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The Civil War era is one of the most critical and fascinating in our nation's history. The many books about this period written for young audiences provide a rich context in which to learn about the Civil War itself and to explore more basic issues about the nature of human life and society. The following lesson plan for an upper elementary unit on the Civil War contains links to other Internet sites that can provide valuable cross-curricular materials for you and your students.
As a result of completing this unit, students will be able to...
Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty (Morrow, 1987). Charley Quinn, a former member of the New York City street gang the Bowery Boys, is determined to avenge the death of his older brother at the Battle of Gettysburg. At age twelve Charley is too young to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army, but he sneaks onto a troop ship and becomes a drummer boy. His first battle—the Battle of the Wilderness in the Blue Ridge Mountains—is a far cry from his expectations, however. His eagerness fades abruptly when he sees men dying all around him and even shoots one Confederate soldier himself. Charley "skedaddles" into the wilderness and is reluctantly taken in by a tough old mountain woman. She does not trust him at first, and he must hide his identity from the mountain folk who would shoot him at the first sound of his northern accent. Charley is plagued by shame over his desertion, but eventually he gets a chance to prove his courage both to Granny Bent and to himself.
Eben Tyne, Powdermonkey by Patricia Beatty and Phillip Robbins (Morrow, 1990). Based on a crucial naval battle that happened in 1862, this book tells the story of Eben Tyne, age thirteen, a powder carrier aboard the Confederate vessel the Merrimack. He participates in the ship's victorious attack on the Union blockade of Virginia's Norfolk Bay, and in the bloody and inglorious battle that follows.
Jayhawker by Patricia Beatty (Morrow, 1991). At age twelve, Elijah Tulley has an experience that he will never forget. Radical abolitionist John Brown visits his home and blesses him and his sisters. Lije is forever committed to abolishing slavery, and he becomes even more passionate about the cause when his father is killed while attempting to free some slaves from a Missouri plantation. He becomes a spy for the Union Army, living with a band of bushwhackers and reporting their activities to his fellow abolitionists, or Jayhawkers. The work is dangerous—he must earn the trust of hardened criminals such as Charley Quantrill, Jim Hickok, and Jesse James—but Lije draws on inner reserves of courage and cleverness to bring his mission to a successful conclusion.
Turn Homeward, Hannalee by Patricia Beatty (Morrow, 1984). Twelve-year-old Hannalee Reed works in a Georgia textile mill. When General Sherman's troops pass through her town, they burn the mill, round up all the mill workers, and send them to work in the North. Hannalee is separated from her younger brother and another friend, but she is determined to find them and return home. She escapes from the Kentucky household where she is forced to work as a servant and sets off on a daring adventure that brings her face to face with the horrors of war. Based on the true story of the displacement of Georgia mill workers, this book reveals a little-known aspect of the Civil War as it weaves a compelling and moving narrative around a strong female protagonist.
With Every Drop of Blood by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Delacorte Press, 1994) Fourteen-year-old Johnny promised his dying father that he would not go off to fight for the South but instead stay to take care of his family. Secretly, however, Johnny hopes for a chance to avenge his father's death at the hands of the Yankees. When he hears about a supply convoy leaving for the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, he decides to join in the effort. Before the wagons get very far, Yankee soldiers attack it, and Johnny is shocked to find himself taking orders from a young African American soldier who takes him prisoner. As the boys gradually get to know each other, Johnny grudgingly begins to respect and like Cush. The friendship that forms between them makes Johnny question the point of the war as well as his own beliefs about African Americans.
Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (Clarion Books, 1987). This is a detailed and balanced account of the life and career of Abraham Lincoln. Illustrated with a wealth of photographs and prints, the biography gives readers a close look at the complex and fascinating man who led the nation through one of its darkest hours.
Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (Follett, 1964). Nine-year-old Jethro, who lives in southern Illinois, has an idealized view of war based on stories from history books about dramatic battles and their glorious heroes. When the Civil War breaks out, however, painfully dividing his family as it divides north and south, Jeth must confront the many confusing and horrifying realities of war. At age ten, his father ill and his older brothers off fighting in the war, Jeth becomes the man of the household. Across Five Aprils spans the four long years of the war, during which he is transformed from a boy into a young man.
Escape from Slavery: The Boyhood of Frederick Douglass in His Own Words edited by Michael McCurdy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) Skillfully selected excerpts from Frederick Douglass's autobiography paint a vivid portrait of the great abolitionist. The story of Douglass's childhood provides a close look at slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, and the account of his escape and subsequent career is both dramatic and inspirational.
The Story of Booker T. Washington by Patricia and Fred McKissack (Childrens Press, 1991) This book provides a brief overview of the life of Booker T. Washington, with many photographs and other illustrations.
The Boys' War by Jim Murphy (Clarion Books, 1990). Many of the soldiers who fought on both sides of the war were not men but children. Jim Murphy's book is an account of the war from the perspective of these young soldiers. It contains many quotations from the boys' journals and letters as well as photographs of the soldiers and the battlegrounds where they fought and died. The book captures their first-hand experiences of war, from the thrill of enlistment through the horrible reality of combat.
Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder (Macmillan, 1989). The war has left twelve-year-old Will Page without any immediate family: his father and brother were killed by the Yankees; his sisters died of an epidemic spread from a Union encampment near his Virginia home; and his mother died of grief over these losses. Will reluctantly goes to live with his Uncle Jed and his family, burning with anger over the fact that Jed refused to fight for the Confederate cause. Gradually Will comes to understand that the moral issues involved in the decision to fight were not as clear-cut as he thought, and that good people can have honest disagreements.
Harriet Tubman by M. W. Taylor (Chelsea House Publishers, 1991) Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series, this biography tells the incredible life story of the architect of the Underground Railroad, which helped hundreds of slaves make their way to freedom. The engaging narrative is augmented with many photographs and drawings that bring the text to life.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington (Doubleday, 1963) The great political activist and educator tells the story of his life in his own words. Washington was born into slavery and freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, after which he devoted his life to helping African Americans make a place for themselves in the economy and society of the United States. The full text of Up from Slavery is also available online.
Glory directed by Edward Zwick (TriStar, 1989; available on videocassette [Columbia] and laserdisc) This Academy Award-winning film tells the story of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first unit of African American soldiers to fight for the Union cause. Comprised of escaped slaves and freedmen, the soldiers of the 54th must overcome more than their share of boot-camp challenges in order to become the disciplined fighting unit they prove themselves to be by the film's end. Racism within the Union army threatens to leave them without uniforms or shoes and with smaller paychecks than their white counterparts. Their commanding officer, 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, fights these injustices and struggles with the more subtle racism in his own mind as he gradually forms a genuine bond with his men. The 54th earned fame for its heroic fighting in a suicidal mission to capture Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The screenplay for Glory was based on Shaw's letters; the film stars Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Cary Elwes.
At the start of the unit, you might wish to guide students in creating a KWL chart to tap into their prior knowledge and discover what they want to know more about. For an overview of Civil War chronology, you can direct them to the Civil War timeline provided online by the Library of Congress. You might also encourage them to research relevant topics, perhaps assigning pairs or small groups to become "resident experts" in specific areas. A few of the topics they might explore are:
Two excellent sources for a wide range of materials are the American Civil War Homepage and www.CivilWar.com. For a comprehensive outline of the war with links to many other online sources of information, check out Great American History's Outline of the Civil War.
Many of the books in the list of recommended titles are historical fiction. Ask students what they know about this genre, and have them list examples of historical fiction that they have read in the past. Make sure they understand that historical fiction is based on events that actually happened—such as the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the assassination of President Lincoln—but the main characters and the specific events in those characters' lives are made up by the author. A writer of historical fiction researches the time and place that will be the setting of a story before he or she begins writing. Besides reading history books, the writer may study personal journals and letters, newspaper articles, photographs, art, and literature from the period. All of these primary sources provide the "flavor" of the historical period so that the writer can make the setting and events come alive for readers.
Students can use the Internet to view examples of the types of primary source materials that writers use to create historical fiction. Richard W. Burt of the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry wrote poetry, letters, and newspaper articles during his service to the Union cause. A catalog of some of his writings is available online. Other letters and diary entries are available in the Civil War Diaries collection at Augustana College Library, Duke University's Civil War Women, and the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South: Slave Narratives. The Library of Congress provides access to a selection of Civil War photographs that students can explore on the Internet.
You can use the following activities to help students integrate their own writing with the reading they are doing in the unit.
The people fighting on two sides of a war obviously have some major differences of opinion. But, as Carolyn Reeder's novel Shades of Gray emphasizes, there can also be a wide range of opinions among people supposedly on the same side of a conflict. Encourage students to discuss and research some of the different perspectives that various groups of Americans had on the Civil War. For example, they might compare Hannalee Reed's impression of General William Sherman in Turn Homeward, Hannalee to the attitude toward the general expressed in General Sherman and His Boys in Blue, a poem by Union soldier Captain Richard W. Burt. They might also juxtapose the attitudes and experiences of African American soldiers and white soldiers who fought for the Union cause. The film Glory provides some insight into this topic.
From the first pages of many historical novels, students will notice that the authors have used authentic language from the Civil War period to make their characters' dialogue sound realistic. Words such as "git" ("get"), "'taters" ("potatoes"), and "furriner" ("foreigner") are examples of regional dialect (here, the dialect of southern Illinois). Expressions such as "hopping the twig" ("getting married") and "bluebellies" ("Union soldiers") are examples of idioms or slang used in that era. On the Internet, students can access a list of Soldier Talk & Civil War Slang with modern definitions. Interested students may write their own Civil War-era stories or journal entries using some of this language.
As students will learn from their reading, the experiences of soldiers in the Civil War were neither romantic nor fun. When they were not facing the horrors of battle, soldiers had to deal with boredom and homesickness. Music was one way that soldiers could both pass the time and remember home and family. They whistled or sang familiar songs while performing menial duties, and some played instruments such as harmonicas and fiddles during their free time. Ballads composed during the war told moving tales of soldiers' honor, grief, and courage. Students interested in this aspect of the war can research the songs that were popular among Union and Confederate troops. One resource is the Civil War Era Music website, which offers midi files of selected songs with background information. Note that the site specifies that all material is used in "fair use" for educational purposes only. Another is the American Memory website from the Library of Congress, which offers a collection of American sheet music from 1850-1920, including a page on Civil War songs, and a collection of post-Civil War era sheet music, 1870-1885. Students who locate audio tapes or CDs of Civil War music may select songs to enhance dramatic readings of their creative writing from this unit. Students could also study the lyrics of Civil War-era ballads and report on common themes in the songs, perhaps comparing these songs with those written to commemorate other wars.
At the close of the unit, you may wish to bring the whole class together for a wrap-up discussion. The following questions can serve as a guide for this discussion.
Interested students could create their own home page on the World Wide Web with hotlinks to their favorite Websites relating to the Civil War and other topics. They could also use their home page to publish some of the writing they did during the unit and to invite correspondence from students all over the world. Even if your school does not have the ability to put students' pages on a Web server, your class might enjoy learning how to format HTML documents (stored on the computer's hard drive) and viewing them with a Web browser. Small Planet has developed a page that guides students step-by-step in creating their own Web pages. Use the link below to send your students to this page.
The Internet has a wealth of materials on the Civil War. Here are just a few additional resources that you might want to explore with your students.