The U.S. Civil War on the World Wide Web

C. Frederick Risinger

No single topic in U.S. history commands more attention than the U.S. Civil War. Among historians, teachers, curriculum developers, and the general public, the Civil War is the great watershed event that divides the nation's story as it also divides textbooks, curriculum guides, and the perceptions of socioeconomic analysts. The terms "pre-Civil War" and "post-Civil War" are well-known guideposts for anyone writing, teaching, or studying American history.
It should come as little surprise to find that this most traditional of historical topics is a significant force on the World Wide Web (WWW). From virtual field trips at the Gettysburg Battlefield to diary entries of Confederate and Union soldiers, classroom teachers and students can see and read about the Civil War in ways that no textbook or curriculum guide can provide. As is typical with topics on the Web, the array of resources can be overwhelming. Yet, teachers will be able to find here the precise resources to create powerful lessons that bring issues and topics to life.

For example, President Lincoln wrote two versions of the Gettysburg Address-one prior to leaving for the speech and one shortly after he returned to the White House. Still debated by historians, the differences between the two provide insight into Lincoln's thinking. Teachers can destroy the old "written on the back of an envelope" myth by downloading holographs of both original versions in Lincoln's own handwriting from the Library of Congress Web site to classroom monitors or screens. The full typed text of both versions is also available.

I recommend two Web sites for teachers and students interested in Civil War studies. The American Civil War Homepage is an award-winning site put together by George Hoemann and Mary Myers. Its goal is "to gather together in one place hypertext links to the most useful identified electronic files about the American Civil War." Frequent subtopic updates and regular new topic additions keep this site fresh. For example, when I logged on recently, nine of its eleven major resource topics had been updated and a new topic, "The Secession Crisis," had been added within the past week. Other topics in its main menu include General Resources comprising timelines and overviews, Letters, Accounts, Diaries and Other Documentary Records, Specific Battles, and Graphic Images that can be downloaded for classroom viewing.

In the "Personal Documents" category, Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, writes eloquently and sadly about the last Christmas at the Confederate White House. Relating how President Davis himself dressed as Santa Claus to distribute handmade toys to children in a church basement, she describes her own gifts, which included six bars of soap made from ham grease and a pincushion made by a "poor woman and stuffed with wool from her pet sheep...." She also depicts a "starvation party" that she attended later that day where young women and men held a Christmas dance, despite their lack of either food or liquid refreshments.

For teachers who want to use the interest-building content of social history, the Web offers a myriad of resources. The site also includes official rosters of Civil War soldiers on both sides, many pictures from the National Archives that can be downloaded, slang used during the War era, and timelines that can help students put Civil War events into chronological perspective.

My second recommended Civil War Web site is the United States Civil War Center. The Center, supported by a grant from publisher Frank McGill, boasts an advisory board including filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Shelby Foote, Ted Turner, and journalist Tom Wicker. It focuses on the role of African Americans, Native Americans, and other minority groups during the Civil War era and encourages research into "new subject areas, new methodologies, and new perspectives...." Information available via this site includes excerpts from significant historical books, reprints from newspapers of the era, and a monthly calendar of Civil War-related events, such as conferences and reenactments, being held throughout the country.

I was intrigued by two items: (1) "Selected Statistics on Slavery" prior to the War, which discusses slave ownership in the several southern states, and (2) Jefferson Davis's First Message to the Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861. Davis used the analogy of the American Revolution to support his claim that secession was not only justified but legal. The results of the recent National Assessment on Educational Progress test of U.S. history emphasizes the difficulty that students have in making historical connections across space and time. Students who have an opportunity to read Davis's speech at this site will better understand this type of linkage.

Both of these recommended Web sites contain many of the same links to other sites and resources. They both lead to dozens of primary source documents, including inaugural addresses by Lincoln and Davis, Davis's Farewell Address, and Frederick Douglass's Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage. Both sites should be "Bookmarks" on every social studies teacher's WWW browser. School libraries or resource centers with WWW access will also want to have these sites clearly identified so that students can reach them easily.

Other Recommended Sites
Although the Web is content-rich, it can also help teachers with nitty-gritty issues such as lesson planning. Hundreds of social studies lesson plans are available on-line. Some have been developed as a result of summer conferences and workshops while others have been contributed by individual teachers. As a result, they are of uneven quality. Even a mediocre lesson plan, however, can stimulate a teacher by providing a new perspective on a familiar topic or by suggesting new topics for the curriculum. Social studies teachers are wonderful at "adapting" ideas to fit the needs of their students and instructional settings. The following two Web sites either include or provide links to K-12 lessons.

Social Studies Lesson Plans and Resources
Marty Levine, a professor at California State University, Northridge, has gathered lesson plans and resources from the Internet. Topics include history, geography, economics, civics/citizenship, and contemporary issues. There is also a section on teaching current events through newspapers and television. This site provides links to news groups useful to social studies teachers and other resources.

K-12 Sources: Curriculum Lesson Plans
This is part of the History/Social Web Site for Teachers, which contains an amazing array of information and links to other sites. Separate links for K-6 grades include lesson plans specifically for elementary social studies. They range from traditional content, such as lessons about national holidays or presidents to thought-provoking lessons on community action projects. This site also includes educational resources for parents and information about in-service teacher education and professional development.

If you have a favorite Web site, send me the URL and a brief description. If you use the WWW in your teaching, write and tell me how you do it, what content is covered, and how your students have reacted. In future columns, we plan to feature schools and teachers who are using the resources of the Web.

C. Frederick Risinger is Associate Director of Teacher Education and Coordinator of Social Studies Education at Indiana University, Bloomington. He can be reached by e-mail at