Lynn Ann Wiscount, Erin Halovanic, Vince Mariner
Communication, English Language Arts, Composition and Rhetoric, Language, Grammar and Vocabulary, History, U.S. History
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
Middle School, High School
  • POWER Library
  • Powerlibrary
  • Primary Source. US History
  • Social Studies
  • social-studies
    Creative Commons Attribution
    Media Formats:

    Education Standards

    Examining Primary Sources from the Civil War

    Examining Primary Sources from the Civil War


    Primary sources provide firsthand evidence and perspectives of historical events by the person writing them.  Students will read various types of correspondence (letters, diaries, and postcards) and analyze their content.  Students will then take on the role of a citizen and write a letter as if they were part of a major event of the Civil War.


    Lesson Objectives

    Students will be able to:

    • Analyze primary sources generated by ordinary people.
    • Understand what events were critical to the outcome of the Civil War.
    • Generate character discriptions based on a citizen who experienced the Civil War firsthand.
    • Create a fictional document from a firsthand account of a factual event.

    Warm Up / Introduction

    Instructor Notes:

    Today's students utilize a vast amount of communication types to stay in touch with family and friends. Most forms of communication today were not available back in the time of the Civil War.  People of those days, due to geographically location, only had letter, postcards, and diaries for communication and documenting the events of the time.

    Poll students on what communication types they use today.  Discuss with them how they would communicate if they lived during the Civil War.  Also discuss what other items may have been available at that time and why they might not have been a good choice for personal communications.  As part of the discussion, ask the students why it was important to receive written communication, what possibly may have been in the communication from those that were part of the enlisted armies and those family members that were left at home.

    The polling of the students can be created either through a show of hands, paper ballot, or by using an online resource such as Poll Everywhere.

    If students were not yet introduced to the various components of diaries, letters, or post cards, you can have them use the attached links to introduce them.

    Activity Directions:

    In today's world, a vast amount of communication methods available to you for corresponding with friends and family were not available back in the time of the Civil War.  Take a few moments to look at the communication methods below and record those you currently use.

    • Email
    • Letters
    • Diaries
    • Postcards
    • Social media (Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, blogs, etc)
    • Text messaging
    • Face to face conversation
    • Phone calls

    Now that you have figured out how you communicate today.  Look at the list above and determine how you would communicate if you were a citizen during the Civil War. 

    After you have analyzed the list, answer the following questions:

    • Were there any other methods for communicating back in that time period that are not on the list?
    • Why would it have been important to communicate through written methods during that time?
    • If you were a soldier in one of the armies, what items would you want to see in the written correspondence?
    • If you were the family or friend that was left at home, what items would you want to see in the written correspondence?

    Be prepared, to discuss your choices with the entire class.


    Research / Explore Activity

    Instructor Notes:

    Primary sources from an event will provide a look at the personal experience's citizens faced. This activity will allow the students to examine some diaries and letters from the Battle of Gettysburg to get insights on various aspects of the war. As they examine the items, students will be asked to observe, reflect upon and question what they are seeing based on a series of guided questions

    This activity can be done individually by each student or as a small group activity where each group examines one item and then they discuss what they found with the rest of the group.


    Activity Directions:

    • Select one of the links to examine a piece of primary source from the Battle of Gettysburg.  As you read through the item, answer the following questions:
      • What did you notice first?
      • Name one item you found interesting and one that you did not expect?
      • Why was this item made?
      • Who is the audience for this document?
      • Why is this an important document?
      • What items can you learn from examining this document?
    • In addition to making notes about the questions above, use the Analyze a Written Document Worksheet to further make sense of the document and to document it as a piece of historical evidence.


    Reinforcement / Creation Activity

    Instructor Notes:

    Students will reflect on the lives of the individuals living in the time of the Battle of Gettysburg and write letters to each other.  Once the letters are completed, have students volunteer to read their letter. 

    This activity can be used for many events in history.  You can replace the Battle of Gettysburg with Emancipation Proclamation, Battle of Vicksburg, the attack on Fort Sumter or any other historical event.

    Activity Directions:

    You and a partner will be playing a role in the Battle of Gettysburg and write letters to each other.  These letters should be written on stationery and should be dated and marked with the place where the letter was written.

    Before you begin, you need to discuss with your partner what character’s you will play.  The following items should be answered.

    • What are your names?
    • How do you know each other?
    • Where do you live? (North or South?)
    • How has the war affected your life?  Are you a soldier? Are you someone waiting at home for news? Are you working in a hospital? Are you a slave?

    The letters should include background information about your character and their personal life. Research should also be competed on events of the Battle of Gettysburg so event facts can also be included in the correspondence.



    Instructor Reflection:

    Reflect on the lesson plan and document what worked for you, what did not work for you, and what you would change for the next time you utilize this lesson.



    Now that you had the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of someone from an historical event, reflect upon what you want to know more about.  Once you have documented what your questions are, develop a research plan for locating the answers. Record your questions and research strategy in your portfolio.