Teachers

Teaching With Documents: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 5-Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)
    • Standard 2A-Demonstrate understanding of how the resources of the Union and the Confederacy affected
      the course of the war.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard II.B.1-Explain how a history of slavery distinguishes American society from other societies.
  • Standard II.D.3-Evaluate, take, and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of American political life are and their importance to the maintenance of constitutional democracy.

Cross-curricular Connections
Share this exercise with your history, government, and language arts colleagues.

Analyzing the Document
1. Make a copy of the featured document for students, and direct them to read the poster and answer the following questions:

  1. Who do you think is the intended audience for the poster?
  2. What does the Government hope the audience will do?
  3. What references to pay do you find in this document?
  4. What references to treatment of prisoners of war do you find in this document?
  5. What evidence of discrimination during the Civil War do you find in this document?
  6. What evidence of Government efforts to improve conditions for black soldiers do you find in this document?
  7. What purpose(s) of the Government is/are served by this poster?
  8. How is the design of this poster different from contemporary military recruitment posters?

After the students have completed the assignment, review it and answer any questions they might raise. Then discuss more generally the contribution and status of black soldiers in the Civil War. Ask students to read the additional documents provided with this article to encourage further discussion.

Creative Writing Activities
2. Share with students the information in the introductory note; then assign them to draw on information from the note and the document to write one of the following:

  • a journal entry of a member of the U.S. Colored Troops
  • a letter from a U.S. Colored Troops soldier to a son who wants to enlist
  • an account of the role of black soldiers for either an abolitionist or Confederate newspaper
  • an interior monologue of the wife of a soldier in the U.S. Colored Troops reflecting on the circumstances of her family during his absence.

Oral Reports
3. President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981, issued in 1948, marked the transition of the black military experience from a period of segregated troops to one of integrated forces. The order provided for "equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services" and commanded the desegregation of the military "as rapidly as possible." (Page 2 of this document is also available.)

Divide the class into six groups: Civil War, Indian wars, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and Persian Gulf War. Assign each group the task of locating information about black troops engaged in these conflicts and presenting the information they discover in an oral report. Encourage imaginative presentations. Students should collect information about pay, equipment, service assignments, promotion potential, treatment of black prisoners of war, and the relation of combat service to the struggle for equal rights in each instance. Each group should attempt to locate statistical information about the numbers of black soldiers in arms for their assigned conflict and the numbers of black casualties, decorations, and commissioned officers. Outstanding individual or unit contributions in engagements should be described as well.

For Further Research
4. Select one of the following activities as a followup:

  1. Arrange with the school or public library to set up a reserved reading shelf for your students on the topic of the black Civil War experience.
  2. Assign students to read a copy of Robert Lowell's poem "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts' 54th," alternately titled, "For the Union Dead." (The poem can be located in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.) Ask students to consider the following questions:

    • Why does Lowell say "their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat"?
    • Why do you think Shaw's father wanted no monument "except the ditch, where his son's body was thrown"?
    • What is Lowell's attitude toward the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier"?
    • Lowell altered the inscription on the Shaw Memorial that reads "Omnia Reliquit Servare Rem Publicam" ("He leaves all behind to serve the Republic") to his epigraph "Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam" ("They give up everything to serve the Republic"). How is the inscription typical of attitudes in 1897, when the memorial was dedicated? How is the epigraph, written in 1960, different, and what does that say about Lowell's attitude toward these soldiers?

    The Web site of the National Gallery of Art provides valuable information about the Shaw memorial.

  1. Ask for volunteers to watch the film Glory, a fictional account of the 54th Massachusetts, then the American Experience documentary, The 54th Colored Infantry. (If that tape is not available, you might use the segments on black units in Ken Burns's series The Civil War.) Students should then review Glory for historical accuracy.

For More Information
Many of the documents included in this project were selected by the project manager of the National Archives and Records Administration's Civil War Conservation Corps (CWCC). You can read more about this volunteer project in an article that originally appeared in the summer 1997 issue of Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The photographs included in this project are available through the Online Catalog (OPA).

You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in NARA's Online 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.

Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. "The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War." Social Education 56, 2 (February 1992): 118 - 120 [Revised and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidmann].

Blacks in the Civil War Homepage

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