Posts Tagged ‘Civil War resources’

If you teach an American History 1 course , the Civil War Unit falls towards the end of the year when uninterrupted class time can be at a  premium.  Events such as field days, field trips and state standardized testing  can reduce the amount of time available for covering  such a vast and broad topic like the Civil War.  The emancipation of slaves and subsequent abolishment of slavery is certainly a key part of the that unit. This post will provide some ideas and links to resources for teachers to use to help  teach this important story, even if faced with the time constraints that teachers may face.

Fortress Monroe

National Park Service

Emancipation Prior to 1863

The story of emancipation can be a complicated one. Students may be under the impression that no one , certainly not slaves, were thinking about the freedom of enslaved persons until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. A story from 1861 could help change that impression. Fort Monroe was a United States occupied fortress at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Hampton, Virginia. (It recently became a part of the National Park System) Here on May 23, 1861, 3 enslaved men who had were being used by the Confederates to build fortifications nearby will row across the James River to the fort and present themselves to the Union commander of the fort. Benjamin Butler, the new fort commander, will take them in as “contraband” of war, despite the efforts of their owner,  Confederate colonel, to have the men returned. Students can read this article from the New York Times describing the debate and discussion this lead to about the meaning of slaves and their freedom. As United States armies pushed into the slave holding states, slaves began emancipating themselves in some cases. Generals like Butler  and others will face the decision of whether or not to allow slaves to come into United States lines , putting President Lincoln in a difficult position. These stories can allow for discussion and debate in class.

Here are some interesting questions to have students discuss:

  • Were these enslaved people free by their action of coming into United States lines?
  • The war , in 1861, as Lincoln and others saw it was a war for Union, not freedom, so should the slaves be returned?
  • What does it mean for slaves in border states – like Maryland? What would make them free?
  • Butler will say he is in a foreign country allowing him to do what he wants with the slaves, but if secession is seen as illegal, then are they really? (as proposed by the Confederate officer who come to Fortress Monroe to get the slaves back)
  • Was it the actions of slaves themselves that encourages Lincoln to emancipate slaves?

Many individual United States soldiers will come into contact with enslaved people for the first time. This leads one soldier at the fort to write “There is a universal desire among the slaves to be free. . . . Even old men and women, with crooked backs, who could hardly walk or see, shared the same feeling.” What do observations like this one mean for many United Sates soldiers’ view of enslaved people?

Asking open ended questions ,with at times no clear yes or no answer, can help students grasp the complexities of this issue that President Lincoln and other leaders dealt with when it came to emancipation. This discussion could be done in a class period or ask students to read the article outside of class and then discuss these questions together in a class forum such as a  Socratic Seminar.


Rediscovery #: 07231Job A1 09-069 Civil War

National Archives

Emancipation Proclamation: Exploring the Document

If you are looking for an activity about the Emancipation Proclamation that reach the main ideas of the document and help students develop an understanding of its meaning, look to the activities provided in the Civil War Trust’s free lessons and activities.  The Civil War Trust provides curriculum materials for teachers that can be used to cover most topics related to the war. Their curriculum has an elementary, middle and high school level. Individual lesson topics with material can be down loaded. If you only have a few days to cover the Emancipation Proclamation and its context, this is a great resource. Included in the downloadable resources for the Emancipation Proclamation is an excerpt from the actual document that will allow students to understand two main points of the document:

  1. Only slaves in rebelling states are freed, not in territory occupied by the United States or in the border states.
  2. African American men can join the United States military.

Click here for the middle school level lesson on the  Emancipation Proclamation. Page 4 of the downloadable document has the excerpts from the Proclamation itself. It has a variety of activities to select from.

How was the The Emancipation Proclamation viewed in 1863?

The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebelling states as we all know. Taken at face value it can be seen as a war measure as it did not abolish slavery at all. Certainly it sets the stage for the 13th Amendment in the future, but what did it mean in those areas in the Confederacy that were under United States control in 1863?

Emancipation Day in South Carolina

Library of Congress

The illustration above first appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on January 24, 1863. The picture is entitled “Emancipation Day in South Carolina. It shows the men from the 1st South Carolina Infantry regiment receiving their regiment’s American flag on January 1, 1863 at a ceremony near Port Royal , South Carolina. Formed in 1862, the 1st South Carolina was the first federally authorized African American regiment and would become the 33rd United States Colored regiment in 1864. Sergeant Prince Rivers is shown receiving the flag officially for the first time. Slavery had not been abolished at that point, but what message is being sent to both those in 1863 and to us today about how enslaved people saw the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation? They were in territory that was occupied by the United States, on paper soldiers like Sergeant Rivers were not free.  To find out more about this interesting and insightful event , read Dickinson College Professor Matthew Pinkster’s post on the Emancipation Blog about  the event with several first hand accounts about the ceremony that day ,the men in the regiment , and those that helped to form the regiment.

This picture can lead to some interesting discussion questions:

  • What can be inferred  if the regiment was formed in 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863?
  • What does the United States flag represent to the members of the 1st South Carolina and those in the crowd?
  • Why would the enslaved persons both in the audience that day and the regiment feel free when the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free them?

This is a great opportunity to have a class discussion in the form of a Socratic Seminar or Paideia Seminar . These discussion strategies are similar in that they both ask students to look at deeper meanings using open ended and thought provoking questions. Click on the links for descriptions of how to use them in an instructional setting .


Any one of these activities can be modified for  time constraints, student ability level, and curriculum goals. Having students discuss thoughtfully the meaning of this document and the questions surrounding the emancipation and eventual abolishment of slavery can allow students to come to conclusions, but many continue to ask questions and want to explore and learn more. Comment here with your or thoughts on teaching emancipation.



A comprehensive digital resource about emancipation. Primary sources, information, videos and more.  From Matthew Pinkster and the House Divided project from Dickinson College.

Here is the link to the post about the illustration from South Carolina referenced above.

An interactive site for students to learn in an interactive way  about the events, people, and decision process leading to emancipation. An incredible site from

President Lincoln’s  Cottage outside Washington, D.C.

This resource is a timeline of the history of emancipation during the Civil War

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Our teacher ranger , Rob Finkill, is back again for the summer at the Park, after a busy school year with his 8th grade students. . This summer’s blog series will tie into the National Park Service’s theme of  Civil War to Civil Rights  a theme that focuses on the experience of Americans journeying from slavery , freedom , and equal protection under the law. Our first post will focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and the experience of African Americans who will join  into the service of their country and the success and challenges that were a part of their story.


A Call to the Citizens of  Pennsylvania!

When word spread through Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1863 that a “large rebel force” was heading north, Governor of the Commonwealth, Andrew Curtin, issued a call for volunteers to report to Harrisburg to defend the state.  The proclamation from the governor said nothing about the color of the volunteer’s skin.

Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia was abuzz with the news and groups of volunteer soldiers were forming to respond to Curtin’s call for troops. The African American community was not deaf to the call for volunteers. At the Institute for Colored Youth on Lombard Street, a company of African American soldiers was being organized. On June 17,  led by a young teacher named Octavius Catto, a group of around 100 African American volunteers headed to Independence Square to join the crowd of emergency recruits. With no questions asked, the company was given a commander (white of course), rifles, and uniforms and sent to Harrisburg by train. Here is where reality hit these men. Major General Darius Crouch, commander of the troops forming in Harrisburg, refused to take them into his army. He claimed he was only authorized to accept men who signed up for three years, whereas their emergency regiment was only signed up for a few months. The volunteers were outraged – Couch’s rejecting of able bodied men at a time of crisis on a technicality, was almost certainly done because of the color of their skin. But the men from Philadelphia would not be deterred. Upon returning to their city , a group of the soldiers went to the mayor and told him what had happened. The Mayor assured them an application to create a 3 year regiment had been sent to Washington, D.C. and by June 20, 1863 , orders arrived giving permission for a regiment to be formed in Philadelphia. On June 24, in a ceremony filled with speeches and patriotism, the African American men from Catto’s company would be the first troops placed in the United States army from Philadelphia. Soon their numbers would grow to form several regiments as a part of the United States Colored Troops. *

 *Paradis, James M. Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored      Infantry in the Civil War. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1998.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

National Archives

National Archives


By the summer of 1863, the United States, on paper was accepting the services of African American men into the army, but as these men found out , there is often a difference between what is on paper – in this case a proclamation – and what was going on in reality. Actions spoke louder than words in this case and that phrase could certainly be used as a unit or lesson theme about the experience of African Americans during the Civil War. Adapting your Civil War unit to different themes or “big idea” can help.  Covering all the many aspects of the Civil War can be a challenging task. As I have discussed in previous posts, many teachers face a time crunch when teaching a Civil War Unit. (see a previous posts for a suggestion on how to maximize your time) The African American contribution to the war is an important one, and these lesson ideas will hopefully provide you with ideas on how to incorporate the experiences of the United States Colored Troops in your lessons.

In this post we will try to provide activities and resources that will:

  • focus on the central idea (theme)  that actions speak louder than words;
  • allow student to understand the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation;
  •  show how to tie the teaching of the Emancipation Proclamation and the experience of the United States Colored Troops together.


A problem to solve

When discussing the Emancipation Proclamation with students, it’s important to spend a few moments providing its context. As the war opened in 1861, the war was to be fought to keep the Union together and President Lincoln had stated he had no intention of disturbing slavery where it already existed. It was a limited war, with limited goals. The situation changed quickly as slaves and other abolitionist military officers took it upon themselves to either free themselves by running away to Union  lines or by issuing orders that freed slaves in territories controlled by Union forces (which Lincoln quickly cancelled out). Visit the Fort Monroe National Monument page for a quick overview on these issues and the “contraband of war” including what General Benjamin Butler did when a slave owner came to his office demanding the return of his “property”.  President Lincoln knew he would need a Constitutional amendment to end slavery completely, but what if slaves were looked at as captured property such as a horse or a wagon? The Union  certainly wasn’t returning captured horses and wagons  – those are the “spoils of war”. Slaves were viewed as property under the law and their “capture” could only serve to help the Union war effort as many slaves were being used to support the Confederate war efforts. Any slave who was returned to a master could be helping the Confederate cause and that helped Lincoln to be able to justify his actions regarding slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation, but not all slaves were freed. In the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia , and Delaware, slavery would continue. In this case Lincoln used the law that said slaves were property to help form is rationale for the Emancipation Proclamation.

What it says on paper: the Emancipation Proclamation

Sometimes with a class of students  with diverse reading abilities , it is easy to shy away from having students work with primary source documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation. There are many resources to help a teacher reach students at their level. This activity will pull from several free resources available online.

Here is a basic plan:

  1. Ask students to think of examples of times when “Actions Speak  Louder Than Words” in their lives . Give them time to think and then discuss some as a class.
  2. Describe how we are  going to see how words produced by the government don’t really mean anything until we as citizens put them into action or take actions based on the provisions in those statements.
  3. Go over a basic definitions of the terms “emancipation” and “proclamation
  4. At this point , provide the students with a copy of the Proclamation or key portions of text.
  • The Civil War Trust provides an excellent series of documents and lesson ideas for an understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation .  Page 4 in the document linked to below gives a very useful breakdown of key portions of    text from the Proclamation complete with definitions of terms.
  • Gettysburg National Military Park Education Page  also has materials designed to help with understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation. Page 34, 35, 36 of the Unfinished Work Program Guide provide  focusing questions and the text of the document.

The Unfinished Work Program guide from GNMP

Civil War Trust Emancipation Proclamation Activity (middle school level)

  1. Use this graphic organizer to help students break down the Emancipation Proclamation and the key provisions of it. Make sure students indicate the portion of text that supports their findings.

  Student graphic organizer

Teacher graphic organizer

  1. After determining what the Emancipation Proclamation stated, have student explore what it looked like when the African American men and women served their country. Use this organizer to help student take notes on challenges and and successes of African Americans during the war.

Here are several different resources to pull information from:resources-icon-an-orange-sign

Reaction to the Battle of New Market Heights in September 1864. Adapted from the Civil War Trust website.

This reading describes reactions to the United States colored troops in battle and describes the bravery and accomplishments of several of the soldiers who fought in this battle

Teaching With Documents: The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

from the National Archives

This site contains a series of activities and primary source documents to use in the classroom . This activity has a letter written by a Southern officer and a Northern officer describing  when an African American soldier  was captured by the Southerners. I have included a transcription of the cursive text.

Transcription of letters
Biography of Christian Fleetwood from civilwar.org 
Medal of Honor Winner from the Battle of New Market Heights

Video : Black Soldiers in the Civil War from the Civil War Trust 4 minute video on the United States Colored Troops

Harriet Tubman during the Civil War Tubman was more than a conductor on the Underground Railroad



As always adapt this activities to your classroom situation  – the Civil War Trust and Gettysburg National Park have the same activities for elementary and high school classrooms. Also , think about what type of closure or follow up activity could be done from these lessons. Share ideas and comments here.



Student Educational Programs are offered here at Gettysburg National Park in the spring and fall. The Unfinished Work program ties in with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address!


Resources for Lesson:

Graphic organizers:

Emancipation Proclamation Student graphic organizer

Emancipation Proclamation  Teacher graphic organizer

Note Taking chart on successes and challenges of African Americans in the Civil War

The Unfinished Work Program guide from GNMP

Civil War Trust Emancipation Proclamation Activity



“Battle of New Market Heights: USCT Soldiers Proved Their Heroism.”

Civilwar.org. Civil War Trust. Web. 15 June 2015.

Fort Monroe and the Contraband of War.” NPS.gov. Fort Monroe National


Paradis, James M. Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States

    Colored Infantry in the Civil War. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1998.


Next in our series we’ll take a look at the Reconstruction Amendments….

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