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Letters Home: Civil War Descriptions

Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Civil War/Reconstruction

Grade Level:
9 to 12


History courses often teach about wars by focusing on their causes, consequences, key battles or turning points. An alternative approach is to study how diverse individuals experienced and responded to such moments. Historical letters offer glimpses into the past that reveal the meanings that contemporaries made of events they experienced. They illustrate the values, beliefs, and understandings that mattered to historical actors and the ways in which political events intersected with personal agendas.

This activity encourages students to personalize the past by reading letters written by a wide range of Civil War contemporaries, including men and women, northerners and southerners, and blacks and whites.

In a follow up activity, pairs of students select their own identities (names, race/ethnicity, gender, age, side in the war, location, etc.) and write three letters to one another regarding memorable events occurring in 1863. These exercises call on students to research events from the past and imagine how individuals from a range of backgrounds might interpret them.

Historical Context

The American Civil War (1861-1865) marked a profound transformation in U.S. government and society. It was the first modern war, in which armies consisting of militarily un-experienced recruits from a cross-section of both North and South faced one another across battlefields. There they employed weapons created by modern technology to destroy one another in unprecedented numbers. This was a war that rapidly escalated from an effort to preserve the Union to a conflict over the nature of that Union, a conflict that pitted slavery against freedom. And its consequences ran the gamut from centralizing federal power to legally freeing black Americans and stimulating significant economic development.

The war was marked by several key events. For example, during 1863 alone, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces won in the battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, and some 50,000 New Yorkers, many of them members of the Irish working-class, looted stores and lynched and beat blacks in Draft Riots. Americans experienced such events and the more general transitions the war stimulated differently depending on their geographic location, side in the war, class status, race, gender, and country of origin. Free African Americans in the north experienced the Emancipation Proclamation differently than slaves in loyal border states or those in Confederate states already under Union control, neither of whom were liberated by the Proclamation. While the Emancipation Proclamation might have inspired a northern black man to enlist in the war effort, an enslaved man might have reacted by running away.

Similarly, women experienced the war differently than men did. Whether they tended to farms and businesses in the absence of the men who had run such endeavors in times of peace or overtly engaged in the military effort as nurses, spies, or soldiers, their relationship to the war differed from their male counterparts. Class mattered too. Despite the 1863 Enrollment Act of Conscription, which made all single men between the ages of 20 and 45 and married men between 20 and 35 subject to a draft, wealthy northerners could hire substitutes to take their place. Ethnicity further served to distinguish the war experiences of contemporaries. Irish and German working-class immigrants, many of whom competed with African Americans for jobs, resented the wars turn to end slavery and resisted enlistment, most notably through the New York Draft Riots. This activity encourages students to explore how diverse Americans responded to specific events during the course of the Civil War by analyzing letters written at the time and then composing their own.

war, race, ethnicity, class, and gender

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to do the following:

1. Analyze Civil War correspondence to understand contemporary responses to current events.

2. Compare and contrast how race, class, gender, and ethnicity shaped responses to particular events.

3. Use contemporary discourse to write letters between imagined correspondents during the war.


STANDARD 6.1 (Social Studies) All students will examine source data within the historical, social, political, geographic, or economic context in which it was created, testing credibility and evaluating bias.

STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will analyze key issues, events, and personalities of the Civil War period, including New Jersey's role in the Abolitionist Movement and the national elections, the development of the Jersey Shore, and the roles of women and children in New Jersey factories.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Written Document Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives (Appendix A).

Sullivan Ballou to Sarah Ballou, July 14, 1861, Camp Clark, Washington (Letter), from Ken Burns, The Civil War (Appendix B).

Letters of David Demus and Mary Jane Demus, November 8, 1863 and February 23, 1864, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, from the Virginia Center for Digital History, Valley of the Shadow (Appendix C).

Letters of E. and Fannie Hunt, December 1, 1861, Franklin County, Pennsylvania from Valley of the Shadow (Appendix D).

Letters of Samuel M. Potter and Cynthia Potter, December 10, 1862 and July 20, 1863, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, Valley of the Shadow (Appendix E).

Letters of Andrew Brooks and Mary Susan Brooks, January 23, 1861 and May 28, 1861, Augusta County, Virginia (Appendix F).

Letters of John H. Cochran and his mother, December 11, and December 21, 1860, Augusta County, Virginia (Appendix G).

Letter of Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln, November 3, 1862 and Eliza S. Quincy to Mary Todd Lincoln, January 2, 1863, the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (Appendix H).

Access to the Internet, textbooks, or school library for information about the ways in which diverse Americans experienced the Civil War.

Details of Activity

Part 1: Writing Home (10 min.):

Ask students what medium they use to communicate with one another and their parents in day-to-day life. Ask them if they know what vehicles of communication existed during the American Civil War (1861-1865) (e.g. the telegraph and hand-written letters). Ask students when they last wrote or received a hand written letter and have them consider some of the differences between hand-written communication and e-mail, cell phones, Facebook and Tweeting.

Distribute the Sullivan Ballou letter (Appendix B). Briefly describe Ballous background and then analyze the letter as a class. Ask the students to consider the following questions:

1. When was the letter written and how does it fit into the historical narrative of the Civil War?

2. Why do you think Ballou wrote this letter?

3. How do you think his wife and children responded to it?

4. What is the significance of the letter? What does it tell us about the Civil War and individuals' experiences of the war?

Part 2: Personalizing Civil War Events (30 min.):

Divide students into six groups and have each group read one of the pairs of letters in the appendices. The letters illustrate an array of perspectives, including southern and northern, black (Demus) and white. Distribute the Written Document Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives and have students use it to analyze their assigned documents. They should pay particular attention to when the letter was written and how it reflects events of the time as well as personal concerns. Based on the letter, what can students infer about the side of the war the author supports and his/her attitude toward the conflict? Have students consider how generalizable their findings are.

Part 3: Reporting Out (15 minutes)

Have one member from each group pretend to be the letter writer and share the contents of the letter by describing him/herself, his/her correspondent, and the nature of their correspondence. Ask students what they learned from this exercise about the Civil War and its contemporaries that they had not previously known.

Practice and Reinforcement

Follow-up: Writing Civil War Letters (1-2 class periods, including additional homework time for research).

Divide students into pairs and assign half the class to be Union and the other half to be Confederates. Beyond that, students should be free to choose their own identities. They will need to select identities (names, race/ethnicity, gender, age, relationship, location, etc.) and write three letters to one another in character. Each letter should comment both on their personal lives (romances, finances, health, general updates about family and friends) and also on at least one key political event. Teachers might suggest limiting all three letters to a single pivotal year, such as 1863. Using resources noted below and independent investigation, students should research the key events of the time and the characters they are assuming. To appear authentic, ask students to handwrite letters, enclose them in envelopes, and include some sort of keepsake, such as a lock of hair, photography, or poem.


This lesson plan is adapted from Civil War Letters, part of PBS's Civil War website developed as a supplement to Ken Burns's documentary on the Civil War (http://www.pbs.org/civilwar/classroom/lesson_letters.html).

For basic information regarding significant events during the Civil War, see Time Line of the Civil War, Library of Congress (LOC), http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/tl1861.html.

For a nice overall synthesis of the Civil War, including chapters of ethnicity, nativism and African-American participation, see Eugene H. Berwanger (ed.), The Civil War Era: Historical Viewpoints (Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994).

For information about how women experienced the war, see the following websites:

Civil War Women, Online Archival Collections, Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://library.duke.edu/specialcollections/collections/digitized/civil-war-women/.

Civil War Women: Primary Sources on the Internet, Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://library.duke.edu/specialcollections/bingham/guides/cwdocs.html.

For other correspondence, pictures, diaries, and news accounts written by men and women in Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania from the time of John Brown's Raid through Reconstruction, see Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH), Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/.

To read more of Mary Todd Lincoln's correspondence search under keyword "Mary Todd Lincoln" at the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC), http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/malhome.html.

Web Links:
PBS's "Civil War Letters" Lesson Plan

LOC Time Line of the Civil War

Duke University's Civil War Women Online Archive

Duke University's Civil War Women Primary Sources

VCDH's "Valley of the Shadow"

LOC Abraham Lincoln Papers

Supplementary Materials

For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here