That approach may be especially important when it comes to the Civil War, educators and historians say, since public debates about its meaning are alive and well, and young people may be exposed to misinformation that original sources can dispel in compelling ways.
The program Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student combines movie-making with national history, engaging students in the history of the Civil War and the country at that time through reenactments and storytelling at sites throughout the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. This video, about abolitionist John Brown, was created by students from Harpers Ferry Middle School.
April 12-13, 1861The war between the Union and Confederate forces began with the Southern attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor and the quick surrender of the bastion. No deaths were reported, but the attack proved the South's willingness to fight federal forces after succession.
July 21, 1861The first major battle of the war broke out at Bull Run, near Manassas, Va. The fighting left nearly 5,000 soldiers dead, captured, or wounded, and sent the Union forces into retreat. The first battle of Bull Run made clear to the North that this would not be a quick war.
Sept. 17, 1862This was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, with 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing. The Union forces stopped the Confederate invasion into the North near Sharpsburg, Md., and Abraham Lincoln was emboldened to issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few months later.
April 30-May 6, 1863Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson led the South to one of its greatest victories of the war as their smaller Confederate force of about 60,000 defeated the Union's 100,000 near Chancellorsville, Va. The battle also claimed a Southern hero, though: Gen. Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men and died eight days later.
July 1-3, 1863The Battle of Gettysburg, fought across a small stretch of hilly farmland in southern Pennsylvania, followed on the heels of the Southern victory at Chancellorsville, and it marked a turning point in the war. The 51,000 deaths over three days there set the stage for President Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" at the battlefield cemetery that fall.
May 18-July 4, 1863The Union successfully split the South and won control of the Mississippi River with the surrender of the city of Vicksburg, Miss., and the capture of Port Hudson, La. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had tried for months to take the city before the two-week summer siege.
May 1–Nov. 21, 1864Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led his Union forces on a wide path of destruction, starting with the Atlanta campaign in May 1864—the city surrendered on Sept. 2—and continuing in November with the army burning crops, supplies, and infrastructure on a march to the sea at Savannah, Ga. It was a strategy of total war, or scorched earth, meant to leave no supplies for the Southern military.
April 9, 1865With his forces surrounded, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Va., setting the stage for the reunification of the nation. Over four years, the Civil War claimed an estimated 630,000 lives.
In the 150 years since the Civil War began, a broad range of primary source documents have become available to scholars – and increasingly to the public. Click on each of the battles for a sample of the original letters home, military reports, and diaries from people on both sides of the conflict that are now available to students to encourage critical thinking for deeper learning.
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Primary Sources in Civil War Studies
Have you incorporated primary sources into your Civil War studies? How so? Which primary sources do you consider most valuable when developing a curriculum based around the Civil War?
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