott sits on a chair at center. In the upper left is Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. He is paired with Democratic incumbent and ally James Buchanan, depicted as a goat or (as he was nicknamed) "Buck." At the upper right, Republican Abraham Lincoln prances arm-in-arm with a black woman, a pejorative reference to his party's alignment with the abolitionists.

At lower right Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell dances with an Indian brave. This pairing is puzzling but may allude to Bell's brief flirtation with Native American interests. (For one instance of the use of the Indian as a nativist symbol see "Know Nothing Soap," no. 1854-3.)

At lower left Stephen A. Douglas dances with a ragged Irishman. Associated with Douglas in several cartoons (see "The Undecided Political Prize Fight," no. 1860-22) the Irishman, here wearing a cross, may be intended as a reference to Douglas's backing among Irish immigrants and allegations of the candidate's Catholicism.

"The Political Quadrille's" stylistic similarity to the "Undecided Political Prize Fight" and "Dividing the National Map" (nos. 1860-22 and 1860-24) suggests common authorship.

Source: American Political Prints, 1766 – 1876: A Catalog of the Collections in the Library of Congress, 1991, by Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.


Guiding Questions:
  • How did the Democratic and Republican Platforms differ? What did each party hope to accomplish?
  • What role did the Dred Scott decision play in the election of 1860?
  • Do you think that the various electoral votes were indicative of the positions that each candidate took?

Background Information:

According to the 1860 Census, 225,849 blacks lived in the Northern States and 3,953,760 slaves (plus 487,970 free blacks) who lived in the Southern States, for a total of 4,441,730.  Total population in the United States in 1860 was 31,443,790.  The impressive contributions that these blacks made during the Civil War were invaluable.  We will examine illustrations and articles from Harper’s Weekly, Civil War photographs, and other citations that will provide insight into the dynamic history of black self-possession and self-determination on the road to freedom.

There were more than 1500 photographers who created tens of thousands of photographs to document the history and contributions of blacks during the Civil War: families escaping; Union laborers and cooks; battlefields; soldiers; and memorials depicting these critical contributions. These visual narratives provide stories on how slaves seized every opportunity to liberate themselves, to seek freedom, and to be an active participant in their emancipation.

Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley, photographer; a black driver guides the wagons of Sam A. Cooley, employed by the Department of the South to document the Civil War.
(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Contraband of War:

Union General Benjamin Butler refuses to comply with the Fugitive Slave Law and classified escaped slaves, who went to Union lines, as contraband of war.  Any slaves being used to wage war against the U.S. would be confiscated.  Butler was an attorney before the Civil War and his legal argument, concerning keeping slaves as contraband, was embraced by Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.   These slaves were not emancipated and were in legal limbo. 

The Confiscation Act of 1862, was passed on July 17, 1862, by Congress. It would authorize generals, admirals, soldiers, and sailors to confiscate persons who were being used by the rebels for military purposes – now seized slaves within Union lines were free persons. These freed slaves were used as laborers to support Union efforts and soon began to receive paid wages. Thousands of former slaves enlisted in the United States Colored Troops when recruitment started.

Simon Cameron, Secretary of War for Lincoln

Union General Benjamin Butler, 1861 (Library of Congress)

“When a Virginia slave owner demanded the return of three slaves that had escaped to Fort Monroe, General Butler refused, on the grounds that these persons (or property, as the Confederacy considered them) were being used to wage war against the Union (the term "contraband of war”) …”

General Butler’s decision to “confiscate” those who were forced into labor for the Confederacy was a major blow to the Confederate war effort. This cartoon satirizes the dependency of the Confederacy on slave labor. (Library of Congress)

Contrabands in Cumberland Landing, Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign, May 1862
(Library of Congress)

Slave Family, U.S. South, the 1860s. “Contrabands Coming into Camp in Consequence of the Proclamation” Many African Americans left the South following the Emancipation Proclamation. Fugitive slaves from the South who escaped to Union lines were called “contraband,” that is, confiscated enemy property. This family was quite casual in that it was able to stay together, rather than stay on the farm; the family chose to “throw themselves at the mercy of the Yankees.”  http://slaveryimages.org

Fugitive Slaves Escaping to Union Lines, 1864. “Coming into the Lines,” shows a wagon containing what may be a family escaping to the Union lines during the Civil War. “

Photographer: Timothy O’Sullivan

“The image is captioned, 'Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock' (during John Pope’s retreat). It is perhaps the most widely used of all Civil War photographs, simply because there is… nothing else like it. The image…of slaves seeking freedom…

The image is part of a remarkable series of at least seven taken by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan on a frantic day for the Union army: August 19, 1862. That day, John Pope’s Army of Virginia was in full retreat, falling back from the Rapidan River through Culpeper County…to a new line behind the Rappahannock River…The movement was rapid and large–55,000 or more men heading to the crossings of the Rappahannock River…slaves saw the Yankees’ departure as their last chance for freedom, and flooded north with the Union army…this is an image that apparently captures a hugely significant act in progress: slaves emancipating themselves.” https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/a-profound-and-ubiquitous-image-slaves-crossing-the-rappahannock/

    Photographer: J.W. Taft, “Contraband Yard”

In Contraband Yard we see a group of children kneeling in the foreground, possibly paying more attention to their game than to the photographer. Gathered and posed in front of slaveholder’s homes and in their yards, black people transformed slavery’s physical landscape by making those homes, buildings, fields, and yards sites where freedom was displayed and documented…also suggest the strength, durability, and resilience of family and kinship ties during and after slavery…These images stand as a testament to black people’s survival as individuals, families, and communities.” (Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.)

Photographer: Henry P. Moore “Contrabands aboard the U.S. Ship Vermont, Port Royal, South Carolina” 1862-63

“In this image, some thirty-four black men are gathered on the deck of a Union warship. The men, identified collectively as “contrabands,” had liberated themselves by running away from their masters and gaining refuge with Union forces. Dressed in Navy-issued clothing they sit around the ship’s mainmast, looking at Moore and his camera. The image highlights both enslaved men’s engagement with the war and the prevailing political debates over slavery and Union war policy. And yet it does not present a picture of black empowerment in freedom. Instead, like many Civil War-era photographs of black refugees, it renders their transition from slavery to freedom as an orderly and peaceful change rather than a monumental reordering of society. The men in this image are seated on the ship’s deck; they do not assume positions of authority or control in relation to the vessel and its weapons…” (Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer)

A contraband cleaning boots on the left. The photo is by Henry P. Moore. 1861

Guiding Questions:

  • How would you compare each of the examples of contrabands in the above illustrations and photos? 
  • What was the first step in black empowerment that blacks took on their road to freedom?
  • What do we know about the image by Timothy O’Sullivan? What does it show? Is it relevant to portraying the exodus of slaves with the army?
  • What can you tell about the illustrations of the self-liberated people in the loaded wagons moving en masse toward Union camps?
  • What does the “Contraband Yard” show about the strength and collective experience of the people in the photograph?
  • How would you compare the Henry P. Moore’s photograph of contrabands on the U.S. Ship Vermont to slaves on previous ships?
  • What does each photograph suggest about the flight of the contraband slave?

From Laborers and Servants to Union Military Heroes:

First, newly freed black men were common laborers for the Union, and later “servants” to white officers.  Union commanders and other government officials sought to establish black people’s ability to be productive and pushed for the right for blacks to enlist in the Union army. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves and made them more determined to win the war. As the Union troops advanced across the South, thousands of slaves were free. The Emancipation Proclamation also reaffirmed the President’s authority to enlist black servicemen and initiates an effort to organize all-black regiments

On March 2, 1863, Frederick Douglass sent out this powerful message in his newspaper, Douglass Monthly, titled “Men of Color, to Arms!” it urged black men to support the nation’s war and the crusade to end generations of slavery. Approximately 180,000 black soldiers took up the call to fight for the Union, comprising more than 10% of all Federal forces. Knowing that a Northern loss could mean possible re-enslavement, freemen and former slaves showed dedication to their country and a commitment to the freedom of their people forever.

Frederick Douglass declared A Call to Arms, “There is no time to delay. The tide is at its flood that leads on to fortune. From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, ‘Now or never.’ Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike a blow.’ Better even die free than to live slaves.’ This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us.”

Document A: Freed Slaves Work for the Federal Army, 1862   http://slaveryimages.org

Document B: Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry playing cards in front of tents, Petersburg, Virginia 

Document C: Third New Hampshire Volunteers Band, Photographer: Henry P. Moore, 1862

Document D: Band of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry, Fort Corcoran, Arlington, Virginia

Document E:  Black soldier guarding a row of twelve-pounder Napoleon cannons, City Point, Virginia

Document F: First Louisiana Native Guards, 1863, Harper’s Weekly, February 28, 1863. “Our Colored Troops at WorkThe First Louisiana Native Guards Disembarking at Fort Macombe, Louisiana” -Sketched by Our Special Artist 

Guiding Questions:

  • What can you tell from Document A, about the freed laborers?
  • In Document B, what purpose did this homey scene of camp serve? Did it resonate with northern, middle-class domesticity?  What role did the black people play in this photo?
  • What can you tell about the young boy, a former slave Billy Seabrook, in Document C? He is a subordinate, but does he look confident?
  • Compare Documents C and D and what are the differences?
  • What changes do you see for blacks in Documents D and F?

Fighting for the Union:

Initially, denied the right to bear arms in the first year of the Civil War, by the end of 1862 black soldiers were fighting for the Union. Volunteer units from different states went on to serve with distinction throughout the war.  Men like Frederick Douglass were instrumental in fortifying the right of free black men and women to enlist in the Union military - blacks welcomed this crusade to abolish slavery.

“Portraits of northern black soldiers record their participation in the war and reflect the gravity of their mission. They served a nation too often marginalized and constrained them, and they fought with the goal of reforming and expanding the meanings of citizenship and freedom. Their pictures – in their uniforms and often bearing arms – can be seen as one component of their campaign to declare their rights as free men and redefine freedom to include black people. Like the images of “contrabands” and other free slaves, portraits of black soldiers help a twenty-first-century viewer understand the scope and significance of black people’s desire to be active in their emancipation.” (Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthammer)

Document G:  Black Union in the Union/Federal Army, ca. 1863-64. “Off for the War”  http://slaveryimages.org

Document H: Black Soldiers in the Union/Federal Army, ca 1863-64. “Mustering into Service.”  http://slaveryimages.org

Document I: The Battle on Mooris Island, S.C. at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. 

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was one of the first African-American units in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers. Massachusetts did not have many African-American residents, but by the time 54th Infantry regiment headed off to training camp two weeks later more than 1,000 men had volunteered. Many came from other states, such as New York, Indiana and Ohio; some even came from Canada. One-quarter of the volunteers came from slave states and the Caribbean. Fathers and sons (some as young as 16) enlisted together. 

The battle was fierce, although Fort Wagner remained under Confederate control, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its bravery, proving the value of black soldiers. It spurred additional recruitment that gave the Union Army a further numerical advantage in troops over the Confederacy. The most famous enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, two sons of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Also, Sergeant William H. Carney, a son of slaves, was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery beyond the call of duty in the battle of Fort Wagner. He was the first African-American to receive this medal. http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/the-54th-massachusetts-infantry

Once [you] let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth…which can deny that he has earned the right citizenship.” Frederick Douglass

Document J Examining Primary Sources: Corporal James Henry Gooding, Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, (complaint to the president)

…Are we Soldiers or are we laborers? We are fully armed, and equipped, have don all the various Duties, pertaining to a Soldiers life, have conducted ourselves, to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who were if any, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement, and honour due us: have shared the perils and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag; and more, Mr. President. Today, the Anglo-Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister, are not alone, in ears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient Trusting Descendants of Africs Clime have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men too your Excellency, who know in a measure, the cruelties of the Iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very Power, their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them to the dust… And now, he is in the War: and how has he conducted himself?... Let their dusky forms, rise up, out of mires of James Island, and give the answer… Obedient and patient, and Solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet. Now, Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why can’t we have a soldier's pay...We do not consider ourselves fit subjects for the Contraband act…Not that our hearts ever flagged, in Devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but We feel as though, our Country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moments attention.  James Henry Gooding  http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/gooding.htm (Letters from Black America: Intimate Portraits of the African American Experience, Boston Press, 2009)

Document K: Charles Remond Douglass – son of Frederick Douglass and the first African American in the state of New York to enlist to fight in the Civil War.

Document L: Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry, son of Frederick Douglass, Photographers: Case & Getchell, Boston, 1863

Document M: Examining Primary Sources: Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass’s Letter to his fiancée, Amelia.

My Dear Amelia,

I have been in two fights and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night. Our men fought well on both occasions. The last was desperate we charged that terrible battery on Morris Island known as Fort Wagoner and were repulsed with a loss of 3 killed and wounded. I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hill of shot and shell. I was terrible. I need not particularize the papers will give a better than I Have time to give. My thoughts are with your often, you are as dear as ever, be good enough to remember it as I no doubt you will. As I said before we are on the eve of another fight and I am very busy and have just snatched a moment to write you. I must necessarily be brief. Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe.

If I survive I shall write you a long letter. DeForrest of your city is wounded, George Washington is missing. Jacob Carter is missing, Chas Reason wounded Chas Whiting, Chas Creamer all wounded. The above are in hospital.

This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My Dear girl, I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I e killed. Remember if I die I die in good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.

Goodbye to all Write soon
Your own loving Lewis

(Envisioning Emancipation, page 68)

Document N: Sergeant William H. Carney, black Congressional Medal of Honor winner

Guiding Questions:

  • How are black soldiers depicted in Documents A and B?
  • How effective was Frederick Douglass’s Call to Arms in encouraging blacks to enlist in the Union army?
  • How effective were the black soldiers depicted in the painting of “Storming Fort Wagner?”
  • In Document D, after reading the letter from James Henry Gooding, what can you tell about the frustrations to serve in the Union army? http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/gooding.htm
  • In Documents E and F, what can you say about the Douglass brothers and the gravity of their mission?
  • In Document G, what clues can you find in the letter that Lewis Douglass wrote to his fiancée about the brutality of war?
  • In Document H, how important was it to have a black soldier receive the Congressional Medal of Honor?

Document O: Dutch Gap, Virginia: Picket station of Colored Troops near Dutch Gap Canal (November 1864, Library of Congress) http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003004888/PP/

Document P: Black Soldiers in the Union/Federal Army, ca. 1863-64. “Phalanx Calvary Bringing in Confederate Prisoners” http://slaveryimages.org

Document Q: “Colored Troops Under General Wild, Liberating Slaves in North Carolina.” Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864, from Civil War timeline at http://blackhistory.harpweek.com

Document R: Black Troops of the Union Army Marching Through Charleston, South Carolina, 1865. “Marching On – The Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment Singing John Brown’s March in the Streets of Charleston,” February 25. 1865.   http://slaveryimages.org

Sergeant Major Christian Abraham Fleetwood. Fleetwood was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism on the field at the battle at Chaffin’s Farm in Virginia on September 29, 1864. He was twenty-three. Born a free man in Baltimore, he traveled to Liberia as a youth and graduated from Ashmun Institute (later Lincoln University) in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Document S: Sergeant Major Christian Abraham Fleetwood. Fleetwood was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism on the field at the battle at Chaffin’s Farm in Virginia on September 29, 1864. He was twenty-three. Born a free man in Baltimore, he traveled to Liberia as a youth and graduated from Ashmun Institute (later Lincoln University) in Oxford, Pennsylvania.  (Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer)

This unidentified young sailor stands in front of a painted backdrop. Over 18,000 African Americans enlisted as sailors during the Civil War, serving in units that consisted of formerly enslaved blacks from the South and black Unionists from the North.
Document T: Black Sailor, 1861-1865 (Temple University Press)
“This unidentified young sailor stands in front of a painted backdrop. Over 18,000 African Americans enlisted as sailors during the Civil War, serving in units that consisted of formerly enslaved blacks from the South and black Unionists from the North.” (Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer. page 92)

Approximately Twenty-five black Union soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their efforts in the Civil War. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/civil-war-african-american-medal-of-honor-recipients.131519/

Congressional Medal of Honor

Guiding Questions:

  • What does the photograph in Document A, tell you about these sharpshooters?
  • In Document B, how would you describe the differences in the demeanor of the black Union army soldiers and the Confederate prisoners?
  • Compare photos In Documents C and D, what can you tell about these illustrations and how the black soldiers might have felt?
  • There were 25 black Congressional Medal of Honor Winners represented by various military services. How might this have affected their future?
  • Describe this young Union sailor. 


The Reader’s Companion to American History by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Houghton Mifflin Company), 183 – 190, 662 – 665, 972 – 975, 
Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer (Temple University Press) 17 – 24, 59 – 69, 73, 74, 76 – 77, 84 – 85, 87, 92, 100, 101, 103, 110, 111, 129 -132, 141, 
Union General Benjamin Butler contraband of war, https://www.nps.gov/articles/fort-monroe-and-the-contrabands-of-war.htm
Corporal James Henry Gooding  http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/gooding.htm Complaint to President Abraham Lincoln, September 28, 1863.