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Visual Culture and the Civil War

Political cartoons were a popular source of information during the Civil War and created an excellent way to disperse a political or social opinion to a wide audience. The Lesson in this Unit features almost twenty political cartoons ranging from 1860-1868 that capture the spirit of the Civil War and help students to learn the multiple opinions and perspectives of those living through it.

The topics of the cartoons were relevant to people of the time, and they illustrate the multiple perspectives present during a very conflicting time in US history.  They also help us develop an understanding of what would be considered the “popular culture” before, during, and after the Civil War. These images make it very apparent how divided the nation was beginning with the election of President Abraham Lincoln. On the flip side, the images continue to portray a nation that is unwilling to break and a union with the will to survive.

By examining the cartoons, students will be asked to think critically about the author’s point of view in order to gain a deeper understanding of the topics portrayed.


19th century

African American

Civil War



Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

US History

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • Historical comprehension involves evidence-based discussion and explanation, an analysis of sources including multiple points of view, and an ability to read critically to recognize fact from conjecture and evidence from assertion

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.

  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding United States history.


  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other times, cultures and place.

  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.

End of Unit Assessment

Have students complete the Civil War Assessment to see how opinions might have changed or not changed as the Civil War progressed. Then ask students to create a political cartoon of their own on a topic from the Civil War or of the teacher's choice.


Plans in this Unit

Teaching the Civil War through Political Cartoons

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content



8.1.12B & C

8.3.9C & D

PA Common Core Standards:

8.6. 9-12 A

8.5.9-12 A,B,D,F


Wells Fargo Bank

About the Author

This unit was created by Alicia Parks, Wells Fargo Education Manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with assistance from Michael Kuder, Temple Cultural Fieldwork Initiative student.


Historic Images, New Technologies

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