The Civil War
Before getting started on this unit I think it is important that teachers establish where the students are in regards to background knowledge on the Civil War. How much do they know/remember about the Civil War? A good way to do this is just have students begin with a “quick write” in their journals. Ask students to write non-stop for about two or three minutes on everything they know about the Civil War. Next have a student come up to the front of the room and jot down the ideas that students have provided in their journal entries. By the time your class has shared their ideas, you’ll see where you are regarding background knowledge. Have students jot down some of the ideas that have appeared on the board and help them make some sense of what they do and do not know.
Neither teacher nor students need to be experts on the Civil War in order to complete this unit. I think a general understanding of the era and the war should suffice before we move onto Whitman, Lincoln and Brady. Before moving on, make sure students know the years of the war, some reasons for the war, who was fighting, how slavery and slave labor became a political issue at the time, what some of the major battles were, which states were involved and some of the terminology involved with the war. They should understand that it was an incredibly bloody war and who the players were on both sides of the conflict. There are a number of electronic and printed resources that teachers can use to fill in students’ background knowledge.
It would also be good to talk with students about the term “civil war” and what civil war really means for a nation. Many students do not fully grasp that a civil war takes place inside a country and is among its people. Share examples of other civil wars past and present. Was the American Revolution a civil war? Was WWII? Is Iraq or Afghanistan involved in civil war? Try to help students grasp this important concept that brings another aspect to their understanding of war.
Why Walt Whitman?
The mid-nineteenth century was a turbulent and difficult era of American History. Within the first twenty years of the second half of the nineteenth century, the expanding nation would go through a Civil War that divided families within the nation, and lose a president who had spent the past five years determined to mend the country.
Among the leading voices of the Civil War, Walt Whitman stands as one of the most significant representatives of the nation divided. Whitman would become a new voice in American Literature, one that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most recognized and respected literary figures of the day, would recognize as a genius after his first publication of the Whitman’s most famous collection of poems,
Leaves of Grass
. On the other hand, Whitman’s poetry was considered scandalous by many in the nation from the time of its first publication into the twentieth century. But despite Whitman’s controversial entry into the literary world, due mostly to sexual content and departure from more traditional rhyming of English poetry, despite his being both welcomed and unwelcomed by a nation on the verge of war, he did come to embody the nature and mood of the nation at the time. Perhaps due to his own humble beginnings, the second child of nine in a Long Island family whose problems covered everything from mental retardation to depression and epilepsy, Whitman came to represent the “Everyman” in America. In his life Whitman would wear many hats, the farmer, the teacher, the journalist, the lover, the nurse, the poet. Similarly, in his poetry Whitman would come to represent all Americans in a style of poetry that somehow seemed fit for this nation as it struggled to find its way through turbulent times. In
American Poetry; The Puritans through Walt Whitman
, Alan Shucard comments;
Whitman’s commonplace family and working class friends and his training as a
journalist and a Democratic party operative were excellent preparation for his self-
assertion as the poet of the egalitarianism.”
Whitman also came to embody many of the characteristics and ideals that Emerson and the Transcendentalists represented. Poetry came to represent all things divine and the poet became the representative of not only mankind, but of a union with all that transcended common thought.
Leaves of Grass
, a work first published in 1855 as a collection of twelve poems, followed by nearly a dozen revised editions and a final posthumous edition published in 1892 which included over 300 poems, Whitman sings to us through poetry that does transcend the concept of self and gives the author an authority that serves as a guide, a friend and a consciousness that enters the readers’ soul and touches all of us; “And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (1,3) From the first section of the poem, we, the readers are asked to understand that we too are the poets, we too are the divine. Whitman will take us on a journey through poetry that will give us, as it has given him, a sort of immortality. Whitman speaks to us throughout the poem, challenging our beliefs and trying to teach us from beyond the grave. “What do you think has become of the young and old men?/And what do you think has become of the women and children?/They are alive and well somewhere,/The smallest sprout shows there is really no death (123-125).
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Whitman found himself very literally in the middle of the war. When George Whitman, the poet’s brother, was wounded during the war, Walt went to visit him in a Fredericksburg hospital. The visit initiated a period of volunteer nursing in which Whitman became a staple in a Washington hospital. Whitman developed many relationships with wounded soldiers and took his place on the front lines as the gruesome reality of the war became a part of his daily life. Again, Whitman became America’s “Everyman” embodying a nation at war, and embracing all of her pains. Roger Ochse comments in
The Civic Literature of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s service as a volunteer “visitor” in the hospital tents of the Civil
War became his personal mission of healing these wounds. His personal devotion
to wounded soldiers was an integral part of his holistic approach to life and the
American experience. For Whitman, dedication and service to ordinary people-who
made up the real America-was his reason for being.
The literary fruits of Whitman’s experience in the war were the poems that made up the
collection. Briefly published towards the end of the war as one volume and later incorporated into
Leaves of Grass
poems trace Whitman’s experience in the war, through the hardship and suffering he shared with the soldiers and finally to the closing days of the war.
For my unit I will use several of the poems from this collection.
Beat! Beat! Drums!
Is a recruitment poem that shows the optimism and vitality of the early years of the war.
A sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim
serves as a moment in time in the hospital camp and
will allow students to examine the changing mood in Whitman’s poetry. I will also utilize two poems that are not a part of the
collection, but are valuable in this study nonetheless. They are two elegies to Abraham Lincoln;
O’Captain, My Captain
Hush’d Be the Camps Today
There are dozens of poems to choose from. They are interchangeable in this unit. For example
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
would be a good replacement for either of the Lincoln poems if you have an advanced class. The unit I am designing is for eighth-grade students and so my choices are shorter and a little easier to interpret than others.
The Poems in the Classroom
After giving students a brief introduction to Walt Whitman and helping them to connect the poet with the Civil War, I will split students into groups to work on the poetry. Each group will be assigned one poem or section of a poem. Students will be asked to read through their poems in their groups and then come up with a way to present the poem to the class. The students must present a reading of the poem to the class, create a visual representation of the poem to share with the class, and prepare a set of five discussion questions for the class as well as their own interpretation of those questions.
Give the students a class period to work together and complete the assignment. Tell them they will receive a group grade for the assignment and depending on your class, give them whatever time is needed to complete the assignment. After students have presented their projects to the class, ask them to arrange themselves in what order they think the poems would have occurred in Whitman’s manuscript. They will probably be able to figure closely which poems were early in the war, at the middle and, of course, with Lincoln’s assassination occurring after the surrender, at the end.
Group work in the classroom is a wonderful tool that forces students to take more responsibilities for their own actions. I find it very helpful with eighth grade students who really need to learn to cooperate and put aside their differences in order to complete the group projects. Finally, have a discussion with the class about what the poems tell us about Whitman and his feelings about the war. Again, have a student jot down the class findings on the board and discuss what you discover as a class. Before moving on to the next section of the unit, ask students to respond to what they have explored so far in their journals. For more detailed instructions on this section of the unit look at the lesson plans section at the end.
Lincoln the Writer
After having spent some time with Whitman and his perspective on the Civil War, teachers will move on to examine another perspective through Lincoln. Lincoln is one of the nation’s most revered and legendary presidents. All Americans learn the legends of Lincoln early in life; his being raised in a log cabin; his teaching himself to read by candlelight; his honesty. Lincoln has come to represent the American dream, the Mr. Smith who went to Washington, the underdog who makes it all the way to the top in this country through hard work, determination and belief in himself and his country.
Have that conversation with your students. What do they know about Lincoln, what is fact and what is legend? Many students will know the legends as well as the facts. Some will know of his assassination, many will associate him with the freeing of slaves and some might recognize some of his written accomplishments including the
This is where you want your students to be for this section of the unit. Get students to think of Lincoln as a writer. Unlike today’s politicians who utilize speech writers with computers armed with spell and grammar checks, unlike today’s politicians whose every word and speech is checked through by armies of paid experts and mock audiences, Lincoln did his own writing, his own editing and his own revision of his speeches. In his book
Lincoln the Writer
, Harold Holzer asserts that, “Lincoln simplified political writing. He eliminated unnecessary words. He replaced emotion with logic. He made complicated issues clear.”
Ask students who writes the President’s speeches today? Ask students what Lincoln doing his own writing says about him and about what he says in his speeches. Take a day and invite students to look over some of Lincoln’s original manuscript pages by going on the Gilder Lehrman website (www.gilderlehrman.org) where they will find a wide variety of original documents including copies of the speeches we will focus on for this unit.
Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
When Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861 the nation was on the brink of civil war. The stage was set and many thought that the war was inevitable. Clearly the struggle was forefront in Lincoln’s mind and he was struggling with the issue as he wrote his speech. Lois J. Einhorn points out the difficulty in writing to an audience as divided as the nation was at that point;
No one questions the especially difficult rhetorical situation Lincoln faced. He was
a minority president speaking in especially volatile times, and he needed to address
several different audiences. At the very least, his audiences included strong
Abolitionists, moderate Northerners, South Carolinians, citizens of the other six
states that had already seceded, citizens of the other Southern states that were
considering succession, southerners who were against seceding, and citizens of the
The speech was published in newspapers throughout the nation and as the citizens examined it, the interpretations of the speech highlighted the extent which the nation was divided. Generally speaking, northerners interpreted the speech as conciliatory and fair while southerners read Lincoln’s words as a threat or an ultimatum. A month later, on April 12, the first shots of the Civil War would be fired at Fort Sumter.
Read through Lincoln’s speech and choose a section for your students to examine. The second to the last paragraph is especially poignant as the president seems to speak directly to the southern secessionists as he asserts,
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the
momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have
no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered
in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to
“preserve, protect, and defend it.”
Clearly Lincoln is aware of the predicament he and the country are in and, clearly the president is trying to spell out the inevitability of war if the preservation of the union was at risk.
Was the speech conciliatory or was it a veiled threat? Ask students to role-play the northerners’ and southerners’ positions in response to your reading. Once again ask students to use their journals in order to clarify their point of views after the speech. Assign a leader to each group and give the northerners and southerners some time to discuss their points of view. Have the representatives from each group voice the groups’ views in a debate format where points are made and countered in the classroom. A more detailed plan for this section is included in the lesson plans section of this unit.
Finally, challenge your students to think of a situation where they might be required to speak to such a diverse audience in such a desperate situation as the 16
president found himself in 1861. Brainstorm situations that students might be involved with where they would have to address a very diverse audience on a touchy issue. Write down the situation that the class comes up with on the board and ask students to write a persuasive speech in response to the prompt.
The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
The battle of Gettysburg, PA was a turning point in the Civil War. Over forty thousand died in a brutal conflict that lasted three days. Lincoln was invited to speak at the dedication of a cemetery there three months after the July battle had ended.
Although the Gettysburg Address only lasted three minutes, it is considered by many to be a masterpiece of oratorical work. Lincoln’s words are carefully chosen to include Biblical references, connections to the founding fathers and reoccurring images of death and rebirth. Harold Holzer comments, “It might even be said that if the Emancipation Proclamation was the ‘prose’ of liberty-legally important but not beautiful-The Gettysburg Address was the ‘poetry’.”
To help students appreciate the language of the
, cut up the speech into sections. For example write down, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Give this piece of the address to a pair of students and go on to find a section for each pair of students to work on. Have students read their sections and discuss the significance. Ask pairs to illustrate their section with an explanation on the back of their illustrations. Finally ask students to memorize their section. This may take a day or two to complete, but when they are finished students can present their findings to the class. Ask the students to come up in pairs in the sequence of their lines and deliver the lines to the class with their explanations. After you have gone through the presentations, go back and simply have students recite the address. Post the pieces in your classroom so that you can refer to them throughout the unit.
The Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
The final piece in the Lincoln section of the unit,
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
is another briefly written (just over seven hundred words) masterpiece delivered by one of our nation’s most poetic presidents. With the war nearly over, the president takes a moment to reflect on what the nation has been through and looks forward to a nation healing “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Point out to students that this speech serves as a sort of bookend to the war. In the next few months the war will end and Lincoln will be dead. Among the onlookers at the second inaugural were one of Lincoln’s greatest admirers, Walt Whitman, and one that would prove to be his most hated enemy, John Wilkes Booth. Ask students to think back to the
First Inaugural Address
. How are the two speeches similar or different? What do the speeches tell us about how far Lincoln and the country have come in coping with this tragic war? What does Lincoln’s writing show us about him and his perspective on the war? How are Lincoln’s views similar or different from those of Walt Whitman in his poetry? What was it that prompted the “spiritual kinship”
that the two seemed to share.
This is the perfect point for students to choose a topic for a compare/contrast essay. The topics are numerous, as you probably saw during your discussion of how far we have come in the unit thus far. Encourage students to come up with their own topics and spend a day or two allowing them to write and revise their ideas. Finally ask students to share their ideas in an open reading session.
Matthew Brady and the Civil War Photographers
The final section of this unit focuses on the visual representation of the Civil War. With the development of photography in the nineteenth Century, the nation, its heroes and enemies were brought into the homes of many much as coverage of Vietnam brought the nation’s civilians into the war in Southeast Asia. And much like the Dan Rathers that would emerge from the Vietnam War as heroic correspondents, so too Matthew Brady would emerge as one of the leading correspondences from the Civil War. While Brady is given much credit for the photography surrounding the battles of the Civil War, it is interesting to note that Brady himself was often in Washington D.C. at his studio while others in his photography crew were out taking the actual pictures. Brady’s associates, including Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Pywell, Thomas Roach and more than a dozen other photographers were out in the field taking the nearly 10,000 plates that would make Brady the nation’s first famous photojournalist.
This section of the unit will utilize technology more than the other sections. Hundreds of Civil War photos are available on a number of web sites that are student-friendly and easy to access. While I began the unit thinking I would rely strictly on photos produced by Brady and his associates, I quickly realized that there is much to offer on line that I would be denying my students by strictly focusing on Brady.
This is also a point in the unit where teachers may decide to examine how cameras and photography worked during the Civil War years. Photography at this point in our history is a new invention, and will go through many changes and adaptations before coming to what it is today. There is an entire unit here that would be fascinating for students. For this unit you might just take a day and look at what photography was in the 1860s. What did cameras look like? What did photographers have to go through to snap a picture? There is much to explore here.
Power Point Presentations
The cumulating project of this unit is the power point presentation. I find that about ninety percent of my students are fairly capable of creating power point presentations by the time they reach eighth grade. The presentations allow students to mix visual, written and auditory material in an artistic manner that is often very impressive. For this particular project I would like the students to use their favorite poetry or prose from the unit, match it up with some Civil War photography and make some attempt at relating it all to modern times as well.
Begin by asking your students to recall one of their favorite poems or paragraphs from Whitman’s or Lincoln’s writings. Now, as they explore the Civil War photos on line, ask students to make note of photos that will match or compliment their favorite lines. Allow students to work in pairs if they like. Utilizing the images they find on line and the lines of the poetry that they have selected, ask students to map out a power point presentation on paper and show it to you before they begin. I use a paper with several empty “slides” on it. They fill in the slides with the words that will be on the slide and a rough picture or reference to the image and sound they will use. I will remind students that at least two of the slides must make some kind of modern day connection as well. This could be a visual of modern veterans put beside a Brady photo, or it could be a modern sound bite accompanying a Civil War image and lines of Whitman’s
Beat! Beat! Drum
Although this project may sound complicated, I do find that if instructions to students are clear (give them the scoring checklist located in Appendix B first) they are able to create wonderful projects that can be shared with the entire class or even the entire school.
Finally, after all the projects have been shared and students have shown their understanding of the connections between the poetry, the prose and the images, it is time for reflection. I believe it is necessary for teachers to set aside one day at the end of the unit for discussion and reflection on how much students have learned. Ask students to write two or three pages in their journals on what they have learned through the unit. How many students will go back to read more Whitman? How many will remember Lincoln differently and what have they learned about the Civil War?
Go back to the initial question which I asked at the beginning of this unit;
Why do we study war?
What did the students get out of the unit? What did you, the teacher, get out of the unit? And what do all of us get out of going back and studying the words and deeds of those that shaped our country over one hundred years ago? If the unit is a success, I believe we will get some answers that will reaffirm our love and dedication for this “glorious profession.”