Teaching With Documents:
The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 5 -Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
- Standard 2B -Demonstrate understanding of the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard III.A.1 -Explain how the U. S. Constitution grants and distributes power to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.
This lesson illustrates how the Civil War threatened the very purpose of the Constitution as stated in the Preamble.
Share these activities with your history, American studies, and language arts colleagues.
Analyzing the Document
- Provide students with historical background on the Civil War era from textbooks, encyclopedias, or supplemental material. Assign at least two photographs for each student to analyze using the Photograph Analysis Worksheet. Next, place students into groups of four. Arrange them in groups so that two students in each group will have analyzed the same photograph. Direct students to compare and contrast their findings and analyses of the photographs. Once they are familiar with the photographs of the group, ask them to compile a list of adjectives that they think describe the life of a soldier during the Civil War.
- Around the perimeter of the classroom, place the words that describe the life of a soldier during the Civil War. Intersperse among these words copies of the 16 photographs. As the students visit the in-class gallery, guide them in composing some thought-provoking questions for discussion: What motivated these men to put up with such difficult circumstances? If there had been television, would the Civil War have ended in 1862? How did soldiers cope with the death of their friends and fellow soldiers? Lead a class discussion using the questions posed by students. A particularly helpful book as a resource for both teacher and student is James McPherson's For Cause and Comrade. (See list of resources.)
Reading Assignment and Discussion
- Keep the photos and word lists posted in the classroom while students discuss their questions and read literature from the Civil War era. Ask students whether the posted photographs are similar to or different from the images described in the literature they read.
- Ask students to select one of the posted photographs and complete one of
the following four writing assignments based on one of the pictured individuals.
- Compose an imaginary journal for a Confederate or Union soldier.
- Compose an imaginary letter that a Confederate or Union soldier would send home to family or to the local newspaper.
- Compose for a Confederate or Union soldier a fictional obituary that will appear in his hometown newspaper.
- Compose a free-verse poem. Giving students 150-200 lines of poetry from Walt Whitman can provide some simple modeling for their verses.
- Direct students to the National Archives Catalog database to find other photographs that show additional aspects of war life for "Johnny Reb" or "Billy Yank." Ask them to print out these photos and add them to the classroom gallery.
- For classes reading Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage while studying the Civil War, discuss with students the realism of photography as practiced by Mathew Brady and other photographers with the naturalism of Stephen Crane.
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:
You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in the National Archives Catalog. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Douglas Perry, a teacher at Gig Harbor High School in Gig Harbor, WA.