© Nebraska Council on Economic Education, Lincoln, NE


All society must develop an economic system to answer the basic economic questions. While we usually identify economic systems with a country (the United States has a market oriented system; the former Soviet Union had a command system), it is also possible to identify an economic system at a micro level.

In this lesson students examine how a group of civil war prisoners developed an economic system within their camp, a system designed to allocate scarce resources.


  • Scarcity
  • Economic Wants
  • Command Economic Systems
  • Market Economic Systems
  • Markets and Prices


National Standard Number: 1
Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people can not have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

National Standard Number: 2
Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something: few choices are "all or nothing" decisions.

National Standard Number: 3
Different methods can be used to allocate goods and services. People acting individually or collectively through government, must choose which methods to use to allocate different kinds of goods and services.


Students will be able to:

  1. Identify the condition of scarcity at Andersonville Prison
  2. Develop solutions to the problems of scarcity at Andersonville Prison
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of economic systems in finding solutions to problems of scarcity


The lesson gives students an opportunity to recognize the conditions faced by the prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War. Students will join others to develop a method for providing the economic wants of the Andersonville prisoners through either a market or command economy. The activity helps the students to recognize how different economic systems can solve the same problems differently.


Two class periods

MATERIALS (Click for copies)

Activity 1 "Andersonville Prison"

Activity 2 "Andersonville Economic Wants--Command Solutions"

Activity 3 "Andersonville Economic Wants--Market Solutions"

Activity 4 "Andersonville - What Really Happened"

Visual 1 "Economic Concepts"


1. Explain to the class that this lesson focuses on how prisoners at Andersonville, a Civil War prison for Union troops, developed an economic system to deal with the problems of scarcity. Distribute Activity 1 for students to read; check for comprehension after reading is complete. (Activity 1 could also be assigned as homework prior to lesson.)

2. Review with students the concepts pertaining to economic systems, command economy, market economy, and scarcity using Visual 1.

3. Tell students that they will be developing an economic system for this Civil War prison camp. To decide on a command or market economic system, they will need to refer to Activity 1. Their economic system should best provide the prisoners with food, clothing and shelter, and other basic human wants.

4. Distribute one of the six cards in Activities 2 and 3 to each student. Each card will indicate a want that the prisoners had at the prison camp. In the space provided, each student should propose a method for providing this want using the economic system indicated. Have students complete their cards individually.

5. Next have students with similar cards work together, i.e. all students with food/command system, etc., compare their solutions. There will be six groups to cover the three economic wants as provided by the two systems.

6. Once a solution has been developed for individual wants by the six groups, have each group report their solutions to the rest of the class. In their presentations be certain the representatives describe:

  • How are basic economic questions answered?
  • How will the prison administration utilize the human resources available?
  • What can be done to support prisoners by creating new wealth and increasing production?


Distribute Activity 4, ask students to read it, underlining those aspects of the Andersonville economy that reflect a command approach and circling those aspects that reflect a market approach. Have students share their ideas to extend their understanding of these two types of economic systems.

Pose this question: "Is it appropriate to label the Andersonville system as a market economy?" Have students discuss this in small groups. Help students understand that this economic system, like many contemporary economic systems, was a mixture of market and command economic systems.

K-5 Lessons
6-12 Lessons