Problem Based Learning: the Battle of Fort Sumter

We’ve spent the last week uncovering the causes of disunion as we build towards Civil War. After the Election of 1860, 7 southern states seceded and created the Confederacy, taking with them military bases and federal resources within their boundaries. Fort Sumter was a flash point where the new Confederacy needed to prove their resolve and a new Union leader needed to make good on an inaugural promise. This was a perfect opportunity to utilize problem-based learning (PBL).

I’m working on a PBL post to explain this more thoroughly, but I like to use PBL in a few PBL1 different ways. I think there’s a litany of PBL blog posts, articles, and research, but I utilize it in a way that fits my students, curriculum, and the flow of a unit. One way I use PBL is at the culmination of a unit when students can apply historical thinking to a modern problem. For example, using what we learned from our immigration unit, how can President Trump resolve the crisis surrounding the migrant caravan? Another way I use PBL is when we study a flash point like Fort Sumter, or perhaps the Election of 1860 itself. I present a conflict or dilemma facing a particular individual or group, provide students with key facts, and have them identify a solution after evaluating the evidence with a group. This is a radically simple version of a case-study method, which is one I’d like to work up to with improved problem-solving skills.

Step 1 was to lay the ground work. I explained the key facts, places, and leaders in the situation. These were the key slides we used, as well as Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

intro slide 2intro slide 1

Step 2 was to divide the students into four major groups: Lincoln, Davis, Beauregard and Anderson.

Step 3 set the problem to solve: what should each of these men do? Outline the options your leader could take and explain the potential outcomes which could come as a result. “Potential outcomes” sometimes meant “what are the pros and cons” of each option.

Step 4 was group discussion. I moved around to discuss with each group and make sure they genuinely thought through each option. For Anderson, when a group would say “just go home there’s too many Confederates!”, we’d discuss what would happen for Anderson to retreat and give up Sumter. It provided an excellent real-world historical example to practice our historical thinking skills.


Once students felt good about their options, we brought the whole class back together for a review and then watched a film by the Civil War Trust to show the conclusion of this conflict, and discussed Lincoln’s decision to draw the Confederacy into attacking first. One student came very close to coming up with Lincoln’s eventual plan!

We wrapped up with a 50-word summary to explain how Lincoln’s problem solving at Fort Sumter would be received by his constituents in the North. Students loved this method to study Fort Sumter and it was an excellent way to blend primary sources, collaboration, problem solving and military strategy. Admittedly, it’s incomplete and I’d love to develop it more. We didn’t use enough of the communications between Beauregard and Anderson. I could use more detail in describing the problem. We could simulate Lincoln’s cabinet and the different agendas and personalities within. But it served our learning objective well today and will continue to improve as I use it in future lessons.