Lesson Plan

The Battle of Harpers Ferry, 1862: Harpers Ferry is the Key!


When war broke out in April 1861, Harpers Ferry was still producing weapons for the U.S. Government, but that spring, the Confederates dismantled both weapons’ factories and sent the machines south.  Yet Harpers Ferry remained important to the Union.  Why?  Students will learn about the town’s importance, a little bit about soldier life, and of the 126th New York’s first experiences in this border town after their arrival in August 1862.


Objectives:  Even though the weapons factories had been dismantled by the Confederates in the spring of 1861, Harpers Ferry was still very important for the Union. Why? Also, what was soldier life like there in the summer of 1862, and specifically, what were the 126th New York’s experiences like once they arrived in late August of that year?

Critical Content: Examine the importance of Harpers Ferry up to the time of the Civil War with its importance after the war began. What were the differences and what were they? What was soldier life like during the war?

Student Objectives:  Students will:

  • Learn about the importance of Harpers Ferry to the Union during the Civil War.
  • Learn a little about soldier life during the Civil War.
  • Follow the early experiences of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry after its arrival in Harpers Ferry in late August 1862.


In Harpers Ferry is the Key!  students will learn why this border town was so important to the Union, even after its two weapons’ factories were dismantled during the spring of 1861. Students will also learn about soldier life, particularly as it applies to members of the 126th New York Volunteers, after that regiment’s arrival in Harpers Ferry in late August of 1862.

Our Battle of Harpers Ferry, 1862 unit is divided into four lesson plans, each taking about 30-35 minutes to complete, and targeted mainly at grades five through eight. A class needn’t complete each lesson, although the lessons do build on each other and are better done in sequence. However, each lesson comes with its own set of objectives and resources.


  • Outline of Civil War soldier, showing a fully-equipped soldier, but with nothing labeled.
  • List of items a Civil War soldier either carried or wore.
  • Map of Harpers Ferry and the area around it, including northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., much of Maryland, and south-central Pennsylvania. Map also includes railroad system in the East in the 1860s.


 Materials Needed:  

1) Download the outline drawing of a Union soldier.  

2) Download the list of clothing, and all items a typical Union soldier would have worn, carried, or eaten.


3) Download the map of Harpers Ferry and the area around it, including Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, Maryland, and south-central Pennsylvania.


4) Markers to use with the maps.


5) Power Point with images of Civil War soldiers, and perhaps a map of Harpers Ferry and the area around it. 


If the teacher has used the Joining Up! Lesson, first hear some of the student letters (writing as if they are a new soldier in the summer of 1862).  Discuss and ask the students which of the letters they heard read were the most convincing.

Next, explain that the 126th New York was organized in central New York in early August 1862, but that a lot had gone on in the war down south.  The teacher may already have covered some of it, but should use his/her judgment as to how much needs to be covered.  Probably it will be wise to speak briefly of the Confederate victory at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run).

Hand out the maps of Harpers Ferry and area, and in small groups, have the students determine why they think Harpers Ferry was important to the Union, even after the two weapons factories, which produced weapons for the U.S. Government, were dismantled by the Confederates in the spring of 1861. They should only need a few minutes for this exercise.

As a class, discuss what the students decided. Did they see that Harpers Ferry lies quite close to Washington, D.C. – just 65 miles away?  But did they also notice that the extremely important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad runs right through the town?  Why were the railroads so important back in the 1860’s? What about other forms of transportation?  Although railroads are still important, what other forms of transportation are perhaps even more important today?

Either collect the maps, or have the students hang on to their maps; they’ll be used later. Hand out the soldier outlines, along with the list of items the soldiers either wore or carried (including some food items).  Again, in their small groups, ask the students to decide what each item of clothing or equipment is which; have the students label those items on the soldier outline.  In the case of food items, have the students indicate where they think the soldiers would’ve kept those items. If appropriate, also ask the students to color in their soldiers, with the colors indicated on the downloaded piece.

Once the students have been given enough time, as a class – and perhaps using power point illustrations or photographs – decide as a class which items are which. Briefly discuss what each of those items is for. For example, what was a typical meal for a Union soldier?  Where did they get the water for the making of coffee? Would you have liked drinking water from those sources? How did they grind the coffee beans? What if the beans needed to be roasted first? What was salt pork and how was that prepared?  Have any students ever eaten salt pork?  (If they’ve had baked beans, they just might have!) Might they have been given additional food? (Yes, if they were in a permanent camp, such as Harpers Ferry!)  What about when they were on active campaign?  (Again, yes!  If their officers weren’t looking – and even sometimes when they were looking! – soldiers would often “borrow” apples, corn, potatoes or other food items.)

If you’ve been able to enlist the help of a local Civil War re-enactor, and if you haven’t already done this, it would be fun for the students to learn some Civil War drill, including the “Firing in Nine Time” – the steps for loading and firing the rifled musket – as well as to actually see all the items they’ve already discussed in class. This would most likely require another class, however.

To complete the lesson, tell the students that “their” regiment, the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry, arrived in Harpers Ferry in late August 1862, joining nearly 12,000 other Union soldiers there, most of them also “green.” (What does “green” mean?) At about the same time, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia has won a great victory at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run) at the end of that month, and just days later, Lee has determined to invade the North.  Lee’s army will start crossing into Maryland in early September 1862.


1. How students work together as a group during the class

2. Students can actually assess themselves. Have them assess how they feel their individual group did.

3. As a homework assignment, have the students use their maps, what they’ve learned that day, and provide these tasks: First, pretending they are General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander, have them use markers to determine the route of his army once it’s all moved across the Potomac River into Maryland. Will the presence of the garrison at Harpers Ferry (and a smaller one at Martinsburg, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Harpers Ferry) pose a problem for Lee?   What about the Union army in and around Washington, D.C.? What will they do with Lee’s army? Next, ask the students to come up with at least three reasons they think the Confederates decided to invade Maryland in September of 1862 (there was also a Confederate invasion of Kentucky going on at the same time). Why would the Confederates have decided to move north?

4. Another possibility is to ask the students to do some research that evening on events leading up to the 1862 Maryland Campaign, but not on that Campaign itself.  You can assign short reports on: The Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run), General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, General George B. McClellan, and so on.


Option One – Again, if possible, invite a local Civil War re-enactor to come in and provide a “show and tell” for the students. The re-enactor can run the students through some Civil War drill, show all of the equipment and uniform items, and perhaps most interesting for the students, describe and show the food items Union soldiers were issued while on active campaign.


Option Two - Play some early Civil War music, then play some music that was written later in the war and compare the songs. Is there any difference? You can also do with Civil War photographs. Look at some photos of soldiers at the beginning of the war with photos taken in 1862 or later and compare them.


Option Three – Show that portion of Ken Burns’ The Civil War that deals with the spring and summer of 1862.       


Option Four – If you have access to computers, perhaps take your class to the computer lab and have them do research on some of the Civil War terms, events already discussed in class. This could run the gamut, from the clothing items, equipment and food that the average Union soldier either wore or carried; to important leaders in the Union and Confederate armies in the East; to some of the battles fought before the 1862 Maryland Campaign began.

Additional Resources

  • History of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry
  • The History of Billy Yank by Bell I. Wiley
  • The History of Johnny Reb by Bell I. Wiley


hardtack, "salt pork", shelter-half, cartridge box, cap box, percussion cap, cartridge, rifled musket, frock coat, blouse or fatigue coat, forage cap, bayonet, haversack, "brogans", ramrod, canteen, coffee beans