Press Releases | General Education

Survey: Half of Americans Don’t Know When the Civil War Took Place

Seven Score and 10 Years After Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination, One in Five Can’t Name John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s Assassin in a Multiple Choice Survey
April 14, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC—On the 150th anniversary of the tragic night when John Wilkes Booth  slipped into Ford’s Theater and shot President Abraham Lincoln, a survey released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals another tragedy: Lincoln—and much of his legacy—is being lost to the ages.

According to the survey, only half the American public could correctly identify when the Civil War took place and just 18% knew the Emancipation Proclamation meant slaves were free in areas still in rebellion. When asked to match Lincoln with the famous phrase from the Gettysburg Address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” more respondents chose a passage from the Declaration of Independence than the lines from Lincoln’s pen.

Nearly one in five Americans failed to identify John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s assassin and one in three could not identify Lincoln as a leader of the Union Army. Hundreds of respondents chose “Confederate Army,” the Revolutionary War’s “Continental Army,” World War II’s “Allied Forces,” or simply wouldn’t answer. 

College graduates, too, struggled with the survey. One third did not know when the Civil War took place and only 28% knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only 40% correctly identified the quote from the Gettysburg Address—one of the most famous lines in American history—from Lincoln.

“These results are tragic witness to the alarming level of historical illiteracy in this country,” said ACTA President Anne Neal. “Sadly, we should not be surprised:  Our What Will They Learn?TM study has found that just 18% of the 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities we survey require graduates to have even a single survey course in American history or government.”

The study of 1,000 respondents was completed by GfK Custom Research with a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. ACTA has commissioned previous historical literacy studies on the Roosevelt family, D-Day, and general historical knowledge.

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history…. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1862

Daniel Burnett
Director of Communications – 202.467.6787


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