Civil War Lesson Plan: Southern Life During the War

For most students, the Civil War happened an eternity ago and even after learning about it for the third time, in high school, they can hardly recall important battles of the Civil War, let alone shows that they understood or connected with the war. One way to help bridge this gap is to develop Civil War lesson plans that personalize the war and explain it in more familiar terms. For example, it may be useful to frame a lesson for middle school students in terms of how the war affected family life at the time.

With an inquisitive class, the lesson should start by asking students to imagine how life before the war was different from their lives, and then how the Civil War would have changed those lives. After that the teacher could lead a discussion of what groups came up with, where they were right or off base, and what they missed.

The South experienced the biggest changes because most of the war was fought in southern states between the occupying North and Southerners on the defensive. Most people and families in the South led a pastoral life, organized around agricultural activities. Most families had either no slaves or very few, so the men and children did the physical labor. With the coming of the war, families lost their able-bodied men. This both changed the family power dynamic and meant that women had to do more of the work to keep the farms functioning, on top of their normal labors such as cleaning, making and fixing clothing, and raising the children.

As the war went on, the effects of occupation and Union General William T. Sherman’s “total war” led to high levels of deprivation and hunger. With Confederate troops to feed and Union soldiers turning to thievery in many cases and then burning everything that was left, combined with a lack of available rail transport – it was being used by the war effort – to ship crops that did make it to harvest, food became very scarce. They also experience a lack of material goods because most manufacturing was in the North and the Southern factories that did spring up devoted most of their energy to supporting the war.

On top of that, near the end of the war many of the major southern population centers were effectively “occupied territory.” Civilian movement in these places was severely restricted and in some areas that was a constant fear of violence from the soldiers.

In terms of these changes, life for most of the Southern population at the start of the war was already something we would see as difficult, and only got more so over the course of the war.

One of the most valuable results of a Civil War lesson plan such as this may ultimately be to humanize the South, often painted as the slaveholding enemy, and in so doing, help students to recognize why it had such an impact on politics and society.

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