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Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 1850-1861


Edited By Michael E. Karpyn

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, killing nearly 700,000 Americans and costing the country untold millions of dollars. The events of this tragic war are so steeped in the collective memory of the United States and so taken for granted that it is sometimes difficult to take a step back and consider why such a tragic war occurred. To consider the series of events that led to this war are difficult and painful for students and teachers in American history classrooms. Classroom teachers must possess the appropriate pedagogical and historical resources to provide their students with an appropriate and meaningful examination of this challenging time period. Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 18501861 will attempt to provide these resources and teaching strategies to allow for the thoughtful inquiry, evaluation and assessment of this critical, complex and painful time period in American history.

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Introduction (Michael E. Karpyn)


Michael E. Karpyn

If two brothers ever embodied the powerful and tragic forces that led to the American Civil War, it is Thomas and Percival Drayton.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1809 and 1812, the brothers were separated in 1833, when their father William relocated to Philadelphia in response to the Nullification Crisis. William, a unionist, planned to take his whole family north. Thomas, a believer in states’ rights and a supporter of slavery, instead chose to stay behind in South Carolina.

Thomas (Image 1.1), an 1828 graduate of West Point, embarked on a career path that ranged from service in the U.S. Army, a civil engineer, a representative in the South Carolina legislature, and then the owner of over 100 slaves at his 1100-acre Fish Hill Plantation near the Port Royal Sound. Percival (Image 1.2) entered the U.S. Navy in 1827, earning promotion to commander in 1855.

On November 7, 1860, Thomas was still living in Charleston, South Carolina, while Percival was stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Processing the results of the previous day’s presidential election, Thomas wrote to his brother with a dire prediction. “Well, Lincoln is elected,” he wrote, adding, “and now for the end.”

Thomas meant “the end” of the country as it existed, correctly predicting that several Southern states would secede within the next few months. Despite his Southern roots, Thomas seemed despondent about the tragedy of this conflict, telling Percival...

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