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Interpreting the Evidence

Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, 1837-1861

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, 1837-1861 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Portrait of Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, 1837-1861, from a Brady negative. Ellsworth was the first Union casualty of the Civil War.
Historical Context
There are myriad reasons and theories of why the Civil War happened. People often cite such reasons as slavery, states' rights, westward expansion, the Constitution, the election of Abraham Lincoln, federal vs. state government, etc. Most likely the cause was a mixture of all these elements of unrest during the first century of America's existence.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers had motivations to enter the Civil War. Some were enlisted, and some were drafted. After the Confederacy was formed, many people decided that the United States, or Union, had to be preserved as one country. These men joined the Union Army, or the North. Many people in the North felt that the Confederacy had no right under the Constitution to leave the Union.

Some people in the North already felt animosity towards the South because of the southern states' use of slaves. However, the Civil War was not really viewed as a mode for ending slavery in the United States until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Even with this proclamation, Lincoln only freed the slaves in the Confederacy, and the Confederacy refused to take orders from Lincoln because the Confederacy had its own president, Jefferson Davis. Slavery was still legal until the war was over in the slave-holding states in the Union, which were Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky.  So ending slavery may have been some soldiers' motivation to fight, but it was not a clearly defined objective of the Union Army.

The majority of the Confederate soldiers did not own slaves. They were poor farmers. Some Southern men joined the Army to defend their homeland. The first battle of the war was fought at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. After South Carolina left the Union, it asked the Union troops to leave the fort, but the Union declined. Many men enlisted in order to defend their homeland from what they considered to be an invasion of foreign troops, while others were motivated to fight for their state’s rights. They felt that the federal government was exercising too much power over what a state could or could not make legal, such as slavery.

Essential Question
How does war impact a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the individual in the photograph and explain the impact of the Civil War on his life.
Historical Challenges
How and why were the Union and Confederate Armies differently equipped? How did the Union blockades interfere with the Confederate supplies?
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Write a letter home to a loved one describing your life as a Confederate or a Union soldier. Describe the condition of your supplies (uniform, food, weapons, etc.), some friends you have made, and your motivations for fighting in the war.