When you’re a history teacher, it can be difficult to make your subject matter interesting and relatable. After all, you’re teaching about the past, not the present or future – why should history have any bearing on the way we think and feel today? If your students are asking that question, you might consider a lesson involving Civil War poetry to show them how major historical events affected real people. Words from the individuals who lived through this period can have a strong impact on students who aren’t quite convinced that what we refer to as “history” happened to people just like them. To help your students understand how it might have felt to live during the Civil War period, try using some of the following exercises with poetry that speaks to the essence of humanity.
The Jacket of Gray
This poem is interesting in several respects and might help change your students’ mindsets and attitudes toward the Civil War. It wasn’t just about men – The Jacket of Gray was written by Caroline Augusta Bell, who was born in 1825 and lost a son to the war.
Use the link above to access the poem and print enough copies for everyone in your class. You might consider reading it aloud to emphasize the human emotion of it, helping your students realize that the war was very real to the men and women who lived it. Once everyone has heard or read the poem, you can either hold a class discussion or break students up into smaller groups. You can write the following questions on the board and add to or subtract from them as you see fit:
- Was Caroline’s son a Union or a Confederate soldier?
- Why was she proud of his service if he was a Confederate soldier? What was he defending? (Here, you could discuss defense of his home as his guiding principle rather than defense of slavery – but was there really any excuse to be on that side of the war?)
- Caroline writes that it was all in vain, despite the winning of the battle. How might she define “victory” (Stanza 6, line 2)?
- How might Caroline have felt as a woman during the Civil War? Consider what you know about gender inequality during that time period. Was there anything she could have done about the way she felt?
The General’s Death
Written by Union soldier Joseph O’Connor, The General’s Death is short at just five stanzas, but you’ll find plenty to talk about when you read it in class. The following are some questions to use in discussion of this poem, and you can find more pieces to read and discuss at civilwarpoetry.org.
- List some responsibilities of a general in addition to keeping his men safe. How much significance might have been attached to keeping soldiers’ moods elevated?
- How do you think soldiers dealt with the suddenness of environmental, physical, and emotional changes?
- What must it have felt like to see the strongest man in the group fall? How could Joseph and the other men have hoped to survive?
- Do you think it was harder to feel positive or negative emotions? Why?
Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching various online programs and blogging about student life issues. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.
For more on this era check out MML’s US History PowerPoints: