Wartime Correspondence

Language Arts Activity

Students put themselves back in history by researching a major event in the American Civil War and writing letters that might have been exchanged between someone in the war and a friend or family member at home.


Reference materials on the U.S. Civil War


  1. Ask students to consider what it is like to be personally involved in the Civil War, that is, either in the service or on the home front. Have them form discussion circles to develop a general framework for the kinds of issues each group might have faced, for example: loneliness, danger, hunger, cold, fear, wounds, lack of information.

  2. Bring the entire group together. Explain that they have been discussing the broad effects of the war on people. Point out that individual experiences would, of course, have varied. Tell students that they are to work with a partner to take on the identity of two people who might have lived through a major event of the war, one person being in the field and the other at home. They are to exchange letters that reveal something about the circumstances before, during, and after the event (such as a major battle).

  3. Have students suggest various representative types personally involved in the war on either side, at home or in the field. To stimulate thinking, use the following ideas:

  4. Choose, or have students choose, the event. Be sure that students understand the time lag between sending and receipt of mail. For example, a soldier might write three letters and not receive an answer to any of them for months. Similarly, family members might receive all the letters at once but only long after the battle. Meanwhile, they have been writing letters with no idea of whether the intended recipient is alive and well.

  5. The letters should include a date and a sense of place. Encourage students to use descriptive details that evoke sounds, sights, and even smells. Also, point out that the writers will be trying to convey some of the emotions they are experiencing because of their situations.


The exchange of letters can be incorporated into a dramatic presentation (radio play, readers' theater) linked by a narrative about the event. The performance might include authentic costumes and music from the period.

Students are aware that original letters are a primary source for historians. Suggest that they present an archival exhibit of these "old" letters, combining them with photographs and text about the actual event.

Ask students to summarize, in their own words (orally or in writing) how this experience of temporarily assuming a historical identity affected them and their attitude toward history. Have them share their thinking with the whole group.

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