When Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army invaded Maryland in September 1862, he found it necessary to eliminate the threat to his rear – the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry.  This led to the crucial Battle and Siege of Harpers Ferry, an operation that resulted in the surrender of over 12,000 Union soldiers, the largest surrender of U.S. troops until World War II.  And what part did the 126th New York play in this battle?


Objectives:  What was the Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry and why was it so important as part of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. Also, what part did the members of the newly-formed 126th New York Volunteer Infantry play in that battle? How would these brand new Union soldiers do in their first fight? Finally, what were the results of the Battle of Harpers Ferry, and the Maryland Campaign as a whole?

Critical Content: What part did Harpers Ferry play in the 1862 Maryland Campaign, and why was its involvement prove so important? What part did the new soldiers of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry play in this battle and what happened to them as a result?

Student Objectives: Students will:

  • Learn about the September 1862 Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry.
  • Understand how the Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry affected the outcome of the Maryland Campaign.
  • Follow the experiences of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry during the Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry, and learn what happened to them as a result of those actions.
  • See the correlations between the Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry and the eventual result of the 1862 Maryland Campaign – the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.


In Rats in a Cage!  students will learn about the mid-September 1862 Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry through a dramatic representation.  Students will assume the roles of some of the most important Union and Confederate soldiers, and some civilians, during that event.   Through this Readers’ Theater, students will not only learn about that important battle, but also find out how their regiment, the 126thNew York Infantry, did in its first experience under fire, and finally, they will discover what happened to their regiment as a result of that battle/siege.

Our Battle of Harpers Ferry 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.


Copies of the Readers’ Theater, Rats in a Cage.



First, depending on what assignment has been given out the night before, students can spend a few minutes describing what they would have done had they been in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s position.


Next, as a class, hear from the students what reasons they think were most important in the Confederate decision to invade Maryland in September of 1862. (food and resources; recognition by European powers; give Virginia farmers a reprieve; take the war north; attract recruits from Maryland; threaten a major city; break a railroad line; affect mid-term elections in the North)


The student still have their laminated maps, and they can keep them out as the class reads through the Readers’ Theater. The teacher can also use Power Point to show Harpers Ferry and the area around the town. Another method is to create a your own map outside, using sticks and other materials to show the town of Harpers Ferry, the two rivers and the various heights surrounding the town. If large enough, students can actually move around on this outdoor “map,” mirroring the movements the various armies/units made during the Battle of Harpers Ferry. Obviously, this would require that the teacher have a good map of Harpers Ferry and the surrounding to use as an example. 


Choosing their parts! This can actually be done the day before, if time allows, but students can pick names out of a hat (or box), to determine what parts they will have in the dramatic presentation. (None of the members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry have parts in the Readers’ Theater.) Depending on the size of the class, it’s quite possible that some students will have more than one part.


After all the reading parts have been chosen, including the narrators, the teacher sets the stage, perhaps with the help of Power Point images or also by distributing something to indicate whether the student is portraying a Union or Confederate soldier, or a civilian. 



Now you’re time to actually start the Readers’ Theater! So, get started, and have fun! Perhaps to make it even more fun for the students, have them make appropriate sound effects. (It will take between 20 and 30 minutes to complete the Readers’ Theater.)


After reading the dramatic presentation, first see if there are any questions from the students about what they read.


To conclude this lesson, tell the students they will find out what happened to their member of Company A, 126th New York tomorrow.


Park Connections

Harpers Ferry has a rich Civil War history, and many of its sites, exhibits and museums connect directly with the importance of the town during the Civil War, as well as the “Soldier Life” experience. Bolivar Heights, Schoolhouse Ridge, Maryland Heights, and the Chambers/Murphy Farm, sites all connected with the mid-September 1862 Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry, still exist, very much as they appeared at that time during the war. 


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 - Show that portion of Ken Burns’s The Civil War that deals with the 1862 Maryland Campaign, including the Battle/Siege of Harpers Ferry, and the subsequent issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.


Option Three – Have the students create a diorama of the Battle of Harpers Ferry.


Option Four – Present the Readers’ Theater, Rats in a Cage, as a play for the entire school, or at least for the parents of the students.     

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

-        Landscape Turned Red, by Stephen Sears

-        Under Fire: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye


brigade, division, invasion, artillery, siege, battle, campaign