Causes of the Civil War DBQ (Essential Questions!)

civil war curriculum & lesson plans for history teachers

Engaging your students with the right discussion-based questions (DBQ) and answers is vitally important for their comprehension, learning, and retention of the subject matter!


This is especially true when it comes to teaching a U.S. history topic as complex as the Civil War! From the main causes of the Civil War such as disagreements between the Northern states and Southern states over the moral issue of slavery, the uncompromising differences between the North and South over slave labor itself, to the numerous policies and major pieces of legislation that were passed in the years and decades that led up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. For example, how legislation intended to prevent a civil war, actually contributed to it. The Missouri Compromise, westward expansion and the incorporation of western territories, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc., ALL were factors in the manifestation of the Civil War. And with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, many white Southerners and Northern abolitionists were more willing than before to risk the dissolution of the Union in order to defend their beliefs over the institution and practice of slavery.


Irrespective of what grade level you're teaching, there are a handful of Civil War DBQ that I ALWAYS recommend asking your students. The *KEY* is, in order to make these discussion based questions and answers work for any grade level, is that YOU, as the teacher:

  1. Help guide the conversation - By design, any DBQ worth its weight will ask open-ended questions, which naturally allows room for further conversation - so, if students appear to be having some difficulty with a particular DBQ, provide them with some context clues. For example, remind students to consider certain historical events, aspects, and/or points of view to take into account when thinking about a response to the DBQ. And, when a student responds to a DBQ, I always like to ask them a follow up question specifically, a follow up question that'll encourage students to get to a deeper level of critical thinking. 🧐 
  2. Set your expectations accordingly - Basically, what I mean by this is quite simple... if you were to ask the same DBQ to a 5th grader and an 8th grader, you wouldn't expect the 5th graders response to have the same level of depth and breadth as you would from the 8th grader, right?!🤔 


If you can do those 2 things (help guide the conversation and set your expectations accordingly), then these Civil War DBQ and answers are extremely versatile and PERFECT for asking to 5th graders on up (all the way to high school seniors!).


I've divvied up my favorite Civil War DBQ into four distinct "themes":



Here are a few examples:

DBQ #1: How did financial and economic interests contribute to the South's desire to secede from the Union? The South's economy was hugely dependent on the labor intensive agriculture industry - as such, the practice of slavery (virtually free labor) flourished, providing much of the manual labor that was required on the farms and plantations across the South that fueled the region’s economy. As the 19th century progressed, it became more imperative for the South that the economics of slavery be preserved/protected, especially as the century progressed into the 1840s and 1850s when Northern politicians and Northern antislavery political forces became more vocal and willing to act in their opposition of slavery.


DBQ #2: How was South Carolina a primary catalyst in the outbreak of the Civil War? South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, paving the pathway for other Southern (slave) states to follow, and also the location of Fort Sumter - the first battle of the Civil War and marking the official beginning of the War.


DBQ #3: How were differing beliefs and values in American Society a cause of the Civil War? As the abolitionist movement became more widespread and influential across the North, and more Northerners were became exposed to the atrocities that were commonly endured by the enslaved (families/loved ones being torn apart, physical and emotional abuse, extreme disciplinary measures, poor living conditions, etc.) via publishing's such as 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', Southerners viewed the growing abolitionist movement as a threat to their way of life, especially wealthy Southerners whose wealth largely depended on the institution of slavery. These contrasting beliefs and values between American Society in the North, and American Society in the South, grew more apparent and would ultimately become one of the factors in the outbreak of the Civil War.




Here's a handful of examples:

DBQ #1: How to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 further divide the United States? By allowing slave-hunters to legally pursue and seize alleged runaway (escaped) enslaved people without due process of law, while also making it illegal to provide aid, or obstruct slave-hunters pursuit of fugitive slaves, anywhere in the U.S., it had deepened the divide between the Free States and Slave States. The Free States abhorred the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, while white Southerners largely embraced and celebrated it.


DBQ #2: How were the rights of African Americans different in Free States vs. Slave States? While African Americans were treated unequally by the white man in both the Free States and Slave States, the main distinction is that in the Free States, as the name suggests, African Americans were all free from slavery, while in the Slave States (also as the name suggests), the vast majority of African Americans were enslaved, and had no rights. In Free States, (depending on which Free State) African Americans had some rights - in some places they could become a skilled worker, pursue an education, serve on a jury or vote.


DBQ #3: Why did Slave States primarily have an unbalanced economy? The slave states, especially those that seceded from the Union, were overly dependent on slave labor for their economies and, to provide the manpower required of the robust agriculture industry that had simply dominated many of the slave states economies at that time. The geography (climate, terrain, soil, etc.) of the slave states was well-suited for many cash crops such as tobacco, and later cotton, which greatly contributed to an unbalanced economy in these states as many of them had few other natural resources available to them and as the free states (North) began to diversify their economies with multiple industries like mining, factories that manufactured raw goods, etc., the slave states did not.


DBQ #4: What characteristics did the "Border States" (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, & West Virginia) have in common? They were all slave states, but did NOT secede from the Union, and they all (except for Delaware) bordered both free states and slave states.




Here's a couple of examples

DBQ #1: Why was Gettysburg an important victory for the Union? There are numerous appropriate responses to this question, ideally, ALL of which will be identified by students (regardless of grade level)

#1: It was the largest battle of the Civil War

#2: It took place in the North (significant because most battles occurred in the South)

#3: The outcome of the battle provided a badly needed morale boost to the North and greatly helped alter the course of the War (into the North's favor)

#4: The Confederates at Gettysburg were being led by General Robert E. Lee, the most well-respected Confederate general and up to that point of the War, had led the Confederate forces under his command to numerous battlefield victories

#5: President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address a few short months after the battle - one of the most important speeches in American history


DBQ #2: Why is the Emancipation Proclamation historically significant? Students should be able to identify that it was delivered by President Lincoln during the midst of the Civil War; that it was a major symbolic measure which declared all of the enslaved in the U.S (including the states that had seceded) forever free; it allowed African American men in the North to join the Union Army; and while not entirely enforceable, especially in the South, the Emancipation Proclamation would eventually lead to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution banning slavery in the U.S.




(It should go without saying that with any DBQ in this theme, it's crucial that the individual being asked about in the DBQ is a historically significant individual)

Here are two examples

DBQ #1: How did President Lincoln display his leadership during the Civil War? In response to this DBQ, students should be able to respond by identifying specific leadership traits Lincoln possessed (ie., his values/beliefs over the issue of slavery, his determination to preserve the Union, etc.) and/or identify specific actions that President Lincoln took during the Civil War that displayed his leadership abilities and qualities - for example, the Emancipation Proclamation or in his response and willingness to use military force against the Southern states (especially after the attack at Fort Sumter) that seceded and formed the Confederate States of America).


DBQ #2: Why was General Ulysses S. Grant such an integral figure for the Union war effort? Again, depending on what grade level your teaching - adjust your expectations to student’s responses. For example, when asking 5th graders this DBQ, they should ideally respond by noting how General Grant won many of the battles he led Union soldiers in, many of those battles were important strategic victories for the win and helped severely weaken the Confederate Army. For 8th graders on the other hand, they should not only respond by pointing out that General Grant, who eventually rose to the highest rank in the Union Army and was placed in command by President Lincoln to oversee the entire Union war effort, won numerous important battles, but also be able to point out WHY those battles were important victories (ie., the Siege of Vicksburg which essentially gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and further isolated the South from one another in terms of trade and transportation). Ideally, 8th graders and up will also be able to point to specific leadership traits possessed by General Grant that helped him be such a great leader (humility, integrity, he was well-respected by those he led, etc.).


No matter what issue of national importance you’re teaching about when it comes to the Civil War (or any historical topic for that matter!) asking thought-provoking DBQ's is a sure fire way to keep your students engaged! 🙋 

REMEMBER! Not all DBQ's are created equally. There's a whole slew of possible ways to curate a great DBQ. In my experience, the best DBQ's aren't just designed and curated to stimulate thought, they incorporate the use of historical context, primary source documents, and appealing visuals like political cartoons! 


If you're looking for high-quality and affordable resources on the Civil War, I've got you covered! Check out my history and social studies curriculum bundles right 👉 HERE!! 👈 

I think you'll be happy you did 😉  


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