Letters from the Field

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Letters from the Field

Letters were the primary means of communication for Civil War era soldiers. Men on both side wrote letters to friends, family members, and even newspapers about their time in the armies. Men of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were no exception. These letters illustrate what hardships and challenges the soldiers of Camp William Penn faced on and off the battlefield.  


This lesson will focus on letters Camp William Penn soldiers wrote to newspapers about their experience in the USCT. It uses letters from a compilation book entitled A Grand Army of Black Men edited by Edwin S. Redkey (1992). Soldiers who trained at Camp William Penn wrote all of the letters used in this lesson.


Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


Students will be able to:

  • analyze letters from USCT soldiers.

  • describe some of the challenges USCT soldiers faced off the battlefield.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Begin today’s lesson by sharing with your students images of Camp William Penn. There are a few surviving pictures of the camp available, as well as contemporary drawings, and some secondary maps about the layout of camp. Discuss with your students how the camp was organized, and allow them to visualize the environment.

  2. If needed, remind your students about the background of the USCT. Take a look at the timeline again to remind students when and where black soldiers fought. Once your students have grasped this background information, move onto the discussion of letters.

  3. Provide some perspective for the importance of letter writing. Ask your students the following questions.

    1. How do you communicate with your friends and family?

    2. How often do you talk with them?

    3. Think about the frequency of your conversations, how important do you think letters were to Civil War soldiers?

  4. Share with your class the USCT Letters document. There are eight letters inside. There is some background information before each letter. (The documents come from A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, ed. Edwin S. Redkey (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1992). Tell your students to read the background sketches, and then select three or four to read entirely. Students should be answering the following questions while reading.

    1. Who is the author of the document?

    2. When are they writing?

    3. Where are they writing from?

    4. Identify some of the triumphs and hardships the authors discuss in these letters.

    5. What do you think the author wanted the reader to take from this letter?

  5. Wrap up the lesson by asking the following questions to your class.

    1. Who did the letter authors intend on reading these letters?

    2. What challenges did men of the USCT face off the battlefield?

    3. Are any of these challenges similar to those they experienced before the war, or even at Camp William Penn?