Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Category: Lesson Plans

End of TAH Days –Visiting Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg, Lincoln Cottage with Arkoma Educators


Matthew Pinsker touring with a TAH group in 2011

Matthew Pinsker touring with a TAH group from Utah in 2011

It will be a bittersweet three days for me on June 4, 5 and 6, 2013 when I travel under the auspices of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History with K-12 educators from the Arkoma (OK) Teaching American History (TAH) grant to various battlefields and Civil War sites in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.  Bittersweet because despite what promises to be a terrific educational journey, this will be one of my last outings under this wonderful federal program, which has been zeroed out of the federal budget.

Since TAH is coming to a close, I thought it was appropriate to share the materials that I will be highlighting with the Arkoma educators online –offering a kind of summary and resource guide that helps capture some of what I have been doing on dozens of these trips over the last several years with grant groups from all over the country. I will highlight here materials relevant to our four key stops between June 4-6, 2013:  Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, and President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.

Day One –Harpers Ferry

First things first.  You’ll see Harpers Ferry spelled both with and without the apostrophe, but leaving out the apostrophe out is preferred.   This is the place where John Brown led his famous (or infamous) raid in October 1859 that many argue was a critical turning point in the coming of the Civil War.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, the town became a unique industrial outpost in western Virginia, best known for the federal armory and arsenal where various types of munitions were built and stored.  That’s what made Harpers Ferry a target for abolitionist John Brown who hoped to use weapons seized from the armory to help support a massive effort to free slaves along the nearby Appalachian mountains.  Brown’s capture, trial and execution riveted the nation and cast a polarizing shadow over the election of 1860.  Later, during the Civil War, Harpers Ferry played a pivotal role in several Civil War campaigns, most notably during the Maryland invasion of September 1862.

The House Divided Project at Dickinson has created a host of free digital resources on Harpers Ferry, beginning with a large section in our research engine that includes dozens of historic documents, images and reference materials.  Using a tool from Google called Sketch Up, we have created a set of 3D models of landmarks in Harpers Ferry. Some of these models are also featured in a Google Earth tour of Underground Railroad sites in the region that culminates at Harpers Ferry.  The main blog section of our project, entitled “Blog Divided,” aims to create short posts that provide a quick guide to teachable topics and resources from the Civil War era.  There are a number of helpful Blog Divided posts about Harpers Ferry, see especially the ones on digital resources about John Brown’s raid, southern newspaper reaction to the raid, the escape of some of the raiders into Pennsylvania, Brown’s execution, the Senate investigating committee which followed up on the raid, the 1861 military campaigns, and the 1862 campaign.


When I bring educators to Harpers Ferry, I usually distribute two handouts.  The first offers a comparison of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.  It forces us to consider both how they were different but also how they were alike and it raises the larger, philosophical question about when Americans consider violence to be legitimate. The second provides an excerpt from Brown’s statement at his sentencing.  This one offers insight into Brown’s eloquence and suggests that teaching him as some kind of insane terrorist underestimates his influence in antebellum America, relegating him to an extremist sideline that –perhaps– he only partly deserved.  Again, the goal with this exercise is not to bully students into moral judgments but rather to force them to consider moral complexity as they decide for themselves about right and wrong.


Day One –Antietam

The September 17, 1862 battle at Antietam Creek or Sharpsburg remains the bloodiest single day in American military history.  Few experiences are as somber as visiting this battlefield site and imagining the carnage that occurred over the space of that bloody day.  The National Park Service website on Antietam is especially useful for educators and includes a timeline, gallery of historic photographs, and first-rate curriculum materials including lesson plans, primary source packets, and various types of worksheets.  The best site for student research papers, however, is most certainly Antietam on the Web, which features  links to all 315 of the After-Action Reports published in the Official Records.

But for most classroom teachers, Antietam offers perhaps the Civil War’s most teachable turning point.  James McPherson has a terrific lecture on Antietam, videotaped in 2002 and available from the Gilder Lehrman Institute multi-media channel, explaining why the battle should be taught as a pivotal turning point of the war.  The 45-minute lecture can be supported quite nicely with a short essay on the same topic from McPherson that is also available on the Gilder Lehrman website.


The House Divided Project contains a number of documents, images and maps related to the 1862 invasion of Maryland, but perhaps the most classroom-friendly item on the subject is a student-produced documentary short film about a northern family whose husband and father was lost at the Battle of Antietam.  To view, “Do They Miss Me at Home?” by David Gillespie (Dickinson College, Class of 2011), click on the YouTube video below, or to read more about the Colwell family, visit Cumberland Civil War.


Day Two –Gettysburg

No battle has endured in American memory more than the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).  It was the largest engagement of the Civil War and perhaps the most important.  I add the caveat “perhaps” because despite all of the talk about Gettysburg as a turning point, I’ve always been inclined to view that claim with skepticism.  The idea of a “turning point” is one that marks a decisive change.  It’s not always clear to me that Gettysburg marked such a change, despite its importance.  Throughout my travels with educators to Civil War sites, such as Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg and elsewhere, I always like to return to this notion of “turning point” to see if each example adds depth to their understanding of how to present this kind of complicated military and political narrative in a classroom setting.

To see how I try to present this kind of multi-dimensional story at Gettysburg, you should consult the teacher’s videotaped tour of the battlefield that I created in 2012 with Gilder Lehrman education coordinator Lance Warren and which is available here under the “Gettysburg Virtual Tour” tab in this website, complete with several short videtotaped segments and accompanying handouts.   For those traveling from Arkoma on June 4-6, this virtual tour will offer both preview and postview and might help provide a series of extension classroom exercises based on our work together in the field.

Day Three –President Lincoln’s Cottage

Abraham Lincoln spent over a quarter of his presidency in residence not at the White House but at the Soldiers’ Home, nearly 3 and 1/2 miles away in the northwestern section of the District of Columbia.  It was at his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home that Lincoln developed his emancipation policy in 1862 and where he planned his reelection campaign in 1864.  The place offered a unique working retreat for the busy president.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation spearheaded the restoration of Lincoln’s cottage at the Soldiers’ Home and opened it to the public in 2008.  They maintain a terrific website, full of resources for educators.  I wrote a book about Lincoln’s experiences at the Soldiers’ Home called, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (Oxford, 2003), some of which is available at Google Books, but all of which can be purchased (with royalties returning to the National Trust) from online booksellers such as Amazon.  Or you can view videos about Lincoln’s experiences at the cottage from C-SPAN, including a documentary film tour and also an interview with me from Booknotes.

When I bring educators to the Soldiers’ Home, I usually emphasize ways to use the story to teach Abraham Lincoln and his family, including wife Mary and sons, Robert, Eddie, Willie, and Tad, as a representative one for nineteenth-century America.  Here is one handout which I use to help start that discussion.  Another place to begin that conversation, however, might be with the new “Lincoln” movie from Steven Spielberg.  We have created an Unofficial Teacher’s Guide to that wonderful (but sometimes historically challenged) film, which you might find especially useful for what it reveals about the historical realities behind the portrayal of the Lincoln family.


This is only a sampling of the topics that I plan to discuss with the educators from Arkoma.  I hope those who participate in that trip and anyone who’s attended previous TAH field studies such as the ones I’ve outlined above, will feel free to post comments here, adding their own perspectives, questions and suggestions.

Kansas and the Civil War:Unit Plan

Standard: Kansas History

Benchmark 3: The student understands individuals, groups, ideas, events, and
developments of the territorial period and the Civil War in Kansas.

This student will:
1. explain the concept of popular sovereignty under the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 2. explain why control of the Kansas territorial government was affected by the fight over slavery. 3. describe the influence of pro-and anti-slavery ideas on territorial Kansas (e.g., Bleeding Kansas, border ruffians, bushwhackers, jay-hawkers, the Underground railroad, free state, abolitionist). 4. describe the causes and consequences of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence during the Civil War

These are just parts of some of our 7th grade standards in Kansas for my unit I thought I would concentrate on the time period between the Kansas-Nebraska act and Quantrill’s raidLincoln Tagxed Kansas

William Clarke Quantrill


Leader of perhaps the most savage fighting unit in the Civil War, William Quantrill developed a style of guerrilla warfare that terrorized civilians and soldiers alike. Quantrill was born in 1837 in Ohio, but little is known of his early life. It appears that after being a schoolteacher for several years, he travelled to Utah in 1858 with an army wagon train and there made his living as a gambler, using the alias of Charles Hart. After a year, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was again a schoolteacher from 1859 to 1860. But his past and predisposition soon caught up with him and, wanted for murder and horse theft, Quantrill fled to Missouri in late 1860..

This is obviously a work in progress but my plan is to have two google maps one of Quantrill’s entrance into Kansas from Missouri and of his masterful escape out of Kansas, the other would be a google map of Lawrence, ks and the location of the murders and destruction maybe even a virtual tour.


Teaching the Underground Railroad

When I first started teaching US history six years ago, the questions I always got when I started teaching the Underground railroad were the following:

So is the Underground Railroad really a railroad?

Why was it all underground?

My biggest goal in teaching the underground railroad is trying to dispel the misconceptions that students have.  Over the years, I have refined my teaching of the Underground Railroad, but one of the challenges has been time.  Usually my teaching of the Underground Railroad comes at the end of the year, when I am pressed for time and have so much to get through.  Last year, I found an amazing website that is both educational and fun for students examining the underground railroad.  It allows the students to get out of the classroom and use technology.  The website is is from Scholastic: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/underground_railroad/index.htm 

I like this website because it is geared towards students, but also provided great worksheets that you can print out for the students to use.  The students follow the path of the slave from slavery to reaching freedom and the challenges they face.

The first year I used this website it took about 3 days to complete all the worksheets.  This past year, I modified it so it took a period and a half and offered the Harriet Tubman webquest as extra credit.  I highly recommend using this website and the worksheets.

In the end, the students understand that the Underground Railroad is not a railroad nor is it completely underground.  The best part about this though is that it is student centered.


House Divided Fergus Bordewich Video

I spent some time exploring and becoming familiar with the House Divided research engine this afternoon.  There seem to be a lot of very interesting facets to this project which could be utilized in the classroom.  While exploring I spent some time with the House Divided Video Channel and viewed the interview with Fergus Bordewich about the Underground Railroad.


I found Bordewich’s discussion about the religious motivation behind the Underground Railroad particularly interesting.  He commented that he was surprised by the significance that the religious revivalism of the time played in the establishment of the Underground Railroad.  Because I am interested in the religious aspects of the abolitionist and anti-slavery movements this caught my attention.  I am intrigued by and would like to know more about this aspect of the coming of the war, the war itself and Reconstruction.  Any suggestions as to books, websites or other materials on this would be appreciated


His telling of the story of Jermain Loguen was also notable.  This portion of the clip would be a great attention getter to show at the beginning of a lesson on the Underground Railroad.  It could also serve as a springboard into some form of discussion activity which could lead into a brief writing assignment or blogging activity.  Good stuff.

Mind Maps of the Civil War

Civil War Mind Map

Earlier today Matt mentioned the use of note taking in picture form (sorry I can’t remember exactly how it was stated).  However, it immediately reminded me of Concept maps and Mind Mapping.  Concept maps tend to be boring and dull to my students and I agree with them on that issue.  Simple bubble maps with words connected to other words to show a list of information in a graphic form.  Blah!  Mind Mapping however is much more pleasing to the eye, can be colorful, may include words and pictures, but is best seen as a tool a student can make to use for their own understanding of a central topic.  These are very similar to word clouds where it focuses on the big ideas but should be expanded down to minor sub-topics. Most of the time students hand create these.  Above I have put together (created mine in MSWord, roughly I might add) the Virginia Department of Education’s state objectives for teaching the Civil War.  Even if you do not teach in VA, I’m willing to bet you could figure out the topics to be taught based on the diagram.  My central image is that of the United States as a clue that whatever this is, it happened here.  If you begin in the upper right hand corner with the words “north and south” and work around the map clockwise it will directly follow the objectives.

  1. A Nation Divided – North vs. South
  2. Virginia once included West Virginia
  3. Battles (in VA)
  4. People involved:  whites, enslaved, free, and American Indians
  5. Reconstruction
  6. Jim Crow laws
  7. Change in economy through – railroads, industry and growth of cities

I have used Mind Maps as both a pre-assessment and a final (summative) assesments.  Simply by giving students the central topic they are to then show what they know in picture and/or words.  After pre-assessing students, I would share the unit overview in Mind Map form where I actually draw on the Promethean Board as I outline the unit.  Students can draw in their notes and add their own comments to help them remember.  We would then proceed to take each sub-topic and expand further into the study.  I’ve found by teaching this way students are first given an outline that is easily understood by the elementary student and secondly keeps me from leaving my objectives! The Civil War is one of those areas that a teacher could spend an entire year on and still not scratch the surface if they weren’t careful.  I appreciate each time Matt points out the “best part to include” when teaching this information.

Mind Mapping is one of several note taking methods I teach my students.  We use it across all content and sometimes even make posters of them to put up around the room as a resource to come back to for review.

Historical research in civics class

How do I incorporate this wonderful historical information about the Civil War into my civics class? I have constantly striven to motivate my middle school students to use historical examples as we attempt to comprehend the fairly complex mechanics of our governmental and political systems.
Today’s information in class was a wealth of details that would do so much to enhance my students’ understanding if they would access it. For instance, judicial review could be discussed in light of the Dred Scott decision and Abelman v. Booth, which outlawed the personal liberty laws of the northern states. A discussion on federalism would be enhanced in light of those same personal liberty laws or on an examination of President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, where he quotes and defends his Republican Party’s platform: “Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” A discussion of civil disobedience and how far can one go without “crossing the line” would be aided by an investigation of John Brown, both his actions and his words. I was intrigued by our discussion today and the dominant view of John Brown as he is portrayed in our history. As Barry Goldwater once said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Or as stated in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to William Stephens Smith, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
When I was reading the texts assigned prior to the class, I had initially planned on creating a lesson based upon how our Founding Fathers could have written the Constitution in 1787 that would have avoided the Civil War. We discuss the compromises between the northern and southern states, such as the tariffs, 3/5 clause, the slave trade, and the fugitive slave clause. What could Madison and the others have included that would have avoided this cataclysmic event?
At this point, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed with the large amount of information available. I once again understand how my students must feel, which brings me full circle. How do I get them to attempt to do serious research, when it is so difficult even for me? It is no wonder that they resort to using Wikipedia and Google (yes, I know it’s a search engine, but my students don’t) to complete their assignments. So, as Beth posted earlier in “Searching for research”, there has to be a solution to getting students “to use and explore more websites that have meaningful information.”

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