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Teaching About the Civil War with Primary Sources Across Disciplines

By Carroll Van West


The Civil War was a transformative event in American history, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, leaving cities, towns, and the countryside in ruin, and abruptly changing the meaning of citizenship and freedom in the United States. The war led to the Constitution's 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which further shaped the relationships between citizens and their government, and abolished forever the inhumane practice of slavery in our nation. This bloodbath of almost unfathomable proportion fundamentally changed nearly every facet of American life.

For many years, the Civil War story was told as an authoritative narrative of battles, troop movements and generals who won or lost. But in the last 50 years, our understanding of the Civil War has changed dramatically. No doubt the battles and generals still matter. But today's K-12 curriculum standards, and more importantly our students, demand a more inclusive story.

Using primary sources available from the Civil War era, students can delve into this topic from several different angles, from social studies to language arts; from geography to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). For example, how did geographic location affect the food, clothing, media, and other goods and services available to civilians? What new technologies developed for military use during this conflict had widespread applications later? How did artists depict wartime experiences in popular music and print publications? What educational and employment opportunities did former slaves create for themselves following Emancipation?

Primary sources—original letters, diaries, maps, photographs, sheet music, and more—support a multidisciplinary approach to learning about this defining period in our nation’s history, which continues to shape and influence our lives. This article explores how primary sources can inspire students to ask and investigate questions about aspects of the Civil War that interest them the most.

Language Arts

Historic print collections, particularly those from period newspapers and broadsides, document how the issue of ending slavery became central to the northern war effort. Such text-based primary sources offer unique and compelling opportunities for students to practice reading and writing skills and strategies, essential to a language arts curriculum. For example, select articles from the historic newspaper database, Chronicling America and challenge students to identify persuasive writing techniques evident in each. Or have students analyze the articles to establish a timeline demonstrating how public opinion on the issue of slavery evolved over the course of the war.

Students may be surprised to discover that while slavery was central to the sectional differences leading to the Civil War, many northern citizens were like their President—initially willing to consider keeping slavery legal if that meant the Union could be restored. As the fighting and dying intensified between 1861 and 1863, so too did the calls for an end to slavery.

Consider another language arts lesson that compares the texts of Lincoln's draft Emancipation Proclamation with that of the final version. Invite students to explore how even subtle differences in wording or tone can fundamentally influence a reader’s response to a text. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 changed what the fighting was all about, and soon led to the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops, groups of former slaves and free blacks who fought for their freedom and citizenship until the war was over.

The story told through primary sources is messy and complicated, and not always heroic; the bigotry and racial stereotyping of that era may be shocking. Reading documents from this time period is certainly challenging for students on many levels. However, letters, diaries, newspapers, and other text-based primary sources provide opportunities to students with varying abilities and interests to both hone their language skills and gain an authentic view of the past using historic evidence.


Geography shaped the strategy and fighting of the Civil War perhaps more than any other single factor. After all, the war was between North and South. The cultural landscape of plantation agriculture also identified the areas of strongest support for slavery's protection, and conversely identified areas where thousands of U.S. Colored Troops would join the Union army. Historical maps provide sources not only to identify and explore the North-South divide but also to understand how the South itself was divided into sub-regions, including some in which residents remained devoted Union supporters. Detailed Civil War Maps also enable students to trace the movement of thousands of troops over dirt roads and turnpikes, traveling hundreds of miles between battles, typically on foot, sometimes on railroads, and to speculate on what environmental devastation was left behind in the wake of those millions of steps across the nation.

Educator Robert Clark of Union County, Tennessee, created a high school geography lesson that challenges students to explore historic maps for evidence of the relationship between geography and whether or not a region supported secession from the Union. Using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool, students analyze a topographical map of Tennessee to determine its date, purpose and creator, as well as key geographic features. They identify and compare characteristics of East, Middle and West Tennessee, then consider how life prior to 1860 may have differed for people living in each region depending on its unique geographic characteristics. Students investigate a variety of primary sources to understand how Tennessee’s geography lent itself to an intrastate conflict over secession and the coming Civil War.



Communications changed significantly during the Civil War, a subject with many possibilities for STEM-based learning. For example, today's culture of instant communication provides a valuable perspective for explorations through primary sources of the quantum jump in time created by the telegraph in the 1860s. Many students use their mobile phones to send text messages to friends and family, or to access the Internet for real-time news and entertainment. For those living during the Civil War, the telegraph was a similar type of communications device; this new, and to our eyes crude, machine made news from the Civil War battlefront almost instantaneous.

Another Tennessee educator, Perry F. Louden, Jr., of Rutherford County, created a middle school STEM lesson that uses Civil War primary sources to bring students into the realm of communications and the role of the telegraph in the war. How did it work? What would armies need to properly operate this equipment? How was this technology used to direct the fighting on battlefields, or to monitor, even control, occupied towns and countryside? By observing, reflecting and questioning historic prints and drawings, including Sherman’s March to the Sea, Morse apparatus and alphabet and Signal Telegraph Machine and operator – Fredericksburg, students connect prior knowledge about this time period to new information about the innovation of telegraph communication and its uses. They consult additional primary and secondary sources to understand how a telegraph works, even translating a message using Morse code, and comparing it to modern communications.

Photography was also a new technology at the time of the war, and Civil War era photographs may be effectively used in the STEM curriculum. Because exposure times were so long that it was almost impossible to capture action shots, those same images open a window of exploration about the technology of photography then compared to now. Consider using select images from an online collection, such as the Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints, to launch students on scientific investigations requiring further research: What chemical process captured the images? What equipment, supplies and procedure did photographers need to produce images in what they considered to be their "mobile" studios? How did the available technology limit what journalists could cover in the war?

Visual Arts

What about student interest in the experiences of the common soldier on both sides of the conflict? For a visual arts lesson, guide students to more accurately "read" Civil War photographs and consider the artistic conventions of mid-19th century American culture. Historical photographs, such as the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Portraits, are excellent resources for explorations into the attitudes and dress of the ordinary Civil War soldier, many of whom are nameless today. The collection may shock students into wanting to know more—some portraits are of painfully young men, no more than teenagers—enabling students to literally look into the eyes of those who fought and died in the war. The photographs are powerful documents of soldiers who came to the fields of battle both hopeful and fearful of what they would find.

Consider using these portraits to challenge students’ preconceptions—few soldiers look like the sharply tailored, standardized uniforms of toy soldiers, paper cut-out books, or museum exhibits prevalent in American popular culture. What details do students observe, and what inferences and questions arise from such observations? Through the great diversity of military dress and arms, the images also document the local nature of this national struggle. Many soldiers look as if they had just walked away from the farms and factories, brought their guns, and gone into battle.


Hundreds of songs were composed and published during the war; sheet music collections provide opportunities for students to perform those songs and hear their messages. They can find lyrics of hope mingled with worry, of outrage mixed with determination, and of joyous celebration and sad commemoration. The Civil War created human drama at its most intense. The music of those times gives students a chance to capture and express some of that emotion through their own voices and instruments.

Have students use the musical expressions of the 1860s as primary sources to explore the meaning and values of that time for America compared with those of the 21st century. Civil War Music, a set of Library of Congress primary sources on this topic, offers background information and teaching ideas along with PDF versions of sheet music and other formats.


Teaching America's Civil War through primary sources touches several subject areas beyond history and social studies, including language arts, geography, STEM, visual arts, and music. This primary source-based approach allows for teaching about the Civil War across the curriculum. The wealth of digitized images and documents, now available online, creates multiple avenues for students to explore this event that profoundly changed our nation. The evidence left behind by those who fought and survived those traumatic years can still captivate and enlighten students of today.

Carroll Van West is the director of the Teaching with Primary Sources program at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and is the director of MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). He is the co-chair of the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and director of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.