Primary Source Activity: William Taylor Correspondence


Grade and Level: United States History Grades 8-11
Instructional Time: Flexible, at least an hour, but can be extended into a larger discussion or project.
Essential Learning: Students will practice analyzing primary sources to learn about the experiences of soldiers during the Civil War. In doing so, students will be able to perceive and analyze the greater historical context in which such experiences took place.
Essential Question: How do primary source documents inform us about events in the past?
Classroom Organization: computer lab with internet, copies of William Taylor Correspondence Background Sheet and Critical Thinking Worksheet

Primary Source Access:

William Taylor Correspondence List
(can be found under "On-line Images/Records")


William Taylor Correspondence Background Sheet
Critical Thinking Worksheet
Collective Analysis
Map of William Taylor Correspondence

Standards Objectives

National Standards for History
Standard 3: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation.
Standard 4: The student conducts historical research.
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
- Standard 2A: The student understands how the resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.
- Standard 2B: The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.


1. Begin this assignment with a brief review/presentation on primary and secondary sources.
Suggestion: Have the students list primary sources that a future historian might find from the student's life, or create two lists of examples of primary and secondary sources.
Remember: To explain the difference between primary and secondary sources, ask students when historians might use each type of source. Introduce the idea of bias in sources, ask students how the speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, or tone might change the meaning of the document.

2. After reviewing primary sources, have the class read the William Taylor Correspondence Background Sheet together. You might want to review the events of the Civil War era as well, particularly the course of the military conflict, how individual soldiers, such as William Taylor, may have experienced the conflict, and how family members, such as William’s wife Jane McKnight Taylor, and communities might have been affected by men leaving to go to war for extended periods of time.

3. In the computer lab instruct students to access the William Taylor Correspondence List.

4. Taylor wrote 166 individual letters to his wife between September 1862 and October 1864. Each of the letters are numbered chronologically on the William Taylor Correspondence List and linked to a typed transcription of that particular letter. Determine the number of students in the class and divide the 166 letters evenly between them. If the number does not divide evenly, assign an extra letter to individual students until they are all taken. For example, if there are thirty students in the class, fourteen students would be assigned five letters each, while sixteen students would be assigned six letters each. Assign a group of letters to each student chronologically so that each student is assigned a small piece of Taylor’s experience, unique from that the other students are assigned. In the above example, the first student would be assigned letters #1-5.

5. Allow 15-20 minutes for each student to read the transcriptions of their assigned letters and complete the Critical Thinking Worksheet.

6. When finished, place students in small groups of 4-5 people according to the chronology of their assigned letters. In an example where each student has been assigned five letters individually, the first group of five students would have collectively read letters #1-25 (the first chronological portion of Taylor’s letters).

7. Have students share the letters that they read with one another within their small groups, explaining and comparing the analysis that they each completed on their individual Critical Thinking Worksheets. If time permits have students discuss the details of the letters they read that were particularly surprising or revealing of Taylor’s experiences. At the end of the discussion each group should be prepared to present their set of letters, one chronological piece of Taylor’s experience, to the class.

8. Have each small group present any findings or analysis that they found on their set of letters to the class chronologically in brief 5 minute presentations. On their computers or on a projection screen, the map of where each of Taylor’s letters were written should be utilized to supplement the group presentations, allowing students to comprehend Taylor’s movements over the course of the war. By the end of the presentations, the class should have a general understanding of Taylor’s experience as a soldier from September 1862-October 1864.

9. As a class discuss the Collective Analysis questions. These questions act to tie together larger themes already discussed and place Taylor’s letters and his experiences in the context of the Civil War and the larger political, social, economic, and cultural trends of the period. Now that the students have had the opportunity to read, interact with, and analyze a collection of primary sources, briefly review their importance to historians and historical research and understanding.

Assessment Criteria: Students can be graded upon the quality of the completion of the Critical Thinking Worksheet and the small group presentation.