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.
WHAT YOU NEED
Reference materials on the U.S. Civil War
WHAT TO DO
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- A sixteen-year-old soldier who has never been away from home/the youth's older, married sister
- A Confederate officer who once served with men he is now fighting/the officer's mother, who has family and friends in the North
- A drummer boy from a farming community/the boy's grandparents, who brought him up
- A Union officer, graduate of West Point and former classmate of many
Confederate officers/his fiancee, a nurse on the Confederate side
- A free African American fighting on the Union side/
the man's brother, a clergyman now living in Canada
- 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.
- 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
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