Researching Local Civil War Soldiers
Hartford Memorial Middle School
Length of lesson:
- Theme: sChange and continuity in American democracy: ideas, institutions, events, key figures, and controversies
- Era: Crisis of the Union: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 to 1877)
For young people, past events seem distant. Since Vermont is too far away from tangible places associated with the Civil War to visit on a field trip, I wanted my students to find local people, homes, businesses, and other locales that they could visit and thereby connect themselves to the past. Using town histories and documents, census data, the internet, and our school library, students researched individual soldiers from our town who fought in the Civil War, enabling students to connect national issues with local people, places, and events. This 2 to 5-week unit uses:
- Census data and vital statistics information available from your local town office, historical society and/or on-line with permission from the Vermont Historical Society. Some of the files used for this lesson are provided:
- Arthur French 1850
- Arthur French 1860
- Arthur French monument
- Cyrus Morse affidavit
- Edward Blaisdell pension increase
- George Fogg affidavit
- George Fogg letter
- John Carlisle 1850
- John Carlisle 1860
- John Carlisle monument
- Samuel Pingree 1860
- Samuel Pingree 1880
- Samuel Pingree law office
- Samuel Pingree monument
- Beers Atlas maps (available from local historical societies and on-line at www.old-maps.com
- Find a list of soldiers who enlisted from your town and select a group for your students to research.
We discovered a list of Civil War soldiers by reading the town history and going to the town offices to look through their files. Working with a local historian or visiting the local historical society is very helpful and can save you a lot of time.
- When choosing soldiers, identify individuals who might have current local connections, such as names of students in your class or recognizable place names. Also, pick soldiers from different regiments, ranks, and duties to ensure a variety of possible research topics. Finally, select soldiers who can be found in the census, thereby ensuring at least some immediate connection between soldiers and the census activity described below.
- At this point, there are three other sources to explore:
- First, it is helpful to do a quick check of the town's vital statistic information. Can you find birth, marriage, and/or death information on any of the soldiers? Such data will be helpful for you and students later on.
- Secondly, does your town have burial information for some or all of the cemeteries? An inventory of where soldiers are buried might help you choose a certain soldier.
- Finally, tell your students about this upcoming project. Do any of them have letters, documents, stories, etc. related to your town and the Civil War? Perhaps a student would be willing to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking for help in finding out more about your town's history. Tons of information is out there! Much of it will be very helpful.
- Once this preliminary exploration has been completed and the soldiers chosen, organize students into pairs and then give them a soldier to research.
- Use the 1860 Vermont census data for your town.
(two or three 45 minute periods) Census data for individual Vermont towns is available either by finding and making photocopies or by going on line. The on-line version requires getting (and perhaps paying for) a password and permission from the Vermont Historical Society.
- Working with a partner, have students look at the census as a whole. Ask: "What do you notice?" Share and discuss answers.
- Have students work together to complete the NARA written document form. While this is very basic, I've found that 8th graders have little knowledge of documents like the census. This form makes them look at the census carefully and make some basic assumptions about who and why this was done every ten years.
- Once this sheet has been completed and gone over together, it is time for some larger questions. Example questions: What do we learn about our town by looking at our census? Who lived here? What different kinds of people, jobs, lifestyles, etc. were there in 1860? Was there a significant African-American or Native American population? How can you tell? What did women do? Who lived together? What impact do you think the war had on this community? Depending on what your students notice and how detailed the census taker was, you can form individualized questions for your town. The census can provide insight to all kinds of social, political, and economic history.
- At this point, handing out copies of the Beers Atlas map of your town is helpful. Students can then take names from the census and find them on the map. In some cases, you might be able to follow the census taker's path as he/she went from house to house. For students whose soldier is in the census, they should be able to find where he lived. Remind these students to document this information because it will be helpful later in their research.
- Make sure you allow time for your students to simply peruse and wonder over the map and census.
- Research individual soldiers, their role in the community and in the Civil War. (At least five 45 minute periods)
- To find out more about their individual soldier, have students begin with the web site "Vermont in the Civil War" (vermontcivilwar.org). This site has basic service information about every soldier. Some students will find more detailed information about their person, perhaps even a photograph. For those students who only find enlistment data, for every regiment there is a chronology of when, where, and how each participated in the war. Thus, if students can’t research the soldier himself, they will be able to focus on the regiment’s activities instead. Another possibility would be to focus on daily life of a certain duty, role or position within the army, such as a surgeon or drummer boy. In this type of situation, students can extrapolate their individual soldier’s experience without specific primary documents.
- During this research phase would also be a good time to bring students in very small groups to the town offices to look for vital data (of course call and make arrangements ahead of time!) Your preliminary research or the help of a town clerk or historian will save time. While visiting the offices, students can use primary resources such as birth, marriage, and death records, town meeting notes, wills, inventories, tax information, etc. Some or all of this data can really create a picture of a whole person who spent part of their life as a soldier.
- Of course, much of the students’ research will be done in the school library using what primary and secondary sources are available. A list of good sources is found later in this document. Remember, the overall purpose will be for students to link local individuals with the national events they participated in during the Civil War.
- Visit related places in your town. (1-2 hours)
- After looking at the Beers Atlas map of your town, reading a town history, and finding cemetery listings, you should have enough information to choose a few places to visit. Taking a two-hour bus or walking tour is fun and gives students an opportunity to see places they are already familiar with in a new light. Choose a cemetery. Find the gravestone of a Civil War soldier and read a poem by a Vermonter or someone famous like Walt Whitman. Have students do a grave rubbing (with permission from your local cemetery association). Stop by a home that you know a certain soldier lived in and discuss his life and participation in the war. Perhaps read a letter written by him or another Vermont soldier. Visit the train depot and discuss who and what departed and arrived from that very spot. Stop at a church or parsonage where a ladies aid society collected bandages or other items to send to the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Make the direct connection for your students. Allow them to touch, see, feel, and listen to the history of their town. Take pictures that you can post in your room.
- Creating a “tour” or quest of the sites you visit could be another fun activity. Once you have visited the sites, go back to the classroom and ask students to create a tour brochure and/or a quest using riddles that will teach others about their town and the Civil War.
- Bring it all together and present it to the class and possibly the public. (Allow at least five days after completing research to create the final product)
- After all of the research has been done, have the students put their information into a final product. Posters, power point presentations, web sites, scrapbooks, or display boards could show a timeline of a person’s life or time as a soldier, a family tree, the daily life of a surgeon, the places in town that are related to a soldier, a soldier’s participation in a particular battle, etc.
- In addition, students should show how their research was conducted. In a notebook students could include a bibliography, their notes, and/or a process paper describing their work over the last few weeks.
- On the day the project is due, ask students to present their work orally for the rest of the class. For a more public forum, organize an evening Civil War Fair, in which all the work is displayed and parents, teachers, and community members (especially the historical society and town clerk) are invited. If you have also created a tour or quest, have students act as guides and lead the adults on the trip through town.
Differentiation of Learning
For students with special needs, I chose soldiers who I knew had plenty of primary and secondary sources readily available. In addition, the nature of the research depends on what the student determines. Students with special needs can certainly be directed to a topic that fits their abilities.
- NARA Document Analysis Form
- Soldier Inventory Worksheet
- Communication Standards:
- 1.8 Writing Reports
- 1.18 Information technology/literacy: Research
- 1.20 Information technology/literacy: Communication of data
- Personal Development Standards:
- 3.10 Relationship: teamwork
- History and Social Science Standards:
- 6.1 Investigation and Critical Evaluation: Causes and Effects in Human Societies
- 6.2 Uses of Evidence and Data
- 6.3 Analyzing Knowledge
- 6.4 History: Historical Connections
- 6.5 Traditional and Social Histories
- 6.6 Being a Historian
- 6.18 Conflicts and Conflict Resolution: Nature of Conflict
Materials and Resources:
Sources about Vermont:
Coffin, Howard. Battered Stars. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2002.
----------. Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1993.
----------. Nine Months to Gettysburg. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1997.
Fuller, James. Men of Color, to Arms! New York: University Press, 2001.
Letters to Vermont from her Civil War soldier correspondents to the home press. Bennington, VT: Images from the Past, 1998.
Marshall, Jeffrey D. A War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1999.
Zeller, Paul G. The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co, 2002.
Stories about Vermont:
Wisler, G. Clifton. Mr. Lincoln’s Drummer. New York: Puffin, 1995.
Banks, Sara Harrell. Abraham’s Battle: A Novel of Gettysburg. New York: Atheneum, 1998.
Beatty, Patricia. Charley Skedaddle. New York: Troll Books, 1987.
Hunt, Irene. Across Five Aprils. Chicago, IL: Follett, 1964.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns. Warner Home Video, 1997.