Lesson Plan

Letters Home


GOAL: To be able to personalize and better understand certain aspects of the cultural, natural and social histories of the time and place of the Battle of Cowpens.


• The student will research and restate historical elements in a creative, relevant manner conducive to a more effective understanding of that history.


Today, with the advent of computers and e-mail, handwritten personal letters are becoming increasingly rare, and penmanship is a minor part of the curriculum. It is important to remember that in the 18 th century, all documents (letters, wills, deeds, church records and diaries) were handwritten. Therefore, penmanship was an important part of the curriculum. It is equally important to remember the differences in the resources that are available to students of today compared to those of 1781.

Before writing a letter, 18th century students made their own pens from goose feathers. They made their ink from apple or oak galls (swellings on the tree made from the gall fly), mixing it with copper sulfate (a potentially harmful chemical), tree sap, letting it sit for several weeks, and finally diluting the smelly mess with water and combining it with iron salt.

It is significant to note when reading old documents, that not only were the writing implements different than they are today, the style of writing has changed greatly. Punctuation and spelling were different in the 18 th century than they are today. Sometimes pauses were indicated by dots. The origin of the colon came from a dot separating words. In addition to punctuation, the formation of letters has changed since the 18 th century, as well. For instance, I and J, or i and j were used interchangeably through the 19 th century. Therefore, it may take several different readings before one can fully grasp the meaning of the text. However, with practice, it can be done, and one can even attempt to write as people used to do many years ago.



  1. Students pretend that they are soldiers under the command of General Morgan (or Lt. Col. Tarleton) at the Battle of Cowpens. Have them write a letter to their parents about what they imagine their experience will be.
  2. After research and discussion of the Battle and study of life at that time, each student carefully composes and writes two letters to a family member or trusted friend. One letter should be written the night before the Battle and the other letter should be written after the battle has taken place. The letters should each be dated and include a description of the weather, the terrain, what the student may have eaten that day and a description of activities he/she were involved in and of fellow comrades. A story or even a joke that may have been heard could be included. Have the student include personal feelings about the war and his/her role in it and what might lie in the future.
  3. Read selections from The Journal of James Collins and Private Yankee Doodle. Have words changed spellings or meanings since these accounts were written?


Have students view the park's video, “Cowpens: A Battle Remembered” and take notes for a written report.


  1. Display letters with illustrations by students.
  2. Compare and contrast writing a letter with a quill pen and ink with sending e-mail.
  3. For the most ambitious, quill pens could be made by the students from turkey feathers and used with fountain pen or India ink. Unlined parchment-like paper could be used which could be artificially aged with coffee or tea before use. (See Revolutionary-Era Journals and Colonial Correspondence Materials lesson plans.)

Additional Resources

Roberts, John M., ed. Autobiography of a Revolutionary War Soldier (James Collins). Ayer Company Publishers, Inc.: North Stratford, New Hampshire, 1989. Originally published by Feliciana Democrat, Printers, Clinton, Louisiana, 1859.

Scheer, George F., ed. Private Yankee Doodle by Joseph Plumb Martin. Acorn Press, Philadelphia, 1979. Orginally published by Little, Brown, and Company, 1962.

Stryker-Rodda, Harriet. Understanding Colonial Handwriting. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1986.