The Civil War for Children

Teaching about any war to children is a tricky thing. On one hand you want them to know the truth and understand the world around them. Teaching actual history, including cause and effect, can really open a lot of discussion about right and wrong and how to treat people with respect, dignity, compassion, and charity. The study of history is the study of life and people – how to behave and, unfortunately more often, how not to behave.

But at the same time you risk breaking their little tender hearts, shattering their sense of security in the world, and maybe giving them nightmares and unnecessary anxiety.

I tend to treat my children as if they can handle more rather than less. So although I tread lighter on certain subjects than others and skip details where I feel it would do more harm than good, I certainly do teach them about wars. (I don’t show them documentaries, for example of WWII and concentration camps, and I skip over the photos in the books showing those poor dead bodies lying in the civil war battlefields, but I do tell them that lots and lots of people died and it was a horrible event that ruined many, many lives – which is probably true of every war that has been and ever will be.)

So slavery in the United States was a complicated topic to cover. We have learned about slavery in Africa so far but that is about it. It hits home harder, of course, when it is in your own country and we know that when our founding fathers said ALL men are created equal, the vast majority of them actually meant that. Also because WE know that to be true ourselves and we believe it and live it every day (at least we try the very best we can), it is doubly painful to know historically we are close to it.

Because of those things I decided to go the picture book route. Picture books, when well done, can express beautiful truth and bring lessons home to the reader sometimes better than their didactic counterparts. And really, how traumatizing can a picture book be?

Also, “living books” is the Charlotte Mason way. And although I sometimes claim to partly follow the Charlotte Mason method, really I just think it is awesome and I want to follow it, but I’m too comfortable and converted to what I am currently already doing.

So, this website was my starting point. This blogger lists a bajillion living books that she used when teaching this subject. Some of the books were not available at our library, and only one did I bother to special order, but we got quite a few of them. In my mind I pictured us snuggling on the couch every other afternoon with blankets and stuffed animals and enjoying our reading time together. In reality I sat on the floor while the kids were sprawled out around them room, some of them bound to the ground with paper and crayons. It was the only way I could keep the kindergartner in the room.

The two winners (in my opinion) are Elijah of Buxton and The People Could Fly.


“Elijah of Buxton” is a chapter book, and the first chapter had us in stitches, just laughing and laughing for days. But the last few chapters were so painful and sorrowful that we (maybe just I) cried and cried and could barely get through it. This book was very real in that I felt the author wasn’t trying to hide the horror of slavery. But it was also written in the voice of an 11 year old, so we saw what he saw and understood what he understood (and for the adult reader, much more) that there was a childlikeness and an innocence to it that kept it pure and, for lack of a better description, PG rated. Elijah was born and raised free in the ex-slave settlement of Buxton in Canada, so although the story is about slavery, all the characters are ex-slaves until those last few chapters


“The People Could Fly” describes a folk tale reportedly told in those days among the slaves. When a slave had had all they could bare, those who were descendants from a certain people in Africa would be called and then sprout wings and fly away to freedom. Ok, this is admitting my uber-tender side, but I could barely get through this story without crying as well. After a mother and baby and then an older man, were beaten to the point of death in the cotton fields and then left to their own, the messenger would come and remind them of their wings and then those poor souls would fly away to freedom. The author said this would often be said about those slaves who had escaped to the north in the dark of night. Kind of like the code word; Instead of running away, those people had sprouted wings and flew away. But goodness, the way it was written I couldn’t help envision all those people who had suffered to the point of death, received that sweet whisper from the other side, and then metaphorically sprouted their wings and finally flew to freedom in the arms of a loving God. So many people… it just makes your heart break.

We also read two books called Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and Show Way which inspired our first project: A Freedom Quilt. It took us a LONG time and a lot of contact paper to finish these – and I think technically one isn’t quite finished yet. (My kindergartner’s quilt has a mountain sporting a certain university symbol that only fellow Utahn’s would appreciate. So not quite an authentic quilt, but these weren’t ever going to be very authentic anyway, really.)


Then we moved into the biography section. We read books about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass (and talked about the fact that at first he was against the Constitution of the U.S. because he believed only what people said about it, but then he decided to learn for himself and read the document. After that he was convinced that those founders really did believe in liberty and freedom for all and he was a strong supporter of it – that is a lesson you don’t hear very often.) We read a few about Robert E. Lee – and although I don’t blame him for following his conscience and I know it was a horribly difficult decision, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been had he considered himself an American first and stuck with those principles of freedom, and a Virginian second.

But what really got me were the bios of Abraham Lincoln.


Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln, right? But there are so many things I didn’t really know. First of all, I never learned about the Civil War in school… which is very odd. I have since read a few books and watched a few documentaries, but I was missing the humanity of the man. Lincoln and His Boys offered that humanity. Talk about an American Hero. This is also a chapter book, although much shorter, and we read it in one afternoon when we all felt a little under the weather. Like Elijah, it is told through the eyes of children and is well researched. Goodness, this was just a terrible, sad time in our history. I have so much respect for President Lincoln than before. He’s not just the face on the penny.

The idea for later is to do character profile books and maybe quote posters for important people during this time, but we haven’t gotten there yet.

And lastly, we are getting into the battles. Since I don’t know much about any of the battles and since I’m not sure knowing much about specific battles at this point is terribly important for elementary age children, we aren’t going to go too deep. But we’re reading a book on Bull Run right now, I checked out one on Gettysburg and we will cover the Gettysburg address, and then the surrender at Appomattox will make it in the schedule as well. Books yet to read include Shades of Grey (not the naughty book by the similar title) and Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. My understanding is they will help us cover reconstruction a bit. I started reading Across Five Aprils with them but I feel like it is above their level so we’ll leave that one until next time.

Right now we are making a lap book. I wasn’t won over by the lap books I saw out there in google search land so I downloaded a bunch of stuff and let the kids choose which little mini-books they wanted to do. It is kind of interesting that we have spent the bulk of our time learning about slavery but it seems the bulk of the lap book material out there is more on the battles and day to day life of a soldier. We haven’t covered a lot of the information, but I figured this is good practice for researching what we don’t know. I’ve got a bunch of those Eyewitness books from the library as well as a few others and when the kids don’t know what they are supposed to write on their mini-books I tell them to just look it up. We’ll see how that goes.

So although this Civil War post is mostly about the material we are reading and covering, the next post will show the rest of our completed projects.

And I am crossing my fingers that we get done before Thanksgiving! We’ve still got a lot of modern history to cover before summer.