Civil War Letters in the Classroom
Historian, History Teacher, and Guest Blogger M. Keith Harris
I teach an advanced course for high school juniors and seniors on the Civil war and Reconstruction era. One of my primary objectives: to have students get a real-life sense of a typical soldier’s experience in war.
There are of course a number of problems trying to recreate, in any physical sense, the day-to-day military lives of 19th century historical actors. And thus, there are things that do not happen…no one gets lice (thankfully), no one suffers from dysentery (also a bonus), and no one is trying to shoot us (I am especially thankful for this one). With the acknowledgment that 19th-century soldiering is impossible to replicate, we admittedly have a safe Civil War experience.
But there are a number of things we do manage to do. We make our own hardtack (and eat it soaked in coffee), we learn how to drill, march, and cheer like soldiers, and we even make common soldier American Experience style documentaries emphasizing daily life in the army (naturally featuring obligatory amputation scenes). As part of all of this — we write letters home — from a soldier’s perspective.
The goals of this are multifold. I want them to understand and acknowledge the many motivating factors that drove men of the Union and Confederate armies to enlist. I want them to grasp what was important to soldiers (weather, health, the monotony of camp life). And I especially want them to appreciate that these were real living breathing individuals who missed their families and friends back home.
All too often in the study of the Civil War, the nameless men holding their weapons and staring uncomfortably into a camera lens become abstractions — one of the millions who answered their country’s call…or one of the 850,000 who never came home. My experience suggests that students develop a more nuanced appreciation of the individual when they try and replicate their words. The kids familiarize themselves with those who faced the privations of army life…those who readily acknowledged the prospect of being killed in action.
The project begins, naturally, with rigorous primary research. I have found that the digital archives of The Gilder Lehrman Institute, The Antietam National Battlefield, the Civil War Archive, and Civil War Voices are particularly useful. We have a lengthy and thorough conversation on the subject, underscoring the most salient issues, and finally…the students write a letter of their own. I give them patriotic stationary that I recreated from examples “liberated” from the Internet, and I award them extra points for cursive, poor spelling, and questionable grammar.
The results are consistently exceptional. And course surveys suggest that this is among the most memorable and educational projects of the class. Apart from their encounters with digital archives (a cornerstone of my class), they learn that historical events unfold through the actions of ordinary folks — people who do not necessarily turn up in textbooks. This project is a “fun” exercise to get students engaged, and they most certainly enjoy recreating the look — with tears, burns, and stains. But they really learn about historical actors’ lives in the process. And that, to this history teacher, makes all the difference.
Keith Harris is a historian, an author, a runner, a social media aficionado, and an animal rights advocate. He received his BA at the University of California at Los Angeles (summa cum laude) and his Ph.D. in United States history at the University of Virginia. He has taught courses in US history at UVa and UC Riverside, and currently teaches at a private high school in Los Angeles. His first book, Across the Bloody Chasm: the Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans, is available from the Louisiana State University Press. Check out his website below, or his podcast, “The Rogue Historian” here. Follow him on Twitter at @MKeithHarris.
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