Following the 1862 Battles of Harpers Ferry and Antietam, General Robert E. Lee’s army retreated back to Virginia, providing President Lincoln with the victory he needed; he could now issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  Although this document didn’t end the war, it changed the meaning of the war and proved crucial to its eventual outcome.  What did it say?  What didn’t it say?  Why was it so important?  And what happened to the members of Company A, 126th New York?


Objectives:   What was the Emancipation Proclamation?  How did the results of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, including the Battle of Harpers Ferry, lead to President Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation?   What did the Proclamation say?  What didn’t it say?  Why was it such an important, despite the fact that it didn’t free slaves in areas controlled by the Union?   And finally, what happened to the members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry?

Critical Content: Consider the impact the Battle of Harpers Ferry had on the entire 1862 Maryland Campaign, as well as the entire Campaign itself, and the need for President Lincoln to have that Union victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  Examine the ramifications of the Emancipation Proclamation, but despite its limitations, the effects the document had on the national and international stage.

Student Objectives: Students will:

  • See how history is a continuum, a series of events, in which one event – in this case, the Battle of Harpers Ferry – can affect another, and that those other events, can affect future actions.
  • Understand what the Emancipation Proclamation said, and didn’t say.
  • Learn why, despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation had a tremendous impact on Europe, particularly England and France, two countries the Confederacy had hoped to receive assistance from during the war.
  • Finally, find out what happened to members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry.


In Emancipation! Students will learn about why President Lincoln waited until after Lee’s retreat back to Virginia before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and what the Proclamation said and didn’t say.  They will also see the “domino effect” of the series of events that made up the 1862 Maryland Campaign, including the Battle of Harpers Ferry, that helped lead to the eventual conclusion of the Campaign and Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Finally, the students will find out the fates of the members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry.


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. 


Questions on the Emancipation Proclamation 


1) Download the fates of the members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry.
2) Download the list of questions dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation.

First, go over any homework that was assigned the night before.

Next, divide the class into small groups of 4 students each, and if available, go to the computer lab (or make use of the computers in your classroom).  Give each group a list of questions which deal with the Emancipation Proclamation.

If you have enough computers available, have each team use two computers, so that 2 students are using one computer. Each team can either work together as a whole team, or, even better, divide the questions between the two pairs.  Give the teams about 10 minutes to do some research and answer as many questions as they can. Some of the answers may be hard to determine, but encourage the students to do their best to answer all of the questions.

As a team, the two pairs within each team should then share their answers, and discuss the final question on the list.  Allow a few more minutes for this activity.

Once the teams have completed their research and discussion, return to the classroom to finish up the lesson.

Now, perhaps using Power Point, go over the questions in the classroom, and see what the teams came up with.  Although some of the Proclamation is confusing, you should be able to explain its contents.  More difficult, of course, is why Lincoln felt he could NOT free the slaves in areas then controlled by the Union (including four states which still allowed slavery but had not seceded from the Union).  This was a Constitutional issue, and it may be best not to get too involved in this.

After covering the major points of the Emancipation Proclamation and taking their questions, it’s time to hand out the fates of the members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry.  Before doing this, however, make sure you’ve covered some of the terms indicated on this lesson (mustered out, discharged for disability, deserted, and so on). 

Once you’re handed out all the fates, take questions from the students, and have each one tell the rest of the class what happened to his/her soldier.

Finally, as a concluding activity, have the students draw a picture of their soldier, as they envision that individual. You may want to have some examples of Union soldiers available.  Ask the students to include as much equipment as they want, to color in the soldier, to put the name, rank, and unit on the paper, and to also indicate what happened to the soldier during the war. To add to the atmosphere, and if you have it available, play some Civil War music while the students are working on their drawings.

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. The park’s Civil War museums deal with the 1862 Maryland Campaign, and the ultimate results of that Campaign. Also, a flag of the 126thNew York Volunteer Infantry is on display in one of the park’s two Civil War museums.


Option One – Have the students write a one-act play that picks up the story of the 126th New York as it makes it journey from Harpers Ferry to Camp Douglas prison outside of Chicago, Illinois.


Option Two – Have the students write a one-act play that deals with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the various reactions to the document (an Englishman, a Northern citizen, a free African-American, a slave, a Southern citizen, a Union soldier, a Confederate soldier, and so on).


Option Three --  Show that portion of Ken Burns’s The Civil War that deals with the Emancipation Proclamation and its ramifications.

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



campaign, emancipation, proclamation, mustered out, discharged for disability, deserted