Source Analysis

Civil War Letters


Lesson Plan

The Cause of the Civil War?

Author: Jason Fitzgerald
School: Rosa Parks Middle School
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 4 days (46 minute periods)

Brief Overview

After reviewing Dr. Chandra Manning’s analysis of the Jasper Barney (1862) and John White (1862) letters, I developed the following outline for my extended lesson plan. The essential question for the lesson will be “Was the Civil War about slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation?” The extended lesson will take four days to complete and the students will be expected to demonstrate their knowledge of both the content and the context of the information through a summative assessment.

Enduring Understanding

Depending on one’s perspective, the Civil War was fought over many different issues. Often as is the case in war, the two sides (North and South) had very different conceptions of what the war was over. The North, for its part, often referred to the act of secession committed by the South. The South, on the other hand, fought to keep their slaves against an increasingly abolitionist North. These conceptions merged, however, in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

When Abraham Lincoln wrote and presented the Emancipation Proclamation, he took a step towards turning the Civil War into a war over slavery. In the letters from Barney and Jasper, the reader is provided with reactions to this document and the moral, political and military issues surrounding the freedom of southern slaves. This extended lesson scaffolds students’ knowledge about the various causes of the Civil War and how the Emancipation Proclamation was viewed by two regular soldiers who held personal stake in this war. By building this understanding, students will see that the Civil War did not have clearly defined moral and political lines and that, like every war, there were multiple sides to the story.


This extended lesson enriches MCPS lesson sequence (“Changing the Purpose of the War: The Emancipation Proclamation”)

Mastery Objective

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to analyze primary source Civil War letters in order to determine whether or not the Civil War was about slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation by completing a BCR (Brief Constructed Response – a single paragraph essay).


For Day 1:

  • Textbook, Creating America, McDougal Littell
  • T-chart for Causes of Civil War and Ranking of Importance (Student Handout 1 and Teacher Handout 1)
  • Stickers for ranking Civil War causes

For Day 2:

For Day 3:

For Day 4:


Day 1: (textbook and class discussion)

The lesson for Day 1 will focus on the multiple causes of the Civil War. Students will be asked to recall and describe these causes through their textbook reading and rank each cause from the most to the least important. This evaluation will provide both baseline knowledge for the students about why soldiers fought in the Civil War and provide students with vocabulary that students will be able to access throughout the lesson.

By the end of the period, students will be able to recall the causes of the Civil War and justify each causes importance to the overall war effort by completing a T-chart.


  • “What words or phrases come to mind when you think of the Civil War?”
  • Read chart on page 507 of textbook and record causes of the Civil War.
  • In pairs, rank each cause as to its importance to the war effort.
  • As a class, tally the results with sticker dots.
  • Class discussion about which was the primary cause.

Homework: none

Day 2: (computer lab and individual research)

Students will be assigned either the letter from Jasper Barney (1862) or John White (1862). At their computers, students will be asked to visit the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors website ( and the Teaching American History site. At the first site, students will be asked to look-up the soldier that they were assigned and copy the soldier’s biographical information on the capture sheet. After they have sourced their soldier, the students will move onto the TAH site and will be asked to source, transcribe, summarize the letter they were assigned. This information will also be recorded on the capture sheet.

By the end of the period, students will be able to recall their soldier’s biographical information and summarize one point that the soldier conveys in his letter by completing a capture sheet.


  • Warm-up: Students respond to the question, “Why are soldiers’ letters important to historians who study the Civil War?”
  • Get your assignment
  • Record the biographical information of your soldier
  • Attempt to transcribe, source, and contextualize your soldier’s letter
  • Summarize one point your soldier made in his letter

Homework: none

Day 3: (collaboration and sharing)

Since the students were able to research on Day 2, they should be able to collaborate with their classmates as to what their letter is about and what the soldier thinks is important both personally and about the War. In small groups of 3-4 students, they will share the information from their close reading and, working with a typed transcript of their letter, finalize their research and contextualize their information. As they are working, I will monitor the students for understanding and correct misconceptions. I will plan 20 minutes for this collaboration.

As a class, we will then come together to complete a graphic organizer about both letters. Students will then be able to make sure that their information is correct and get their first taste of the differences in the letters.

By the end of the period, students will be able to summarize three main points of both authors.


  • Warm-up: Students respond to the question, “What did the Northern soldier think about the Emancipation Proclamation? What about the Southern soldier?”
  • In small groups, summarize your soldier’s letter in three (3) points through close reading
  • As a class, create a Venn Diagram about each soldiers’ viewpoint
  • Homework assignment explanation

Homework: Students will be asked to write a one-page letter back to their author (Barney or White) as if they were in the Homefront. They will follow a rubric of topics that they must cover including the reason for fighting in the Civil War, how they feel about the up-coming Emancipation Proclamation and when they think/wish the war will be over. See prompt and rubric for details.

Day 4:

Students will take a look at the Emancipation Proclamation today since they have written about it in part for homework last night. In small groups, students will read selected paragraphs and summarize the impact of the Proclamation on the South. As a class, students will then be asked to relate this information back to their soldier’s letter and predict how the soldier would have felt about the actual Emancipation Proclamation.

For homework, students will complete a BCR answering the essential question, “Was the Civil War about slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation?” Students will be assessed by the High School HSA rubric.

By the end of the period, students will be able to recall the main idea of the Emancipation Proclamation and explain whether or not the Civil War was about slavery prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.


  • Warm-up: Summarize the letter you wrote for homework in two sentences.
  • Turn-in homework from last night
  • In small groups, analyze, through close reading, one section of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • As a class, summarize the main idea of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • As a class, discuss and contextualize Northern and Southern soldiers’ views of the Proclamation.
  • Distribute homework assignment

Homework: Emancipation Proclamation BCR. See prompt and rubric for details.


Each day’s lesson plan is differentiated to allow students to work in heterogeneous groups. While all students are provided a rigorous instruction, all students also need to be able to work at their own level. Heterogeneous groupings provide students the opportunity to both work at their own level and be supported by a group of students with a similar topic and educational agenda. In this way, all students are supported whether they are below, at or above grade level.



Dr. Chandra Manning’s analysis of Barney and White’s letters
In Dr. Manning’s analysis, I was better able to understand the vantage points of both Barney and White’s letters. Her discussion of historical context and selected passages of the letters helped me to better understand the content and the purpose of the writings.
Jasper and White’s letters
As the primary sources used in the lesson, these two letters are the most important resource used. Barney and White give a very personal understanding of the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation in their writings.
Transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation is the document that both Barney and White are concerned about; thus, it is important to reference this document. The National Archives has a nice transcript of the document that teachers are use to cut and paste text for their classes.