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        Looking for Lincoln | Looking for Lincoln During the Civil War

        This lesson, based on the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, explores the unique challenges Lincoln faced during the five years of bloody civil war which made him America's ultimate but most controversial wartime leader.

        Lesson Summary


        Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was defined by the Civil War. Before he even took office—and largely because of his election—southern states were seceding from the Union, and he would barely live to see peace finally restored. Using segments from the PBS film Looking for Lincoln and a detailed interactive game from the National Constitution Center, this lesson explores the unique challenges Lincoln faced during the five years of bloody civil war that made him America’s greatest but most controversial wartime leader.

        The Introductory Activity uses the “ Lincoln’s Crossroads” online interactive to challenge students to make two of the earliest and most difficult decisions Lincoln faced during his presidency. A segment from the series promotes discussion of the relative similarities and differences between Lincoln and another wartime president: George W. Bush. The Learning Activities continues with film segments providing background on Lincoln’s presidency and additional rounds of the “ Lincoln’s Crossroads” interactive which call on students to “walk in his shoes.” The Culminating Activity asks students to write a hypothetical speech for Lincoln.

        This lesson is best used as an introduction to a unit on the American Civil War.


        Students will:

        • describe the unprecedented scale of the losses sustained by both sides during the American Civil War;
        • identify significant events and milestones of Lincoln’s presidency;
        • articulate the difficult choices faced by President Lincoln in leading the nation during an often unpopular civil war
        • discuss the development of how Lincoln’s position on the issue of slavery and emancipation changed during the course of the war, and why.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        2-3 (45-minute) class sessions

        Media Resources

        Bush on Lincoln Video

        Proving Ground Video

        The Civil War and Abolition Video


        For the class:

          • A computer with internet access connected to a projector and speakers for classroom use.

        For each student:

        Web Sites

        Abraham Lincoln’s Crossroads

        An interactive game from the National Constitution Center in which players are challenged to make the difficult decisions faced by Abraham Lincoln.

        Before The Lesson

        Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

        • Play the Abraham Lincoln’s Crossroads interactive to familiarize yourself with the flow of gameplay and learn where you will need to pause it for classroom participation. Print and copy the “Lincoln ’s Crossroads” student organizer.

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introductory Activity

          1. Ask students who they think is the greatest American president. (Answers will vary but will likely include Abraham Lincoln.) Explain that while Lincoln is now commonly regarded as our greatest president (second perhaps only to Washington), in his own time he was a highly controversial figure. Tell students that this lesson will take a closer look at some of the decisions Lincoln made that contributed to his widespread unpopularity at the time—even as they guaranteed his place in history.
          2. Distribute to each student the Lincoln's Crossroads Student Organizer. Log on to “Lincoln’s Crossroads”. Explain that this interactive will give them the opportunity to make some of the key decisions Lincoln faced during the Civil War. As a class, play the interactive’s third “Crossroad” about Ft. Sumter using the following Interactive Instructions:
        • After the onscreen Lincoln outlines his two options in this scenario, ask for a show of hands of everyone who thinks Lincoln made the first or second choice.
        • Select the response in “Lincoln’s Crossroads” chosen by the classroom majority.
        • Once Lincoln’s response has been revealed, have students mark the corresponding checkbox on their organizer. Ask them if they would have made the same choice. Why or why not?
        • Have students circle the checkbox corresponding to their own choice.

        Tell students that if they had been President and chosen, as Lincoln chose, to defend Ft. Sumter, their decision would have triggered the Civil War. Make sure students understand that their decisions in this and forthcoming rounds of “Lincoln’s Crossroads” are not necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but rather only what Lincoln either did or didn’t do. Explain that many of Lincoln’s decisions—including his resolve to fight the Confederacy in the first place—were highly controversial at the time, and that many remain so today.

          1. As a class, play the interactive’s fifth “Crossroad” about The Merryman Case, according to the Interactive Instructions outlined in Step 2. Explain that Lincoln’s decision to suspend the constitutional writ of habeas corpus in Maryland in 1861—a policy he would extend nationwide the following year—remains one of his most controversial acts as president.

        [NOTE: If students are unclear on the definition of habeas corpus, explain that its basic premise is that one cannot be imprisoned without just cause. An interactive timeline about the history of habeas corpus can be found at]

        1. Ask students if anyone knows of any other occasions in American history when the writ of habeas corpus has been suspended. Explain that several presidents including Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton have suspended or restricted this basic right during crises of war or terrorism, but that perhaps the most controversial example in our own time has been President George W. Bush’s policy toward detaining prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as part of the post-9/11 “War on Terror.”
        2. Tell students that they will now be looking at a video segment in which President Bush himself addresses the parallels between his own controversial presidency and that of Lincoln. Provide students with a media focus by asking them: “What was one of the nicknames given to Lincoln by his opponents and detractors?” (“Abraham the Tyrant.”) Play Bush on Lincoln. After reviewing the focus question, ask students what they think is similar in the situations faced by Presidents Lincoln and Bush. What’s different? (Accept all answers, but explain that wartime poses particularly difficult challenges for U.S. presidents, who are charged with maintaining often conflicting standards of constitutional law and national security. Tell students that the rest of this lesson will be devoted to exploring several such challenges in Lincoln’s presidency.)

        Part II: Learning Activity

        1. Tell students that they will now be taking a look at some more of Lincoln’s controversial wartime policies, starting with a video segment that discusses the unprecedented scale of the Civil War itself. Provide students with a media focus by asking them: “How many soldiers died in the Civil War?” Play Proving Ground, pausing at 1:40, after Professor Gates says, “There’s no better place to try and find the answers to these questions than here at Gettysburg.” After reviewing the focus question, explain that the answer—620,000—exceeds the number of fatal American casualties in ALL other wars from the Revolution to the present day, and is over 200 times greater than the number of people killed on September 11th, 2001.
        2. Ask students what they think the answer is to Professor Gates’ question in the segment: Why did Lincoln order so many men to their deaths? What was it all for? (Answers will vary, but many students will answer that the war was fought to end slavery.) As a class, log on to the “Lincoln’s Crossroads” interactive and play the sixth “Crossroad” about the Fremont Proclamation according to the Interactive Instructions outlined in Step 2 of the Introductory Activity. Ask students what Lincoln’s decision to revoke the Fremont Proclamation indicates about his initial purpose in pressing the war. (That it was being fought not primarily to free slaves, but rather to defeat the Confederacy and preserve the Union.)
        3. Explain that as the war progressed, Lincoln gradually revised his opinion about the importance of freeing slaves as part of the Union cause. After a string of humiliating military defeats, he took the occasion of the Union army’s victory at the battle of Antietam to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. This often misunderstood document in fact only freed the South’s slaves; it did nothing to free the slaves in northern states still loyal to the Union.
        4. As a class, proceed to the eighth “Crossroad” about Black Troops, and play it according to the Interactive Instructions outlined in Step 2 of the Introductory Activity. Ask students what they think Lincoln’s primary motivations were for including the provision for black troops in the Emancipation Proclamation. (Answers will vary, but explain that Lincoln at this point was more concerned with raising additional manpower to save the Union, and raising morale among Northern abolitionists, than he was in ending slavery for its own sake.)
        5. Tell students that they will now be watching the remainder of the Proving Ground segment. Provide a media focus by asking: “What did Lincoln called the Confederates?”(Insurgents, rebels.) Play the remainder of the video (from where Gates asks “How many men were here?”). After reviewing the focus question, ask students where else they may have heard the term “insurgents” in our own time. (Iraq.)
        6. Explain to the class that these terrible casualties sustained by the Union Army at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863 helped fan the flames of the next great crisis in Lincoln’s presidency. As a class, return to “Lincoln’s Crossroads” and play the eleventh “Crossroad” about the Draft Riots according to the Interactive Instructions outlined in Step 2 of the Introductory Activity. Explain that it was the poor who rioted against the draft in New York City. Ask students why they think this was. (They could not afford the $300 required to buy their way out of conscripted military service.) Ask students if they can think of another instance where a national draft provoked unrest and resistance. (The Vietnam War in the 1960s.)
        7. Tell students they will now be looking at a third video segment, and ask them to look for what Professor Gates believes is “the key to understanding the greatness” of Lincoln. (His language.) Play The Civil War and Abolition. After reviewing the focus question, ask students how Lincoln defined the purpose of the war differently at Gettysburg than he had earlier. Why? (Answers will vary, but encourage an understanding that the unanticipated and unprecedented human cost of the war now required a larger, greater purpose: the war was no longer just a struggle to save the political entity of the Union, but a moral crusade to end slavery. “Our honored dead” were now to be sacrifices made in the name of the higher ideal “that all men are created equal.”)
        8. As a class, return to “Lincoln’s Crossroads” and play the twelfth “Crossroad” about the Thirteenth Amendment according to the Interactive Instructions outlined in Step 2 of the Introductory Activity. Ask students what Lincoln’s support for the Thirteenth Amendment suggests about his views on slavery at this late point in the war. (Answers will vary, but encourage an understanding that Lincoln no longer saw the permanent abolition of slavery as a means to an end—i.e. the preservation of the Union, which is at this point all but guaranteed—but as an end in itself, which he finally has the political capital to impose upon the nation as a whole.)

        Part III: Culminating Activity

        1. Have students review their Lincoln's Crossroads Student Organizer and identify one crossroad at which they personally would have chosen differently from Lincoln. Have those students who selected the same crossroad form a group. Note that many students will not have personally decided differently than Lincoln on any issue, in which case they must now be assigned to one of the groups until there are six groups of approximately equal size—one for each crossroad explored in the lesson.
        2. Either as an in-class research project or as a homework assignment (depending on available time and classroom/library resources) assign each group to research the context and consequences of their crossroad and write a short speech justifying the choice that Lincoln didn’t historically make. These speeches are not to exceed 272 words—the length of Lincoln’s most famous—and brief—speech: the Gettysburg Address. Encourage students to examine the Gettysburg address in the Analyzing the Evidence interactive.


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