Half of Americans don’t know when the Civil War took place, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

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.

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni: 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, shows a study of 1,000 respondents completed by GfK Custom Research.

Here’s what the survey showed:

  • Only half of the American public could correctly identify when the Civil War took place.
  • 18 percent 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 identified it as 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 didn’t answer.
  • One third of college graduates polled did not know when the Civil War took place, and only 28 percent knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only 40 percent 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?™’ study has found that just 18 percent 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.”

“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

For more information about  this report, contact:

Daniel Burnett
Director of Communications
DBurnett@goacta.org / 202.467.6787

Note: This study had 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. Learn more at goacta.org.