Here are some ideas for the first day of your Civil War unit:
1. Decorate your classroom with banners and flags and have upbeat and patriotic Civil War music playing as kids enter the room. Search the Internet for “Civil War music cds” and look for songs such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” on the song lists. The looks on their faces will be unforgettable, and they will rush to their seats to get started and see what all the excitement is about.
2. Assign the students in your class the identities from one Civil War regiment, and then throughout the unit, from battle to battle, you can reveal what happens to each of them. There may be a unit that joined from your town or county, and you can research its muster rolls at your local historical society. Or for a starter list of soldier biographies, check out the Soldier Identities that we often use for park programs and events (pdf).
3. Have students work on a flag that represents their class, or small groups in the class. Talk about what flags meant in the Civil War, and show a photograph of a battle torn flag with battle names sewn into them. For more information about the importance of flags, refer to our Traveling Trunk Teacher’s Curriculum Guide.
4. For a creative writing assignment, ask students to write and deliver a motivating speech for joining the army. This should follow a lesson on the causes of war. A source for patriotic speeches of the times, as well as descriptions of war meetings, camp scenes and more can be found in the publication Hardtack and Coffee by John Billings (originally published in Boston in 1887 and since reprinted by several publishers).
5. Administer the Oath of Allegiance to your class, having them raise their right hand and repeat phrases from the oath as you read it aloud. (The Confederate oath was the same, but with “Confederate States of America” in place of “United States of America”.) Lead a discussion with the students on what they’ve now promised, and what they are giving up with those promises.
I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully, against all enemies and opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the armies of the United States, so help me God.
Your Civil War unit is probably already the most popular one, and it is certainly one of the most important. Getting it off to an exciting start will open up everyone’s mind for the entire unit, and will lay the foundation for greater retention of knowledge. In addition, through President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, you can connect the Civil War the whole way back to the Declaration of Independence and forward to the present day. But that’s for another blog entry!
Next time . . .
Even 150 years later, the causes of the Civil War are still debated. I’ll go straight to the source — primary sources that is — to explore activities that will help you lead discussions with students of all ages on the causes of the Civil War.
-Barbara Sanders, Education Specialist