Civil War Soldier's Experience


Standards Addressed:


Standard 2B: The students understand the social experiences of the war on the battlefield.


Grades 7-12: Compare the motives for fighting and the daily life experiences of the Confederate soldiers, the Union soldiers and African-American soldiers of both sides. (Examining Historical Perspectives)


When finished with this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Discuss the daily lives of Union and Confederate soldiers

  • Identify the impact of conscription on the war

  • Identify the reasons why common soldiers went to war

  • Discuss the reactions of soldiers to war


Lesson Abstract:

This lesson deals with the ways soldiers affected and were affected by the American Civil War.

Lesson Length:

1-2 Class Periods (more if utilizing The Red Badge of Courage or Soldier diaries)

Primary Resources:


1. Lyrics and streaming audio (coming soon) of Stephen Foster songs written from a soldier’s point of view or dealing with conscription (focus on the Union)

  • I’ll be a Soldier
  • I’m Nothing but a Plain Old Soldier
  • Soldier in the Colored Brigade
  • We Are Coming, Father Abraam
  • We’ve a Million in the Field
  • For the Dear Old Flag I Die

2. Lyrics and Melodies of other soldier-related songs from the Civil War from (focus on Southern troops)

3. Diaries of Soldiers who fought in the war

4. Fictional works of value to be used in the classroom

  • The Red Badge of Courage- Stephen Crane’s classic novel exploring the psychology of a young soldier during his first experiences with battle during the Civil War.
  • Teacher’s Guide to The Red Badge of Courage from Spark Notes
  • Glory (1989)- An excellent film describing one of the most famous African-American units of the Civil War.

Secondary Resources

Background Information

              During the four years of civil war between the Northern and Southern United States, over 3 million American men served on both sides of the war, and by war’s end, 620,000 Americans were killed, with another 425,000 wounded.

              The soldiers who fought in the Civil War had many different reasons for fighting: some believed it was their duty to their country; others saw it as an opportunity for adventure or to build a new life for themselves; still others were forced to go, due to the institution of a military draft, or conscription in the Union states in 1863.

              For Southern soldiers, the war was heavily romanticized; plantation owners and other local gentry were among the first to volunteer for the “gentlemen’s war,” believing the conflict to last no more than a few months. Many Southern writers compared the Confederates’ cause to that of the patriots of the revolutionary generation, comparing the measures the North took against slavery to oppressive measures the British took against the American colonies.

              Northern writers also called upon the legacy of 1776 to urge their own troops to fight.  They encouraged young men to volunteer and fight in order to preserve the Union their grandfathers had helped to build. Very few white soldiers specifically served in the Union Army to fight slavery. Saving the Union was their first priority.

              Conscription was also used in the North, but proved to be highly unpopular after the lower classes discovered that there was a clause that allowed draftees to pay $300 to avoid having to serve. The controversy spilled out into draft riots in the city of New York, where as many as 200 people were killed by American and Irish rioters. Of course, conscription also gave the Union Army a huge, 2-to-1 advantage over their Confederate counterparts.              African-Americans, for their part, served on both sides of the conflict. In the Union Army, over 180,000 African-Americans saw combat, while between 60,000-90,000 African-Americans served in the Confederate Army, mostly as cooks, musicians or hospital attendants. African-Americans saw an opportunity to fight to prove they were worthy of freedom, and the so-called “colored brigades” became some of the most feared units in the Union Army.

              Daily life in either army was tough. Armies camped where they could, and were often ill-equipped, poorly fed, clothed and trained. It was up to the officers of the army to keep morale up, which they did in a variety of ways; organizing trips to nearby towns, sing-alongs, Sunday religious services, and sporting events, including baseball games.

              Then, of course, there were the battles. Battles were marked by confusion; it was difficult to see most of the time, due to the smoke from rifles, and often armies would charge right into one another. Many soldiers were shocked that this “gentlemen’s war” was much more vicious and bloody than they ever imagined!

              Ultimately, the soldiers’ goals were simple; survive long enough to complete your term of service and return home.  The fact that so many didn’t was an American tragedy.

Suggestions for Using the Streaming Audio and Lyrics

Have the students listen to some (or all) of the songs listed in the “Primary Resources” section.  Ask them to consider the following questions as they listen to the songs and read the lyrics.


About the Tone:

  • What is the tone of each song?
  • Is it happy? Sad? Angry? Funny?
  • Does it move fast or slow?
  • How does the song make you feel hearing it?

About the Words

  • Are there any words that appear again and again in the songs? What are they?
  • Why do you think the songwriter chose to emphasize these words?
  • Are the verses long or short?
  • Is there a chorus? If so, does it repeat?

About the Songs

  • What seems to be the attitude of each song to a soldier’s life?
  • The song “I’m Nothing But a Plain Old Soldier” refers to a soldier in George Washington’s army. Why would Stephen Foster make such a comparison?
  • The song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” is perhaps the most famous song and was a favorite of both North and South. What does this song say about the soldier’s hopes for their future?
  • What is the attitude towards battle in “Shiloh’s Hill?”
  • Why is the “Soldier in the Colored Brigade” fighting?

Suggested Points for Discussion

  • Why do you think so many African-Americans volunteered to fight for the Union forces?
  • Why was music and writing journals/diaries/letters so important to many soldiers?
  • If you were of age to fight during the Civil War, would you volunteer?
  • What was a battle actually like?

Suggested Classroom Activities/Assignments

  • Linking Past and Present- From the first mandatory conscription during the Civil War until this day, the draft has always been a controversial issue. Ask the students to write an opinion paper, explaining their views on the draft. Ask them to cite historical or contemporary evidence to back up their argument.
  • Comparison and Contrast- Ask students to write an essay comparing Southern troops to Northern troops and to African-American troops. Some issues they may want to raise include: living conditions, reasons for fighting and treatment.
  • Analyzing Primary Sources- Look at Winslow Homer's lithograph “The Bayonet Charge,” an artistic depiction of a Civil War battle. Ask the students to write a brief response indicating whether or not they believe the artist’s vision of battle was accurate. Why or why not?
  • Thinking Critically About History- Have the students address the following question: Why would both the North and South tie their cause in with the American Revolution? In what ways do they do this?

Suggestions for using Red Badge of Courage, Glory, and Soldier Diaries

  • Thinking Creatively About History- Ask each student to write his/her own “Civil War” diary, pretending that they were a soldier in the Civil War. Ask them to write at least two entries, one describing the daily life at their camp, and one describing a battle.
  • Evaluating Source Material- After viewing the movie Glory, ask students to choose an issue the movie raises (for example, prejudice against black troops, or the living conditions of soldier) and do some outside research to determine whether or not the movie was accurate.
  • Book Review- After reading Red Badge of Courage ask students to prepare a short book review detailing what they thought of the book and whether or not it was historically accurate.
  • Comparison and Contrast- Examine how battle or soldiers’ lives are portrayed in each primary source. How are they the same and different? What source do you think is most accurate?

Assignment Suggestions for Music

  • Analyzing Primary Sources- Ask the students to choose one the songs presented in this lesson. Ask them to evaluate the song for factual content (the five Ws) as well as purpose and whether or not the song was successful in achieving that purpose.
  • Analyzing Primary Sources- Ask the students to examine the song “Soldier in the Colored Brigade.” Ask them to write a short response, indicating whether or not they thought the titular character in the song could be representative of all African-American soldiers.
  • Thinking Critically About History- Look at the songs as a whole. Do they glamorize battle and war? Why? Ask students to consider these questions in essay form.

The Center for American Music is part of the University of Pittsburgh Library System.
Copyright © 2010 Center for American Music. All content is protected by copyright and may not be copied and/or used for any purpose without written consent.

Last updated November 19, 2010