Primary Sources Breathe Life Into Civil War

Teachers are using firsthand materials and technology to bring deeper understanding of the era
April 15, 2011 11 min read
Antonio Aquino, right, and Angel Aviles lead a line of 6th graders from Stonewall Jackson Middle School, in Manassas, Va., as they reenact 1861 military life at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
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Six boys clad in Union garb stand shoulder to shoulder, then march across a field here at Manassas National Battlefield Park. One holds a Union flag, another an Irish one. Suddenly, a boy falls forward, presumably shot by enemy fire, but deftly passes the Irish flag to a companion. A moment later, another boy tumbles but hands off the Union flag first.

“You guys cannot laugh!” a student capturing the scene on a video camera calls out.

Although war is no laughing matter, these are 6th graders, after all, and it’s probably their 20th take as they try to perfect a scene on this famous Civil War battlefield. The students, from Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, are making a series of short videos inspired by real events and personal stories of the war. One featuring Irish immigrant soldiers draws on actual letters they wrote.

It was 150 years ago last week that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, igniting a conflict that tore the nation apart and left some 620,000 soldiers dead.

Today, a growing number of teachers are moving beyond the textbook in teaching about the war, and U.S. history more broadly. Teachers are digging directly into primary sources and harnessing technology, all in an attempt to help students better understand the past and bring it to life.

Doing so may be especially important with the Civil War, educators and historians say, since public debates about its meaning are alive and well, and young people may be exposed to a lot of misinformation that original sources can dispel in compelling ways.

Faces of the Battlefield

Students from Stonewall Jackson Middle School, in Manassas, Va., reenacted and filmed civilian and military life in 1861 at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

—T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week


Above: Sixth grader Sean Sorenson taking on the role of an infantryman in the Union army

Below: An unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and forage cap

—Liljenquist Family Collection/
Library of Congress


The project with Stonewall Middle School—named for the Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson—involves students in all aspects of filmmaking: researching the war, writing scripts, making props and costumes, acting, directing, and editing.

Meanwhile, Carole L. Parsons, a 5th grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Aiken, S.C., recently devised what she calls “Civil War CSI,” a classroom activity inspired by the television crime show that uses primary sources to engage students in historical inquiry aimed at solving a mystery.

“When I first started teaching, it was the textbook. That’s all we had,” said Ms. Parsons, who suggests that primary sources help give students a different perspective.

“It’s not just this guy living in our time telling us about the war. This is a photograph, a diary entry, a map that one of General Sherman’s soldiers drew,” she said. “When you start investigating primary sources, you can go further and deeper.”

One factor helping fuel this kind of learning is the roughly $1 billion supplied over the past decade through the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History program, which focuses on professional development to improve instruction in the subject. Participants say a strong component of many workshops and other activities supported by the program is helping teachers use primary sources effectively.

Another development has been the rapid increase in primary sources about the Civil War accessible online—from the vast collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives to those of state historical societies—and the creation of websites such as That site, launched in 2008 with support from the Education Department, helps teachers access resources and materials to improve U.S. history education.

Technology Tools

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is a prime teachable moment being seized on not just by educators, but also by local, state, and national groups and institutions. Countless activities are being planned to commemorate the war and educate the public, and more than half the states have formed commissions on the subject.

Primary Sources

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. Below is 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.

Fort Sumter

April 12-13, 1861

The 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.

Bull Run

July 21, 1861

The first major land 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 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, 1862

This 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, 1863

Gens. 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: Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men and died eight days later.


July 1-3, 1863

The 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, 1863

The 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.

Sherman’s March Through Georgia

May 1–Nov. 21, 1864

Maj. 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.

Appomattox Court House

April 9, 1865

With 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 620,000 lives.


As part of Virginia’s effort, its commission helped develop a traveling Civil War exhibit, as well as a three-hour educational DVD—tackling such matters as slavery, the life of soldiers, and major battles—provided free to the state’s public schools. It also launched a project to locate, identify, and digitize original source materials from the era.

The Civil War is one of the pivotal events, of course, in the nation’s history, even if teachers often struggle to find time to do it justice in history classes that may cover centuries of information.

The war saved the Union from a permanent split, led to the end of slavery on U.S. soil, and took far more lives than any other conflict involving American soldiers. And it offers a window into a raft of issues that still resonate, including slavery and racism, the role of the federal government, states’ rights, economics, and politics.

It’s also a compelling tale.

“The power of the Civil War with young people is that it’s an epic story,” said James A. Percoco, a history teacher at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va. “That war, I believe, is the central event in American history.”

“If you can’t teach the Civil War in a way that attracts and interests students, you probably shouldn’t be a teacher,” said Kevin M. Levin, who chairs the history department at the private St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., and writes a blog called Civil War Memory. “And the issues themselves couldn’t be more important.”

Beyond the growing availability of original sources online, some new technologies are being used to learn about the conflict, such as the Gettysburg Battle App unveiled last fall by the Civil War Trust, a Washington-based battlefield-preservation group. The nonprofit is developing a series of such applications in partnership with the company Intermap Technologies that facilitate a mobile battlefield tour, providing a range of information for park visitors, including audio and visual content as well as battlefield maps.

A new Web-based role-playing simulation called ValleySim that some school districts have piloted draws on the Valley of the Shadow project, a vast digital archive compiled by the University of Virginia that details life in two communities, one Northern and one Southern, in the Civil War era.

“Students react to the Civil War’s pivotal issues and debates from the perspective of one of 25 former residents,” said Christian Spiegelvogel, an associate professor of communications at Hope College, in Holland, Mich., who developed ValleySim. “The Valley of the Shadow would be like Web 1.0, but what I created was sort of a Web 2.0 layer on top of that.”

‘The Real Thing’

Experts say using primary sources, with the help of technology or not, can be a powerful way to bring the war to life, and to build a stronger, more nuanced understanding of the conflict.

See Also

Forum Discussion: 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?
Join the discussion.

“There is something about the authenticity of the real thing—a letter, an ordinance, a battlefield, or photograph—that moves people and often makes them want to come back for more,” said Garry E. Adelman, the director of history and education at the Civil War Trust. “They all bring home the complexity of the Civil War. People understand that these people weren’t in black and white.”

Reading speeches, or documents like South Carolina’s 1860 secession declaration, also can dispel misconceptions, such as the notion rejected by most historians that slavery was not a crucial reason for the war.

“Students see for themselves, that ... the causes of the war are fundamentally bound up with slavery, and there’s no real way around that,” said Paul C. Anderson, an associate professor of history at Clemson University, in Clemson, S.C. “If you read [the South Carolina declaration], first, you’re going to be struck by how directly they discuss slavery.”

Troubling the Water

Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student combines movie-making with national history, engaging students in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. This video, about abolitionist John Brown, was created by students at Harpers Ferry Middle School.

He was in Massachusetts recently for a teacher institute focused on two such monuments, including Boston’s Shaw Memorial. That monument commemorates the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, one of the first African-American regiments to fight in the war.

Other forms of research get students outside. Frank J. Kelley, who teaches at Chester-Andover Elementary School in Chester, Vt., plans this spring to take students to nearby cemeteries. Armed with digital cameras and laptops, they’ll catalog all the information they can find about Civil War soldiers buried there, such as what the headstones say and their precise location, he said. They will also glean material through further research.

The effort aims to provide digital information that will be made part of the public record and placed on a website called, Mr. Kelley said. It also will help spark a deeper dialogue with students, he believes.

“From that will come the plethora of questions: Who were these people? Where did they go?” he said. “They learn about a battle, they learn about a soldier, they learn about what was going on in Vermont.”

Monuments and Maps

Mr. Percoco from West Springfield High advocates using monuments to teach history and has led teacher workshops on the topic.

“There are hundreds of Civil War monuments across the country,” he said.

“Monuments reflect our sense of public memory,” said Mr. Percoco, who wrote the 2008 book Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments. “The German word for monument is denkmal, or thought object, and they are meant to not only inspire but generate conversation and dialogue. ”

Thomas Strickland, center, with Anthony Jacques standing guard, announces the fall of Richmond, Va., as 6th graders from Stonewall Jackson Middle School, in Manassas, Va., reenact and film civilian life during the Civil War at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University, in Virginia, has worked with teachers to help them better understand the city of Norfolk’s role in the Civil War era, especially the experience of African-Americans there.

She designed a Civil War map in 2010 for the Norfolk visitors bureau, and another in 2009 on the Underground Railroad that she’s provided to many teachers.

Other Civil War maps of the region, Ms. Newby-Alexander explained, failed to tell the story of Norfolk’s free black population, especially given that the city was in Union hands for most of the war.

“I was looking around: Where are the maps that tell me where the freedmen lived?” she said. “Why are all these maps talking about the Confederacy?”

She said Norfolk blacks organized a parade the same day, Jan. 1, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jessica Smith, left, carries a pie through the Stone House, one of the few pre-Civil War buildings still standing at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, as Wei Garcia, top right, films the scene. The 6th graders from Stonewall Jackson Middle School are producing videos exploring civilian and military life during the Civil War.

“Those kinds of things we included on the map,” Ms. Newby-Alexander said. It also identifies the site of the first Norfolk school for African-Americans, opened in April 1863.

“As teachers are looking at this, they can teach their children about the past in a more accurate and balanced way,” she said. “It means something when you tell someone: ‘This particular event happened right here in Norfolk, and it’s right around the corner from where you live.’ ”

Experts caution that it’s not always easy for teachers to navigate what can be a maze of primary sources and to make the most of them in the classroom.

“The problem for teachers is there’s too much stuff, so how do you make sense of it?” said Andrew T. Mink, the director of outreach and education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who has administered several Teaching American History grant initiatives.

“They’re trying to figure out what it all means and how best to utilize it in the classroom,” said Mr. Levin, the Charlottesville teacher, who also helps lead teacher workshops.

And then, there’s the issue of gauging the reliability of information on the Internet.

“With the sesquicentennial, there’s an awful lot of stuff online that is valid and accurate,” Mr. Mink said, “and a lot of stuff with a very particular agenda.”

History in the Backyard

Faces of the Battlefield

Students from Stonewall Jackson Middle School, in Manassas, Va., reenacted and filmed civilian and military life in 1861 at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

—T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week


Above: Sixth grader Tymahz Toumadje playing a Union commander

Below: An unidentified soldier in a Confederate shell jacket and Hardee hat

—Liljenquist Family Collection/
Library of Congress


The film project at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas is getting plenty of outside help, including from the staff at the battlefield, a county historian, and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, the nonprofit organization spearheading the effort.

In fact, the Manassas project is part of a larger undertaking by the Hallowed Ground partnership, financed with a mix of federal, state, local, and private funds. Film projects have already been completed with schools at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, in West Virginia, and Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, the venture will involve middle schools at 12 sites, including Civil War parks at Gettysburg, Pa.; Antietam, in Maryland; and Balls Bluff, in Virginia.

“One of the goals was to really help the students who have these sites in their backyards to understand the significant history that happened right there,” said Angela D. Stokes, the director of educational programs for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, which seeks to raise awareness of the history in a 180-mile corridor that runs from Gettysburg to Monticello.

In addition, the students’ films will serve as educational materials for the parks.

“It’s exciting for students to contribute to knowledge,” Ms. Stokes said, noting that the series of two-minute films will be used by the Manassas battlefield as part of its sesquicentennial plans and accessible on the park website.

To help students at Stonewall Middle School prepare for the film on immigrants, they read letters by soldiers recounting their experiences, and their frustrations.

“I didn’t know that Irish immigrants were a part of the army, part of the Civil War,” said Tymahz Toumadje, one of the 6th graders filming at the Manassas battlefield. “Not just Irish—there were Germans, Italians. ... The Irish were given bad muskets, the leftover food, and they didn’t really have any experience. Most of them were farmers.”

“I’ve learned a lot about history, about the Civil War,” said Tymahz, the son of Iranian immigrants. “I feel like I’m going back in time.”

Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this report.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Primary Sources Enliven Civil War


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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