When students learn history solely from a textbook, they tend to get an over-generalized picture of the period. My high school and middle-school textbooks gave me the impression that everyone in the North was anti-slavery during the Civil War, all male citizens were gung-ho to join the military during the WWII, and all African-Americans agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights period. One way to challenge these generalizations and give students better understanding of history is to use microhistories -- the historical investigation of a single event, person, or place to give a greater understanding of a historical period. Though the event or person may seem insignificant, it can problematize a too-simple understanding of history and illuminate aspects of the period that have been previously overlooked.
The Civil War a period that can often be over-generalized in the North as a battle of the “good” North versus the “bad” South. The lesson plan “Brother versus Brother: The Drayton Letter” challenges this idea. This lesson is based around a letter from Thomas Drayton to his brother Percival after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. The men were from a family that lived in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. This letter shows that the Civil War divided families and complicates the idea that the war was simply a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys.
This lesson, which encourages the use of the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War,” can help students to better understand the personal and political tensions during the Civil War and give them a more well-rounded picture of the War.