The Civil War Experience

Lesson 4: Analyzing Civil War Documents
Time Estimated: 1 day

Students will:

  1. Read selected documents from the Civil War in order to find key concepts presented.
  2. Identify the audience for whom the document is intended.
  3. Express the ideas or circumstances of selected leaders in this event after reading these documents.
  4. Analyze the document in light of the author’s motivation for writing it, the status of the Civil War at the time of its delivery, and the importance of the document in history.

On-Line Resources/Primary Documents: (some excerpted)

Teacher-Generated Materials:

  1. Introduce the lesson by asking the students to brainstorm aloud and state the most commonly quoted phrases from famous American documents. Write these on the board and then briefly discuss the speech or document of origin.
  2. Ask why they remember some lines as opposed to other ones from history. Discuss if this tendency reflects the importance of the document to our history and why it stands out as memorable. (From experience, the Gettysburg Address is usually the first speech from which the students recite phrases. If not, teacher may prompt, or introduce the document shortly into the lesson.)
  3. Next, conduct a short discussion about what sources historians could use to understand the Civil War. Discuss the importance of newspaper articles and letters in addition to formal documents, as these can provide more insight into why people took certain courses of action, how others reacted at the time, and what feelings people experienced either in doing or being affected by the situations which prompted the documents.
  4. Present students with the selected documents and have them work in small groups. The teacher should circulate to assist groups with questions as students complete their charts. Charts will include such information as “What type of document is this? Who is the author? How does this affect point of view? What are the messages? How does this contribute to understanding of the Civil War?”
  5. Have students report out what they found. Use the Talking Points to clarify, correct or expand on students’ findings.
  6. Homework: Allow two nights. Students will create their own cartoon, short song, poem, letter, or short speech about the Civil War. They may assume the perspective of a public official, military leader, journalist/political cartoonist or writer.

These documents are not excessive in length. With lower level students, pair them and have them read to one another aloud, taking turns, or if necessary, form a small group of struggling readers and read to them, having them address questions on their charts at each point in reading as the document answers them. Even within a certain level classroom, teachers can grade students individually based on what they know of their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the depth of these answers should be greater for college-bound students, but there are some who have writing difficulties or are struggling, but motivated. Teachers may even want to consider allowing some students to dictate answers.