Parallel Lives

Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies Activity

Students use timelines to compare the lives of significant US Civil War figures of the North and South.



  1. Explain that both General Lee and General Grant attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York. At the time of the Civil War, though, their careers were on different paths, Lee leading the Confederate armies and Grant eventually leading the Union forces.

  2. Divide students into study teams. Have each team choose figures from both sides of the conflict who had parallel responsibilities, such as Generals Lee and Grant or Presidents Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. Tell students they are to construct a timeline for each person's life, one half of the team working on one figure's life and the other half working on the second person's life. Each timeline should include what students feel were the significant events that led the subjects to follow the careers they did.

  3. As a next step, ask students to construct a two-tier timeline for the two figures and add to it significant events that happened during the time shown. For example, if students are creating parallel timelines for Lee and Grant, they would include such events as the Missouri Compromise and the firing on Fort Sumter.

  4. Have students present their timelines and explain in their own words how and why the two people's careers followed different paths.


Compile a single, unified timeline that combines the lives of all the subjects in chronological order as well as the significant events of the time leading up to and during the Civil War. As an alternative, construct parallel timelines, one for the South and one for the North.

Encourage students to learn what they can about those affected by the Civil War on the home front. Suggest that they refer to such original sources as published diaries and journals that describe events that affected the writers. Have them present both viewpoints and discuss the differences.

Have students choose a one- or two-year period on a timeline and write a news report as though they were Civil War correspondents. If individuals choose different periods, their accounts will make a running chronicle of the major events. They might be able to photocopy pictures of the period to accompany their articles.

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