Grade: AP/Honors/101
Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

How does the Union occupation of Port Royal highlight the complex issues behind the Civil War?


In this lesson, students learn about the Civil War and the Port Royal Experiment, a military reconstruction effort that demonstrates the possibilities that existed for the full citizenship and participation in society of newly freed African American populations in the Southern states. They will also consider the role the Sacred Song tradition of the Gullah/Geechee people who reside in the area surrounding Port Royal might have had during this moment in history.

The Gullah/Geechee are the unique African American inhabitants of the coastal Lowcountry of  South Carolina and the Sea Islands, a 250-mile stretch of barrier islands on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Due to the relative geographic isolation of the islands, Gullah/Geechee culture remains a distinct microcosm of African American culture and history. Together with the Gullah/Geechee language and a sweetgrass basket weaving tradition, the culture is defined by its sacred song tradition. The community also shares a unique history, as the Sea Islands were the site of significant military and political developments during the Civil War.

While neither the Confederacy nor the Union declared the Civil War to be a war specifically about slavery, it is clearly the matter that drove the United States to war. The South went to war to preserve slavery. But the North did not go to war to end slavery; rather to preserve the Union. In a letter to Abolitionist Horace Greeley dated August 22 1862, Lincoln wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” 

The nation’s economic dependence on the institution of slavery and the sheer number of enslaved African Americans living in the Confederate states made the question of whether slavery should persist central to national politics. The winner of a fraught 1860 election in which slavery was the deciding issue, President Lincoln held fast to the opinion that slavery should not be allowed to extend to the Western territories. So unpopular was Lincoln’s position on slavery in the Southern states that his name did not appear on Southern ballots. In December 1860, weeks after Lincoln was elected and before he was inaugurated, South Carolina seceded from the Union in a pre-emptive act to ensure that slavery would continue and could expand.

Once the Civil War began, Radical Republicans in Congress introduced confiscation acts which eroded the slaveholders’ claims to the enslaved people held as chattel. The First Confiscation Act (1861) gave the government the right to seize any enslaved person used for “insurrectionary purposes.” The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, extended the federal government’s authority over the property of secessionists convicted of treason. The provisions extended to freedpeople included the promise of transport and resettlement in “some tropical nation” that would accept those willing to emigrate. Further, the act prohibited the return of anyone formerly enslaved to bondage and allowed for freedmen to serve in the Union forces. 

In November 1861, six months after the Civil War began, the Union Army took Port Royal, South Carolina. The strategically located port served as a base for patrol ships that prevented the Confederacy from exporting cotton and importing weapons. When the Union fleet arrived at the harbor, the plantation owners and civilians of the port city of Beaufort fled, leaving Confederate soldiers behind to defend the territory against the Union warships. The Confederate Army was quickly overwhelmed as they were outnumbered 5 to 1.

The Union Army occupied the city of Beaufort, freed approximately 10,000 enslaved Black people in the region by military decree and took control of the lucrative cotton trade that drove the local economy. The Union Army and Northerners filled the void left by their counterparts in the Southern ruling class, overseeing and profiting from the harvest and processing of that year’s cotton. Formerly enslaved laborers were hired and sheltered by the Union Army and received $1 for every 400 pounds of cotton harvested, becoming the first community of freedpeople to be paid for the same labor they had once done without compensation. 

In January 1861, Union General Sherman requested teachers from the North to train formerly enslaved people. The resulting effort, known as the Port Royal Experiment, aimed to provide newly freed African Americans of the Beaufort area with schools and hospitals, and acted as a precursor to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. 

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • About the Gullah/Geechee people of the Sea Islands and their unique culture 
    • The cause and progression of the Civil War
    • About the Port Royal Experiment
    • Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address
    • The intents and effects of the First and Second Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation 
    • The work of African American and educator Charlotte Forten
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will develop an understanding of slavery as the key factor of the Civil War by examining primary source documents and listening to the music traditions of the Gullah/Geechee people.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will be assuming the role of ethnographers–social scientists who study people in their own environments. They will be watching a video of a musical performance, and as ethnographers, should practice a type of detailed description that anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” They should observe the subject’s behavior, but also the context behind that behavior (the surrounding environment, the subject’s personal background, etc.). 
  2. Play Clip 1, “Johns Island Wesley United Methodist Church: Getting Late in the Evening (1983),reminding students to take notes of their observations on the setting of the performance, as well as the performers’ age, attire, body language, and anything else they notice. After watching the clip, ask students some of the following questions:
    • What general observations did you have while watching the video?
    • Where does it seem like the video was shot?
    • What were the instruments you saw being played? How were the performers making music?
    • How would you describe the singing?
    • Who were the active participants? How could you tell?
    • How would you describe the demeanor of the musicians? Do they seem serious, playful, reverent?  
    • How would you describe the way the people in the video are dressed?
    • What adjectives would you use to describe the style of the music? 
    • How does the song begin and how does it end? Does the feeling or intensity change at any point? 
    • What might be the function of this music?
    • How old might this song be? 
    • In what region of the United States might this video have been filmed?
  3. Tell students that the song they saw performed, “Getting Late in the Evening,” is sung in a style that dates back to the days when African Americans were enslaved. This community singing the song, known as the Gullah/Geechee people, live in the Sea Islands on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, and were one of the first communities of African Americans freed during the Civil War. 


  1. Pass out to students Handout 1 – Introducing Terms, and work through the definitions together as a class.
  2. Pass out Handout 2- Primary Source Documents on the Civil War. Tell students that they will be working through portions of this document throughout the class to better understand the role the issue of slavery played in the Civil War. 
  3. As a class, read through Document 1: Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address in the handout. Ask students:
    • What is the historical context of this speech? What was the purpose?
    • Who is Lincoln speaking to in this portion of the speech?
    • Who might Lincoln be referring to when he uses the word “we” in the third paragraph? 
    • According to Lincoln, what claim are Southerners making? Why does he argue that such a claim is unjustified?
    • Earlier in the speech, Lincoln asserts that by opposing slavery, he and his fellow Republicans are not radically reinterpreting the laws of the country, but rather enforcing the founding ideals of the United States. How does he defend this idea in this portion of the speech?   
    • What are Lincoln’s thoughts towards slavery, according to this speech?
  4. Ask students to read Document 2: South Carolina Declaration of Secession from Handout 1. Then ask students:
    • What is the purpose of this document? 
    • What might the quote from the Constitution at the beginning of the excerpt be referring to? Who might be a “person held to service or labor”? According to the Constitution, what should be done with such people if they escape to other states? 
    • In the second paragraph, the document claims that without this stipulation in the Constitution, the Southern and Northern states would have never joined to become the United States of America. Why is this stipulation in the interests of the Southern States especially?
    • What does the letter accuse the non-Slaveholding States of doing in the third paragraph?
    • According to the fourth paragraph, what caused a “line” to be “drawn” across the Northern and Southern states? Which president is the document referring to?
    • In the fifth paragraph, who are the authors of this document referring to in the phrase “this party”?
    • In the final paragraphs, how does South Carolina justify its Secession from the United States?
  5. Show Image 1, Map of Secession, 1860-1861 Ask students:
    • What does this map represent? What is the date range of the map?
    • As you read in the previous document, South Carolina was the first State to secede, on December 24, 1860. What does this map hint happened following this initial secession?
    • What do the purple and pink areas on the map represent? What do the orange and yellow areas represent? What about the brown areas? (Note to teacher: to help students answer this question, you may have to zoom in on the key at the bottom of the map.) 
  6. Tell students that the Civil War officially began four months after South Carolina seceded from the Union. On April 12-13, 1861, the Confederate army attacked the Union-held Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina.
  7. Show Image 2, Map of Secession, 1863. Ask students:
    • How many years into the Civil War does this map represent?
    • The orange parts of the map represent areas the Southern Confederate states still controlled, while the yellow portions of the map represent where the Confederate forces ceded control to the Union (Northern) Army. Based on this representation, what might you say about the state of the Civil War in 1863?
    • Do you notice anything geographically similar about the areas in the South that the Union army gained control over? What do they have in common?
    • Why might it be important for the Union Army to gain control of areas by water?  
    • What might the red ship illustrations around the coastline represent?
  8. Have students examine Document 3: “Scott’s Great Snake” in Handout 1. Ask students:
    • What is this illustration showing?
    • What might the snake represent?
    • Examine the scenes the illustrator provides in each state. How do the illustrations in the Southern states differ from the illustrations of the Northern states? Which area seems to be depicted as being more prosperous?
    • Who might “Scott” be? Why might the snake be his?
    • The illustration refers to Union General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to create blockades to isolate the South from trade, crushing it economically. Why might gaining control of the eastern seaboard and Mississippi River be essential to this plan?
    • What might have happened to enslaved people who lived and worked in Union-occupied areas in the south?
  9. Divide the class into 3 groups, and assign each group either Document 4: The First Confiscation Act, Document 5: The Second Confiscation Act, or Document 6: The Emancipation Proclamation. Ask each group read over the documents, and be prepared to present a brief (1-2 sentence) summary of their assigned document before the class.
  10. After each group has presented their document, give the groups Handout 3 – “Life, Liberty, and Happiness” Worksheet. Ask groups to try their best filling out the worksheet based on the document they examined. After sharing their worksheets, ask students:
    • Compare the worksheets. Which group’s document seemed to grant the greatest access to resources? Which document would you guess made the least impact on the lives of freedpeople?
    • What can we say about the distance between the law and the lived experience of people whose rights the law protects?
    • Name one resource that your legislation could not secure.
    • Which of the criteria listed on the worksheet are we able to think about in terms of the social and political discourse in the U.S. today? (Note to teacher: answers will vary but if students do not see the connections immediately, offer water security [Flint, Newark] or ability to live in families [marriage equality] or physical safety [school shootings or other gun violence.])
  11. Ask students to read Document 7: Letter to Horace Greeley in Handout 2, pointing out that Lincoln wrote this letter before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. As a class discuss the following questions:
    • What is the reason that Lincoln enters the war as stated in this letter?
    • How do the contents of this letter change the way you read the Emancipation Proclamation?
    • Who or what is Lincoln’s primary concern as he decides the course of the nation? Does he feel the nation can exist with slavery?
  12. Print out and post images from the Gallery Walk Activity around the classroom. After students finish with the gallery walk, ask them:
    • What might have life been like for a ex-slave living in Port Royal? What might have been the benefits? What might have been the drawbacks? 
    • How might have life been different for ex-slaves here, after being freed? How might have life still been difficult?
    • Looking back at Handout 2, what basic rights might have been given to residents of Port Royal? Which might have still been denied or unattained?

Summary Activity:

  1. Have all students turn to Document 8 in Handout 1, “Account of Sea Island Music by Charlotte Forten.” Ask students to read the document to themselves.  
  2. Play Clip 1, “Johns Island Wesley United Methodist Church: Getting Late in the Evening (1983)” once again. While watching, ask students to underline words or phrases in the journal excerpt that could also describe what they see and hear in the video clip. Ask students:
    • What similarities did you notice between the video clip and Forten’s 1864 account?
    • In what ways might have this music changed in the over 100 year time differences between the video and the written account? How has it stayed the same?
    • Considering the danger and uncertainty of life for recently freedpeople in South Carolina, what role do you imagine that music may have played in daily life for them?
  3. Show Image 3, Writing Prompt, and have students follow the prompt given, either on paper, or as a class discussion.

Extension Activity:

  1. Read the New York Tribune Account of a Meeting of Union Military and Black clergy and compose a short essay in response to the following prompt:
    • Identify two or three significant differences between the clergy’s response to the question of freedom for enslaved African Americans and the opinions of government and military officials found in Handout 1. In your opinion, what accounts for their differing perspectives? Consider the ways in which these differences would inform the creation and maintenance of a representative democracy. Write about the challenges that face the federal government in addressing the interests of all of the speakers in this article.

Explore Further:

  1. Books and Primary Sources:
  2. Films:
    • “The Civil War: Promise of Reconstruction”: The Port Royal Experiment (PBS)
  3. Archives:
  4.  New York Times 1619 Project:
  5. Recordings:
    • Wade in the Water Volume II: African American Congregational Singing: Nineteenth-Century Roots (Smithsonian Folkways)


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Craft and Structure 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 7: Production, Distributions, and Consumption
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make music.
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Recommended Lessons

Drawing to Music

Grades: High, Middle
Subjects: Art/Design
Activities: Playlists and Podcasts, Visual Analysis, Visual Art, Visual Design

How might visual artists use music as a tool for inspiration, and how might sound be reflected through art?

The Banjo, Slavery, and the Abolition Debate

Grades: AP/Honors/101
Subjects: Social Studies/History
Activities: Charts and Graphs, Document-Based Questions, Textual Analysis, Visual Analysis

What is the relationship between the banjo and slavery, and how did music making by enslaved people influence the abolition debate during the 18th and early 19th century?

Singing Democracy During the Second Great Awakening

Grades: AP/Honors/101
Subjects: Social Studies/History
Activities: Document-Based Questions, Role Playing, Textual Analysis, Visual Analysis

What was the Second Great Awakening, how did it change American society, and how does Sacred Harp singing exemplify its ideals?

Almost Emancipated: The Civil War and the Port Royal Experiment

Grades: AP/Honors/101
Subjects: Social Studies/History
Activities: Document-Based Questions, Gallery Walk, Maps

How does the Union occupation of Port Royal highlight the complex issues behind the Civil War?