Ken Burns Classroom

Civil War Letters

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: English US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Run Time: 4 class periods


In this lesson, students will use one of the major tools of a historian: personal letters. These primary source materials provide firsthand evidence of events and information on the perspective, cognition, values, and attitudes of the person writing the letter. Students will read several letters from individuals who lived during the Civil War and analyze their content. Furthermore, students will formulate a character description of someone who lived during the Civil War and, in pairs of letter-writing correspondents, write one another letters concerning a major event during the war.


  • Analyze what historians can learn from primary source material generated by average citizens.
  • Understand the events critical to the outcome of the Civil War, and the war’s meaning in American history.
  • Formulate character descriptions and imagine the perspective of ordinary citizens who experienced the Civil War firsthand.
  • Incorporate factual material into fictional accounts.


  • Access to online computers
  • Materials for writing old-fashioned letters (paper, ink pens, etc)


National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools

Era 5: The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people

Standard 2A: The student understands how the resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.

Grades 5-12

  • Identify the turning points of the war and evaluate how political, military, and
    diplomatic leadership affected the outcome of the conflict
  • Standard 2B: The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.

Grades 5-12

  • Compare women’s homefront and battlefront roles in the Union and the Confederacy

Grades 7-12

  • Compare the motives for fighting and the daily life experiences of Confederate with those of white and African American Union soldiers

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence).

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Common Core State Standards

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science & Technical Subjects

  • RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  • RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  • RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.


  • W.7-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.



Ask students what method they typically use to communicate important news to friends or relatives (via email, text messaging, social media, etc.). Poll students on whether they ever handwrite and mail important messages.

Next, ask students how they believe most people communicated during the Civil War. Note: students should identify letter writing as the primary means of communication. The telegraph existed, yet had limited reach. With relatively slow means of transportation, people were often geographically separated without any to communicate except by letter.

Have students imagine they are alive during the Civil War and either they have or a family member has enlisted as a soldier. How important would it be to receive a letter in this situation? What would those left at home hope to hear about? What would those gone off to fight yearn to know?

Opening Activity: Video Viewing Activity

  1. Show the video clip, “Honorable Manhood” to the class, or have students view it for homework.
  2. Distribute the student handout “Sullivan Letter and Background” to all students. Explain to them that the video clip is an excerpt from the letter.
  3. Provide time for students to read the letter or have one or more students recite the letter aloud. Alternately, reading the letter may be assigned as homework.
  4. Discuss the following questions:
    • What were your initial reactions to the letter? How did it make you feel?
    • Why do you think Sullivan Ballou wrote this letter?
    • If you were Sullivan’s wife or children, how would you have reacted to this letter?
    • Sullivan says that he is perfectly willing to die to pay the debt owed to those who fell in the American Revolution. What does he mean by this?
    • What debt, if any, do you feel contemporary America owes Sullivan Ballou and other soldiers like him?

Activity 2: Primary Source Analysis Activity

This activity is in two parts: in the first, students will review a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou, Union soldier, to his wife. You may choose to share the background on Sullivan Ballou, on the handout before or after viewing the video clip. In the second part, students will analyze letters from Northerners and Southerners.

Part 1

Inform students that they will view a video clip from THE CIVIL WAR series illustrating the attitudes of civilians as each side prepared for war. If you have not covered events leading up to\ the Civil War, you may show the first 50 minutes of Episode 1, Chapter 2, “The Cause.”

  1. Organize students into small groups and distribute the student handout “Video Viewing Graphic Organizer” to each student.
  2. Review the instructions with students indicating areas on the graphic organizer where they will discuss in small group and take notes.
  3. Have students view the video clip “Traitors and Patriots” and fill out the graphic organizer. Alternately, completing individual sections on the graphic organizer may also be a homework assignment.
  4. Provide time for students in each group to discuss their findings.

Part 2

  1. Divide the class into small groups and assign one of the pairs of letters listed below.
  2. Distribute the handout “Civil War Letters Analysis Graphic Organizer” to all students and review the directions. Assign or have students select one of the letter-writing pairs and complete the graphic organizer. The letters are from the Valley of the Shadow website. Materials at the Websites give a varying amount of information about the letters and/or letter writers.
  3. You can print out the letters or have students work directly on them from computers. Reading and completing the graphic organizer can also be assigned as homework.
  4. When teams have finished analyzing their letters, ask one member from each team to come before the class as the letter writer. Each author should then describe himself or herself, thereby sharing the contents of the letter(s).

Activity 3: Becoming Civil War Letter Writing Correspondents

In this activity, students will reflect on the lives of individuals living during the Civil War and will write letters to each other. They will participate in one round of letter writing, or more, time permitting.

  1. Organize students into pairs. If your class has an odd number of students, a group of three to alternate turns writing letters to one another (with each writing and receiving one letter).
  2. Assign each pair to write as either supporters of the Confederacy or the Union such that the class is evenly divided. Note that during the Civil War, no mail was sent across Confederate lines into Union states.
  3. Distribute the handout “Becoming Civil War Letter Writing Correspondent” to all students and review the directions.
  4. Provide time for students to develop their Civil War characters and write their first letters.
  5. Have student pairs volunteer to read their letters to the class.
  6. After letters have been completed, ask the following:
    • What surprised you about the letters you read or heard?
    • What aspects about people’s lives had the greatest impression on you?
    • What did you learn about the people from their letters?
    • How did Northerners and Southerners experience the war in different ways?
    • Finally, compare and contrast the personal letters you read and wrote in this lesson to the messages you use to correspond with friends and family daily.

Assessment Suggestions

Concluding the lesson, the teacher may evaluate students on the following:

  • Active participation in discussions and activities
  • Completion of all graphic organizers.
  • Quality and content of the written letters, assessed using the rubric included at the end of the lesson.

Extensions also check the other activities for possible extensions

  • As a concluding activity you can hold a letter-reading event. Ask students to dress in costume and to practice a dramatic reading of their letters in character. Invite another class studying the Civil War to your reading.
  • Ask students to continue to keep a diary from the perspective of their character through the end of the Civil War, or even through Reconstruction.
  • Use the paradigm of the letter writing activity and restructure it to cover a different set of events. The activity works well with events leading up to the Civil war, with a letter assigned for each of the following years: 1856 Bleeding Kansas, 1857 Dred Scott Decision, 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1859 John Brown’s raid, 1860 Lincoln elected. In this paradigm, assign students to pairs with one Southerner and one Northerner per pair. As events unfold partners should grow angrier at one another as Civil war impends.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.

Handout: Sullivan Ballou Letter and Background

The following is a letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah (née Shumway) at home in Rhode Island. Ballou died a week later, at the First Battle of Bull Run. He was 32.

July 14, 1861

Maj. Sullivan Ballou
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows – when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children – is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar — that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

Source: The National Park Service


Sullivan Ballou grew up in Rhode Island. His own father died when Sullivan was 14; thus he understood in a most poignant way what it would mean for his own sons to lose their father. While growing up Sullivan had to work at various times to support his family, but he fought hard to acquire an education. After attending public schools, he went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and attended Brown University for two years. He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853. A passionate Republican, and ardent supporter of Lincoln, Sullivan naturally gravitated to politics. (The second paragraph of the letter in many ways foreshadows the Gettysburg Address.) He was elected as clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. By 1857 he was so well respected that he was chosen Speaker of the House. While his further forays into politics were for the moment stymied, his law practice flourished. He married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. He died after his leg was amputated following the battle of Bull Run.

His wife never remarried. As Sullivan predicted, Sarah was able to successfully raise their two sons; one graduated from Brown University and became a lawyer like his father.

While Sullivan mailed other letters to his wife, this one was found in his trunk. It was probably intended for her eyes only upon his death, and may explain why he allowed himself to give into his forebodings. Another interesting fact about the letter is that it has never been found in Sullivan’s own handwriting. Perhaps he dictated it in the hospital, or perhaps his wife would never part with the original copy. Sullivan Ballou has no surviving heirs.

This information is based on an article that appeared in the Brown Alumni Monthly, November 1990, written by Charlotte Bruce Harvey.

Handout: Video Viewing Graphic Organizer #1

Directions: As indicated, some of the entries on the graphic organizer are to be completed individually and others are for discussion in small group. Complete the individual sections first As you view the video clip, complete the individual sections first, then meet with your group to discuss the other questions and take notes where space is provided. To begin, play the clip.

1. Write down some of the actions both sides took to prepare for war. Discuss the different attitudes people held on the eve of the Civil War.

Actions taken by the Union Actions taken by the Confederacy




Attitudes of Northerners Attitudes of Southerners




2. The war affected both men and women in varying ways. What important choices did men and women have to make before the nation engaged in a civil war? Discuss the reasons men like Elijah Hunt Rhodes would enlist in the Union Army and Sam Watkins from Tennessee (who owned no slaves) enlisted in the Confederate Army.

Important choices for men Important choices for women




Reasons men like Eliza Hunt Rhodes enlisted in the Union Army Reasons men like Sam Watson enlisted in the Confederate Army.




3. Review the circumstances facing the Confederacy on the eve of the Civil War. How does the rhetoric and attitude of the men portrayed in the video clip seem to contrast with the reality of the Confederacy’s odds on winning the war? Why do you think this was the case?

Describe the circumstances facing the Confederacy on the eve of the Civil War. How does the rhetoric and attitude of the contrast with the South’s odds of winning the war?




4. Robert E. Lee was the Union military’s first choice for leading their forces. What was Lee’s dilemma in making his decision? Why did Lee reject the offer to be general of the Union forces, and instead chose the Confederacy? What did this decision portend for the future of the Civil War?

Describe Lee’s dilemma in choosing sides: Reasons Lee chose the Confederacy:




What did this decision portend for the future of the Civil War?


5. The video clip describes what Grant, Lee, Sherman (and other soon-to-be important players in the Civil War) did in these early days. But the program also quotes men like Elisha Hunt Rhodes from Rhode Island, and Sam Watkins from Tennessee, men whose names were never destined to be remembered in textbooks. In studying their personal letters, what important information can we learn about the war, based on what these men wrote?

What important information can we learn about the war from the writings of people like Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins?


If you were a man living during 1861, would you have enlisted? If you were a woman, would you have wanted your brothers, husbands and fathers to enlist?


Handout: Becoming a Civil War Letter Writing Correspondent


In this activity, you and a partner will play the role of either supporters of the Union or the Confederacy. You will develop imaginary personalities for these individuals and begin a series of letters corresponding to each other. Consider the various kinds of Americans living in the 1860s, such as immigrants, a free African-Americans, slaves, Mexican-Americans, or Americans whose ancestors fought in the American Revolution.

Letters will look authentic if they are hand written on white stationery. Each should be headed with a date and the place from which the letter is being written. They should be “mailed” in envelopes with the name and address of the fictitious person being written to. Samples of Civil War envelopes can be found at the Library of Congress. Enter “Civil War Envelopes” here, in the search field and click “Go.”

Part 1: Formulating your Civil War Character


On a sheet of paper develop your pair’s characters by answering the questions below.

  • What are your names?
  • How do you know one another, or how are you related? (e.g. parent child, siblings,husband/wife, engaged couple, etc.)
  • How old is each of you?
  • Where does each of you live? (Look at a map and find a city, town or rural area whereyou are from.)
  • Describe your home and life before the Civil War (important members of your family,upbringing and education, your livelihood before the war.)
  • Describe your reasons for supporting the position of either the Union or the Confederacy.(If you are a man, explain what compelled you to enlist to fight. If you are a woman, explain how you feel about your writing partner joining up to fight.)
  • Describe the most pressing concern in your life, your hopes and dreams, before the warbroke out.
  • Describe the ways in which you fear the war will change your life.You will use information from part one and incorporate it into your letters in Part 2.

Part 2: Writing your Letters


Now that you have your character descriptions developed you can write letters to your partner. The letters should be handwritten and look authentic. Before you write the letters, you can stain the paper with tea, if you’d like. The letters should be “mailed” in envelopes with the name and address of the fictitious person being written to. Samples of Civil War envelopes can be found at the Library of Congress. Enter “Civil War Envelopes” here, in the search field and click “Go.”

Your letters are to incorporate information from your character description above and center around one of the major event during the war, listed below. Include information about your personal life – family stories, relationships, interests, and more. Research the event to identify additional key information for your letter. Write letters in character rather than in the standard essays format. For example, consider how a a slave, a slave owner, a northern immigrant, a northern abolitionist, or others would have reacted to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Event Choices

  • The election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of several Southern states.
  • The attack on Fort Sumter
  • 1st or 2nd Battle of Bull Run
  • Ironclad ships battle at Hampton Roads
  • Seven Days Battle
  • Battle of Shiloh
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Emancipation Proclamation
  • The formation of African American battle units
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of Ft. Wagner
  • Battle of Vicksburg
  • Battle of Chickamauga
  • Battle of Chattanooga
  • Gettysburg Address
  • In 1863, President Lincoln established a national day of Thanksgiving the last Thursday of November
  • the Wilderness Campaign
  • Battle of Spotsylvania
  • Battle of Cold Harbor
  • Battle of Petersburg
  • Sherman’s March to the Sea
  • Battle of Fort Pillow
  • Burning of Atlanta
  • Battle of Mobile Bay
  • Christmas during any year of the war• Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House

Handout: Assessment Rubric

CATEGORY 4 3 2 1
Research Significant research shown; all topics backed by ample evidence Evidence of good research; most topics backed by evidence. Some evidence of research; some topics backed by evidence Little or no evidence of research; topics not backed by evidence
Organization Information is very organized with well- constructed paragraphs and subheadings. Information is organized with well-constructed paragraphs. Information is organized, but paragraphs are not well-constructed. The information appears to be disorganized.
Amount of Information All topics are addressed and all questions answered with at least 2 sentences about each. All topics are addressed and most questions answered with at least 2 sentences about each. All topics are addressed, and most questions answered with 1 sentence about each. One or more topics were not addressed.
Quality of Information Information clearly relates to the main topic. It includes several supporting details and/or examples. Information clearly relates to the main topic. It provides 1-2 supporting details and/or examples. Information clearly relates to the main topic. No details and/or examples are given. Information has little or nothing to do with the main topic.
Voice The writer’s voice is individual and engaging, demonstrating awareness of and respect for the audience and the purpose. The writer’s voice is appropriate to the purpose and engages the audience. The writer’s voice is generally clear but may not be fully engaged with the audience or purpose. The writer’s voice is indifferent and unengaged with the audience and purpose.
Mechanics No grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors. Almost no grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors A few grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Many grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors.