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Learning The Lives of Soldiers
This lesson helps students become familiar with field research projects by asking the question, Can we find information about Civil War soldiers who may have lived in your neighborhood? By trying to answer this question, students will learn about Civil War history in their community, the soldiers who lived there, and the value of knowing how to conduct independent research by examining resources such as the library, historical societies, cemeteries, archives, etc. Students will also have the opportunity to conduct on the ground interviews with family members and other individuals relevant to the Civil War.
*This lesson will require leaving school grounds; be aware that you will need to plan for parental permission in advance. If that is not an option, you can try to provide in-class resources to use, such as a speaker, journals from the time period, and online resources.
*It is up to the teacher to decide how much Civil War background students should have when going into this lesson; that level will vary based on grade. We do suggest students have at least a general understanding of the conflict between the North and South before this lesson is given.
The Roadmap to Discovery
- learn where to find resources that help research a topic
- explore local resources (library, archives, cemeteries, monuments) to seek information
- conduct personal interviews, if possible, to gain perspective
- write a response to the question documenting their findings
Beginning to Build a Framework of Familiarity
Before beginning this unit, take time to familiarize yourself with your community’s resources such as the local library, historical records and archives, cemeteries, monuments, members of your local historical society (they can be invaluable). Find out what materials are available for you and your students to use. Inquire whether there are any Civil War aficionados in your community that might be willing to speak to your class. There are of course a plethora of resources online, but try to encourage using resources that allow hands-on research. The teacher can engage and develop students’ confidence in doing historical research by giving their students the time and guidance to use those resources. Work can be completed individually, in partners, or in small groups. For younger students, class discussion and activity may be more productive. However, regardless of grade level, each student should be able to write a response to their historical study during this unit. Because Civil War soldiers came from all areas of Michigan, it is expected that students will be able to answer the focus question in the positive.
Project Stage 1: Commence the Quest
When a person volunteered for enlistment, he became registered as a soldier. His name, age, hometown, and photograph were documented. Places like the Archives of Michigan and other historical societies have many of these kinds of documents available to researchers. There can also be journals or letters available to the public. Introduce students to the concept of researching available materials to find an answer to the initial prompt. List the kinds of things that you would like students to search for. These search criteria are yours to decide; things like family & occupation, nationality, perhaps religion, etc. in addition to the standard name and age.
Project Stage 2: Embarking on an Investigation
The investigative activities for this lesson will depend on the local resources of your community. Listed below are some possibilities.
Civil War Monument Investigation
- Look in a city park or near a courthouse to locate possible war monuments. If veterans’ names are listed on the monuments, students can then determine if any of these veterans are buried there.
- Buildings, streets, or parks are sometimes named after war heroes. Perhaps there are buildings or streets or parks in the community that carry the names of a Civil War hero. Having a list of veterans’ names becomes helpful for further research.
- You can probably find maps to cemeteries online; you may want to contact the sexton in advance to see if he or she will be available to direct your cemetery tour.
- Have students explore the cemetery and gather information. Suggest they take notes, record dates from tombstones and grave markers, and record ages of those buried there. Are there markers that show death between the dates of 1861-1865? If so, there is a possibility that the soldier died during service. (Note that a majority of soldier deaths were due to illness and disease, not the direct result of war injuries.) Have students form groups and let them determine who will be responsible for each part of recording information for the project. http://michigan.gov/images/mhc_mhm_cw_monument_44405_7.jpg
- Instruct students to look for U.S. flags. They will see that they mark where soldiers have been buried. Metal markers that read G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) honor soldiers from the Civil War. If you have the available resources, take photographs of the graves, draw pictures, or (if you have prior permission) do rubbings of the tombstones. Have them take notes on what is written on the stones, draw a map of the cemetery and record what they found.
- Ask students to record answers to the following, if possible:
1. What is special about the grave markers of people who fought in the Civil War?
2. What kinds of military designations are there on the Civil War grave markers?
3. Are there any drawings or decorative carvings on the grave markers?
4. How large or small are the markers? What condition are they in?
5. Where are the soldiers’ graves in relationship to the graves of family members?
6. How many different companies did these soldiers represent during the Civil War?
Library or Historical Archive Investigation
- Contact your local library, historical society or archives ahead of time. Arrange a time to take students to one of these locations to talk with staff. Instruct students to take notes. Assist them in exploring the reference section to see if it includes a genealogical or local history section of the community to find further information about the names they’ve learned. If you are unable to get to your local/state archives, many Civil War records can be found on Seeking Michigan
- Help them find the set of books Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865-commonly referred to as “The Brown Books”. These books include the history and roster of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers and mechanics and “colored troops”. Students can use the index guide to find information regarding specific soldiers.
- Jonothan Robertson’s 1882 book Michigan in the War includes tables and charts with such information as the number of years soldiers served, the number of troops furnished by each state and the number of troops who served in different categories.
Personal Interview Investigation
- Instruct students to check with their families and friends to see if any of their relatives lived in the community at the time of the Civil War. If so, have them find out if any relatives fought in the Civil War. Families may have family trees that they are willing to share with the class. Many times war stories are passed down through generations. Be cautious, however, as stories are many times, just that, stories!
- Perhaps families or friends have access to journals, photographs, or letters that may be shared.
- Instruct students to record information that they acquire.
When possible, invite knowledgeable members of the community into the classroom to present and answer student questions.
Project Stage 3: Putting Pen to Paper
Once research has been completed, students will write a response to the question: Did Civil War soldiers come from your neighborhood, and if so, what information can we find out about them? Students should use their notes to write a summary of the findings of their exploration. Encourage students to be thorough in the documentation of their research.
As an extension, have students write a letter imagining they were a character living at that time such as a young boy or girl writing to their father who went off to war, or a parent of a soldier, or a soldier who went off to war writing to a girlfriend, a parent, a spouse, a son or daughter.
Teachers may wish to develop a rubric for students to use when writing and for teacher evaluation; we have not included one because the same qualifications are not applicable to the entire grade range.
- Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865, compiled by George H. Turner, Assistant Adjutant General, State of Michigan. Published by Ihling Bros.& Everard Stationers, Printers and Publishers, Kalamazoo, Michigan, under Act 147, Public Acts of 1903.
- Michigan In the War compiled by Jno. Robertson Adjutant General. Published by W. S. George & Co., State Printers and Binders, 1882.
- The American Civil War Coloring Book. Ocala, FL: Action Publishing, 1994.
- Mason, Philip P. From Bull Run to Appomattox: Michigan’s Role in the Civil War. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 1961.
- Michigan. Adjutant General’s Department. Michigan in the War. Lansing, MI: W. S. George & Co., 1882.
- Smith, A.G. Union Army Paper Soldiers. NY: Dover, 1995.
- Truesdell, Barbara. Oral History Techniques: How to Organize and Conduct Oral History Interviews. Indiana University Oral History Research Center.
- Williams, Frederick D. Michigan Soldiers in the Civil War, Fourth Edition. Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of State, 1998.