As the nation remembers the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the web is teeming with great resources to engage students. With recent efforts to digitize archives and sources for greater public access, there are phenomenal resources that capture individual points of view…so many that you can really capture a picture of the whole war through individual voices and experiences. Civil War letters are a phenomenal way to pull students into the everyday perspective of war… North or South, home front or battlefield, male or female, white or black. Letters reveal motive, emotions, aspirations, as well as details about daily life. There are endless ways you could use letters to help students understand the Civil War. Firstly, consider the essential questions that frame your unit, what do you want students to know about the Civil War? Personally, because of the nature of the Civil War, I feel it is important for students to know why people fought…what caused this massive and tragic loss of life? It’s valuable to let student curiosity guide their inquiry as it creates a greater sense of ownership and interest. Using a generic question, such as, “What can we learn about the Civil War from this letter?” you can have students choose from any collection…one you’ve created or a data base on the web. If you want to put more time into organizing the sources, you could create stations with letters from specific regions, topics, points of view, and as the students rotate through the different stations they can treate the letters like pieces to a mosaic. One use of Civil War letters I found particularly interesting was having the letters narrated. The Patriot Ledger had a “Civil War Letters home from Quincy Soldiers” special in which letters were read aloud. Try using voicethread, or jing, to narrate your letters.
The New York Times posted several of Robert Gould Shaw’s letters in his defense of Washington, DC as a member of the elite New York Seventh Regiment, before he commanded the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. This might be an interesting connection to the film, Glory. Though these letters are before Shaw’s leadership with the 54th, they are a great resource, particularly because of his background…coming from education and wealth. The letters capture a well spoken insightful perspective of the war and his mission, to defend the capital…it would definitely make for an interesting comparison with a soldier from less wealth an education, or an African American soldier.
I really liked Maine State Archive’s Civil War Sesquicentennial. There are dozens of letters catalogued by their date, author, subject, and town. There is also a search box so you can look for certain terms that appear within letters. This source is unique in that it presents perspectives that reveal how war impacted whole communities. The organization allows one to search for specific aspects of war.
A little closer to home, I’ve also really enjoyed the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Looking at the Civil War, Massachusetts finds her voice. The selection accessible on the MHS website includes sources from many perspectives, that of MA governor, John Andrew, to a soldier’s letter to his wife. These two perspectives would make an interesting comparative.
PBS, of course, never fails. PBS has a pretty extensive lesson plan involving Civil War letters. The Civil War Trust also has an extensive bank of lesson plans, some having to do with letters as well.