Do we need to teach the details of battles as part of the Civil War units?

Students often ask me when we discuss the Civil War – how do you win a battle in the Civil War? I try to describe some basic answers to my 8th grade students but to understand the meaning of victory in a battle, students must understand how the battle fits in to the bigger context of the war. A basic knowledge of a battle in the Civil War can  help students understand things such as strategies and political decisions. Students may struggle at time to put everything in context and understand the military jargon and plans , but are there other things that a battle can be used to teach? There may not be time to go into the detailed aspects of battles such as troop movements and detailed military strategy, but understanding the basics of the battle can open doors to comprehension of events that may connect with students who aren’t versed in the jargon and terminology of 19th century battles.

This summer’s series of blog posts will attempt to use elements of the battle of Gettysburg to help students understand the far reaching impact of what happens both during and after the battles.


The importance of battles

            There’s no denying the importance of battles during the Civil War. The study of which is essential to understanding the Civil War as a whole. President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural address will state: “…the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends…” . As stated by Lincoln everything depended on the results of battles. The Confederate nation was certainly dependent on the results of battles for the achievement of their goal of independence from the United States. The Army of Northern Virginia’s victories in the eastern theater in the first half of the war were having an impact on public opinion and morale in the United States, despite the success of Union armies in the western theater. What can we use the results of battles to teach if we are looking at the “progress of our arms”?


Here are just a few examples

  • Elections – results of the capture of Atlanta can directly be tied to Lincoln’s re-election in the fall of 1864
  • Economic mobilization – as a result of the battle of First Bull Run
  • Women’s actions –  Clara Barton at Antietam ,Rose O’Neal Greenhow before 1st Bull Run
  • Slavery – Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation, Sherman’s Special Order 15 during the March to the Sea
  • Recruitment of African Americans as the result of the Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville


Using the Battle of Gettysburg beyond the events of the battle

Most Civil War curriculums cover the battle of Gettysburg, so why not use it to highlight stories of the experiences beyond the battle itself? Students should come into these activities having a basic understanding of the context of the battle which helps teachers create a time sensitive activity that can go beyond just troop movements and military decisions. This post will focus on using the battle of Gettysburg to teach about a Confederate memorial and the discussions surrounding what should go on the memorial that will be placed on the battlefield.


Memorialization on the Battlefield of Gettysburg

In the spring of 2017, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana made the decision to remove 3 Confederate memorials and one to the White League’s victory in the “Battle of Liberty Place” in several public spaces. This decision brought about controversy and discussion about the meaning and purpose of those memorials and what taking them down means. The discussion of Confederate memorialization has long been an issue on the battlefield at Gettysburg. A discussion of the creation of the Virginia Memorial on Seminary Ridge gives us a glimpse as to what the men who fought at the battle thought about putting monuments to the Confederates on the battlefield and the symbolism used.

Virginia Memorial

Virginia Memorial on the Gettysburg Battlefield Controversy

Virginia Memorial Page on StoneSentinels.com

In 1895, the War Department (today’s Defense Department) took over management of the Gettysburg battlefield and the placement of monuments on the battlefield. There were several laws that groups had to follow when creating designs for potential monuments. The main one was that any writing or depiction on the monument must be “without censure, blame, or praise”.

Activity for Students:

Students can examine the letters going back and forth in 1910 and 1912 between officials of the Gettysburg National Park Commission  and officials overseeing the design of the Virginia memorial.

The Gettysburg National Park Commission has two concerns with the initial design for the memorial:

  1. The wording of the inscription on the monument
  2. The placement of the Confederate battle flag on the memorial

Activity Ideas:

A. Have a discussion with students: why does the park commission limit what goes on the monuments to being  “without censure, praise or blame”?

It would be important that students understand the meaning of censure

B. Have students design their own wording for the monument that would pass the “without censure,

praise, or blame” guideline. Have other students evaluate their wording.

The wording originally asked for is :

“Virginia to her soldiers at Gettysburg they fought for the faith of their fathers”

C. Discuss with students why this phrase will be rejected.

In the end the inscription will read : Virginia to her sons at Gettysburg

D. The Virginia Memorial commission wants to put a Confederate battle flag on the monument.

Discuss why or why not that should be allowed.

E. Discuss: What does that tell us about the meaning of the Confederate battle flag to these men in 1912?

In the end: the Confederate battle flag is not allowed on the monument. The state flag of Virginia is placed on the monument instead. This decision was a hotly debated topic at the time.

 Download a Power Point to lead students through the activity

Primary Sources:

Letter from July 31, 1910 referring to the use of the Confederate flag on the memorial

Letter from February 7, 1912 referring to memorials being without “censure, praise, or blame”

Controversy over Paying for the Monument

In 1902, Pennsylvania state representative Thomas V. Cooper introduced legislation that would authorize the appropriation of $20,000 for the construction of the Virginia Memorial.  Supporters argued that the lack of Confederate monuments led to an incomplete story of the battle being told. On the other hand, there are strong feelings about memorialization of the Confederate cause that resulted in the deaths of many Pennsylvanians and Americans. In the end no money from Pennsylvania is given. A good resource is the Park’s blog post by ranger Chris Gwinn on the topic. It’s a quick read that could lead to interesting discussions in class related to the debate today over the removal of Confederate memorials in public spaces.



In future posts , we will examine using students’ understanding of the context of the battle to understand the Gettysburg Address and the impact of the battle on individual soldiers using primary sources.


Attention Youth, Youth Leaders and Educators!

Do want to make a difference in your community, your school and in the lives of others?

Gettysburg can inspire, teach, and help you through your journey.


The Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Foundation are very excited to announce a brand new youth leadership and service program entitled the Great Task Youth Leadership Experience, which is designed to help inspire civic engagement through the study of history. Borrowing the phrase made famous by President Abraham Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg Address, the Gettysburg Great Task Youth Leadership Experience is an intensive two-day program geared specifically toward high school-aged students and their teachers who wish to make a positive impact in their schools, their communities, and in the lives of others. Participants of the Great Task Youth Leadership Experience will learn about the actions, the decision, and, most importantly, the leadership demonstrated by ordinary individuals confronted with the extraordinary challenges presented by the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. By examining these actions and then recreating them, participating students will be able to then identify and develop their own leadership skills and be inspired by the lessons they learn while on the battlefield to make a positive difference in their own lives.

Working closely with National Park Service Rangers and Educators, participants will learn how soldiers, doctors, and ordinary civilians rose to the occasion and demonstrated great leadership when confronted with the crises experienced during the Battle of Gettysburg—and learn how examples from the past can still be applied to the challenges of today.


But the Great Task is much, much more than just a learning experience; indeed, we want to see how the leadership lessons learned here can make a difference in your schools or communities. We want to see how participating students complete their “Great Task.

To that end, student groups or teachers who wish to participate must first identify what their “Great Task” will be. Perhaps it will be to clean up and maintain a community playground or park, or maybe to establish an anti-bullying program in school. Perhaps a group will wish to facilitate volunteer programs in their communities, or set up a special tutoring center for younger children at their school Truly there is no end to all the Great Tasks that can be identified and accomplished.

After having decided upon a Great Task, groups can then apply to attend one of our Great Task Youth Leadership Experience weekends, which will be offered every weekend from mid-July to early October. Accommodation grants and financial assistance is available for qualifying groups. For additional information and to apply, please visit http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/288/

Please be aware that this is an intensive experience and we expect to see results! After attending one of our Great Task Youth Leadership Experiences students will report back to us on how they are applying the lessons they learned at Gettysburg in meeting their goals and in rising to their own occasion to achieve their Great Task.  In turn, their efforts and accomplishments will then be recognized on the “Great Task” wall inside the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center and their efforts will also be shared on the Park’s social media pages.  In addition, each participating group will be nominated for the “Great Task” Student Leadership Award. This new annual award will be presented to leaders of the best community or school leadership projects of the year. Award winners will be invited back to Gettysburg to receive $500 in grants to support their Great Task projects.

For more information, including testimonials of previous participants, please be sure to visit here.

. . .and please be sure to help us spread the word to anyone you think may be interested in participating in this important and inspiring new program.