Railroads Change Florida

Lesson Plans

Governor Milton vs. David Yulee: A Structured Academic Controversy
Lesson Plan for Grades 11-12

CPALMS Reviewed and Approved

This lesson has been reviewed and approved by CPALMS.


During the American Civil War, the Confederate and state governments faced shortages of critical building materials, ammunition and other supplies. Railroad iron was particularly scarce. David Yulee’s Florida Railroad was one of Florida’s few tracks in place when the war began. Governor John Milton and Yulee bitterly disagreed over the necessity of removing tracks from the Florida Railroad.

Governor Milton wanted to remove the iron rail to prevent Union troops from using the tracks. He also wanted to use the iron to complete badly needed roads elsewhere in the state.

In a series of letters from the Milton Letterbook, Milton and Yulee lay out their respective arguments over the future of the Florida Railroad. In reading these documents, students will get a sense of the difficult conditions Florida faced during the Civil War, as well as the debate over the state’s authority to appropriate private property for the war effort.

In this activity, students carry out a structured academic controversy. Structured academic controversies are designed to explore uncertainty in history — the same uncertainty faced by historical actors as they approached difficult choices in their own time. Students will focus on understanding the arguments of both sides.


Students will:

  • Analyze primary source documents to extract the essence of Milton and Yulee’s opposing arguments.
  • Evaluate the evidence for both sides of the argument to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each side.
Florida Standards
  • LAFS.1112.RH.1.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • LAFS.1112.RH.1.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • LAFS.1112.RH.2.6: Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.


Materials Needed
  • Student worksheet (PDF)
  • Excerpts from the letters (PDF)
  • Full documents (The full documents are not needed for this activity, but are provided here for reference.)
Part I: Form Small Discussion Groups
  1. Divide student into groups of four (or six depending on your preference and the size of the class). Within each group, half of the students will explore the position of Governor John Milton on the issue of repurposing iron from the Florida Railroad, and the other half will explore the position of David Yulee.

  2. Distribute copies of the excerpts from the letters to each group.

  3. Distribute copies of the student sheet, which contains instructions for the activity.

Part II: Subgroups Present Their Case
  1. In their subgroups, students will study the documents (either Milton or Yulee) and determine the main points of their author's argument, his reasoning, and evidence he uses.

  2. The subgroups will come back together to present to each other, drawing on as much documentation as possible. As each subgroup makes their case, the students in the other subgroup should take notes and ask questions to clarify points they do not understand.

  3. Once the first subgroup finishes presenting, the task of the opposite subgroup is not to rebut what they have heard, but to repeat back to the presenters what they understood from the presentation. The listeners do not begin presenting their side until the original presenters are convinced they have been heard and understood.

Part III: Small Groups Analyze the Debate and Synthesize the Information
  1. After both sides have presented and all students in the group are fully convinced they understand one another’s positions, they work toward reaching a consensus.

  2. If consensus proves impossible, the group clarifies where their differences lie.

  3. Students should identify their points agreement and any remaining differences.

Part IV: Wrap-Up

After these debates are complete, you may choose for the class to debrief as a whole, or you may direct students to write a brief written summary of the controversy as it unfolded in their respective groups.