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Historical Resources to Contextualize the Storming of the U.S. Capitol

The dome of the US Capitol building.

The events that occurred at our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021 are not only shocking in today’s world, but also generated comparisons to previous episodes from history.

As images, video clips, and news reports filled social media feeds, they invited comparisons to previous historical events and inquiries about connections to the past. Many of these questions were related to the Civil War era. 

ACWM has compiled a list of resources that speak to many of these questions, and help provide historical context to these events. Many are new pieces written by Civil War historians, sharing the connections that they see in current events and conversations as they unfold.

We’re presenting these resources in categories: historical context; editorial historical context and; educator/parent resources. We will continue to update this list with resources we find.


Historical Context
Pieces providing historical context to themes or events

The Capitol Takeover That Wasn’t – Historian Ted Widmer recalls the counting of electoral votes in 1861, and the evidence of threats to disrupt that process that never came to fruition. Article from The New York Times

“If Anyone Says Election to Me, I Want to Fight:” The Messy Election of 1876 — Historian Jon Grinspan’s summary of the drawn-out process resolving the close and contested presidential election of 1876 — and how politicians attempted to influence the outcome — which resulted in the end of military Reconstruction.
Blog post on American Historical Association Perspectives on History blog

Impeachment – This NPR Throughline podcast talks with writer Brenda Wineapple about how the divided state of the nation after the Civil War led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Podcast from NPR. For more lessons from Johnson’s impeachment, see historian Liz Varon’s piece in the Washington Post.Episode of Throughline history podcast.

The Southern Senators Expelled After Rejecting Abraham Lincoln’s Election — While some critics called for the expulsion of the senators challenging 2020 election results in advance of the January 5 certification of Electoral College votes, this article summarizes the last time that senators have been expelled.
Article from the Washington Post 

Myths & Misuderstandings: The Confederate Flag — Many people took notice when several Confederate flags appeared in the U.S. Capitol and wondered about its historical connections to this moment. In this blog post in our ACWM “Myths and Misunderstandings” series about the origins and evolution of meanings for the Confederate Battle Flag, written by museum historian John Coski.

Reconstruction Offers No Easy Answers for How to Handle the Trump Insurgency – Rebecca Onion, one of the hosts of Slate’s Reconstruction podcast, has conversation with historian Cynthia Nicoletti about how the United States handled the sedition trial against Jefferson Davis considers the political perils of balancing justice and unity.Interview in Slate.

Violence in the Capitol: A Historic Wake-Up Call – Historian Daniel Gullotta dwells on the 1856 caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate and what lessons we can learn from the outbreak of violence in the Capitol. Article from The Bulwark

ACWM Resource Collections: Historical resonances in moments like this are common, and the events of January 6 are no different. It reverberated with many of the same questions that arose in both the debates over Confederate monuments in 2017 and the exploration of the deep legacy of race in America prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Therefore, our guides to understanding those moments may be useful. The Museum created both On Monument Avenue and this resource list to explore related themes about Civil War era legacies, racial politics, memory, resistance, and iconography on our public landscapes. Additionally, our online exhibit Contested Franchise covers the contested evolution of voting rights in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Editorial Historical Context
Pieces by historians providing historical context, as well as expressing a reflection or point of view based on their analysis of history

Facing Legacies: A Photo from inside the U.S. Capitol — An ACWM blog post by our Curator of Exhibitions, Chris Graham, where he unpacks a moment captured inside the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Also see The Whole Story in a Single Photo by historian and poet Clint Smith for a similar reflection in The Atlantic.

1871 Provides a Roadmap for Addressing the Pro-Trump Attempted Insurrection — Civil War historian Megan Kate Nelson describes effective measures taken by the Grant administration to suppress insurrections led by the white supremacists against Black Americans and their allies in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and suggests what we can learn from this history in the contemporary moment noting effective measures taken by the Grant administration. Nelson also created a roundup of historians from other time periods who have commented on this event.
Article from the Washington Post

Breaking the Myth – In this episode of the public radio show On The Media, historians consider how the Lost Cause can inform how we view the events at the U.S. Capitol, and how they might be remembered (especially segments 2 & 3). An additional segment talks about The Band’s song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and how Civil War memory has been used over time. Episode of On The Media

The Capitol Riot Reveals the Dangers From the Enemy WithinHistorian Eric Foner connects the historic election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and the Capitol insurgency to themes in the Civil War era. Article from The Nation 

Clement Vallandigham, Donald Trump, and the Politics of Treason – Civil War historian Matthew Gallman looks at what lessons we can draw about Republican party factionalism today from examining the different factions of the wartime Democratic Party in the United States. Post on H-CivWar

There’s an alternative to impeachment or the 25th Amendment – Historian Eric Foner is featured in an article discussing the Reconstruction roots of possible constitutional solutions that may be applicable in moments of insurrection involving elected officials. Foner expands on his observations about the historical resonances in the current moment in Learning from the Failure of Reconstruction, an interview published in The New Yorker.
Article from The Washington Post.

Yes, Wednesday’s attempted insurrection is who we are – Civil War historians Kate Masur and Gregory P. Downs identify some of the eternal American movements and legacies that intersected during the Civil War and Reconstruction and in the 2021 events at the Capitol. Article from The Washington Post

Educator & Parent Resources
We know educators are helping their students process and understand these events. Parents may also be looking for resources to help explain the events to their children.
Here are some of our favorite resources that we’ve seen compiled so far, including historical content, primary sources, and classroom techniques. You can also find resources from and recommended by our Education staff about the Civil War era on our website here.

Thread from the American Historical Association, full of articles, primary sources, and digital resources and collections. 

Trouble at the U.S. Capitol — From Scholastic News
Summary of the day’s events and context within the election, written at a level for upper elementary students and with discussion/reflection questions.

Facing History and Ourselves, “Responding to the Insurrection at the US Capitol” — A compilation of advice, resources, and discussion guides for fostering discussion, looking at news in real-time, and strategies for reflection. 
Educator Compiled List of Resources — On the evening of Jan. 6, social studies educators on Twitter gathered using the popular #sschat hashtag to start to discuss how to approach the events in their classroom the next day, with resources continuing to be added to the Google spreadsheet.

Storming of the Capitol: How to talk to students Compiled resources by educators, including media literacy lesson plans, facilitation strategies, and resources for teaching in the wake of traumatic events.