Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Ninth Grade
Civil War, History, Military and Wartime History, Slavery, Social Studies
35-40 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)


When war broke out in April 1861, thousands of young men rushed to join the colors. Why were they so anxious to go off to war? Then, after the horrors of war had been exposed, why were thousands more willing to enlist in 1862?  Why did men of central New York decide to join a new unit, the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry in August of 1862? Each student will receive the identity of an actual soldier from that regiment, and eventually find out what happened to him as a result of the war.


Objectives: Why were young men so anxious to rush off to war in 1861? A year later, in 1862, what were the motivating factors for men joining up at that time? Were their reasons different?

Critical Content: Compare and contrast the reasons men joined the Civil War armies in 1861 and in 1862. Were there differences and why?                

Student Objectives:
Students will:

  • Learn the reasons young men rushed to enlist in the Union and Confederate armies in 1861.
  • Learn the reasons young men were willing to join the armies in 1862.
  • Compare and contrast those reasons and understand why they were different.


In Joining Up!  students will learn why young men were so anxious to go off to war in 1861, and why the next year, in 1862, after the horrors of Civil War were so apparent, others were willing to join the armies. Students will then be given the identity of soldiers who actually joined a New York infantry regiment in the summer of 1862.

Our The 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.


  • Cards with reasons young men joined the armies in 1861
  • Identities of members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry
  • U.S. Oath of Allegiance


Materials - Download the document titled, Reasons Why Young Men Joined the Armies in 1861, and then either cut the sheet as indicated, or create your own, possibly using 3 x 5 cards. Also download the identities of members of Company A, 126th New York Volunteer Infantry and U.S. Oath of Allegiance.


First, divide the class into small groups of 4-5, and give each group a stack of cards that have on them the reasons men joined the armies in 1861.  Ask each group come up with a scribe and a facilitator.


Give the groups a specific amount of time (probably no more than 10 minutes) and assign them two tasks: first, have them arrange the cards (with the reasons young men joined the armies in 1861) in order, from the least to the most important. This will obviously require some discussion in the group, and they won’t always agree; they’ll probably need to vote. Next, can they come up with any other reasons young men might have had for joining the armies in 1861? 



After the time given, gather the entire class back together and see what the results were. Perhaps have all of the reasons already written on the board, and using hash marks, determine which ones were the groups’ most popular ones.  Why do the students feel the way they do?   Would they have felt the same way?  Do they think some of those reasons might even be true today, in 2013-14? Why or why not?



Next, see if the groups have come up with any other reasons why young men were so anxious to go to war in 1861.  Once the students have had a chance to share their thoughts, ask them if they know what happened to the men once they enlisted? How long was their term of service (it varied)? How were the men organized?  Here the teacher can go over some of the military terms, such as: regiment, company, the titles of the officers, and so on. Also, see if anyone had ancestors who participated in the Civil War? (This could actually serve as a separate assignment.)


Assuming the class has done some study of the war, now tell the class you’ve moved ahead to the year 1862.  Many battles have been fought, and many soldiers have died.  In mid-summer, in the North, President Lincoln calls for 300,000 more volunteers to join the armies. Now have the student groups reform and this time, ask them to decide the main reasons men would’ve joined the armies in 1862. Give them just a few minutes to discuss this question and arrange their cards, again from the least to the most important.  You might give them a few blank “cards” (or slips of paper, depending on what you use), to write down some additional reasons.


After a few minutes, bring the entire class back together again and see what their results are.  Are their reasons different? Did they come up with any other reasons?   Compare and contrast the results of 1861 and 1862 and discuss them as a class.

Announce to the class that they are now to pretend they are New Yorkers living in the central part of the state, and in August 1862 have decided to join a brand-new New York regiment, the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry. Clarify what that name means.


Before handing out the identities, the class will first have to decide who will serve as the officer, the sergeant, and perhaps the corporal, will be. (A Civil War company had three officers, a many more than two non-commissioned officers, so the teacher will need to decide how many of each he/she would like to have.)  One way to do this to have several “candidates” in mind, and bring them to the front of the class. Each “candidate” will give the same Civil War order, which could be “Attention – Company!”  (There was a pause between the two words.)  The order will need to be given in a loud, forceful manner, as the captain in charge of a company of soldiers would have to be heard by all 100 men. Allow the “candidates” one practice round, then during the final round, the other students will clap in response to each given order. The “candidate” who receives the most applause will be named the captain, the one with the second-most applause will be the sergeant, and the last person will be named corporal. (One other way to do this would be to not have any officers or non-commissioned officers, and just to make everyone a private.)


Now you can hand out the identities of members of Company A, of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry.  Ask the students to share with one another who they are, where they’re from, how old they are, and so on.  To make it more fun, ask them to try to speak with each other as if it’s August 1862, and they’re meeting each other for the first time.  (“What’s your name? Where are you from? Seth – from Geneva?  And what do you do, Seth? And why did you sign up to be a soldier?”)



Once all of the students have received an identity, have them stand in a straight line (probably outside, if the weather allows, or in a large room), and have them take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Inform them that they are now soldiers in the U.S. Army and will soon be off to the seat of war!! (The oath of allegiance can be downloaded from this site.)


Assessment can be in several forms:


  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 write a letter as if they’re their new identity from Company A, 126th New York. Have them write a letter to a friend, relative or girlfriend, explaining why they decided to join the army, what they hope to do, how much they’ll miss them, and so on. They can also decorate the letter with patriotic images. Have the students use both their imaginations and their creativity in decorating the letters.

Park Connections

Harpers Ferry has a rich Civil War history, and many of its sites connect directly with the “Soldier Life” experience. For example, Union and Confederate soldiers camped on Bolivar Heights at various times during the war, learning the elements of soldiering. 


Option One - Because this unit and the lessons within, deal with Union soldiers, take some time to look at the other side and ask your students why young men in the South also rushed to join the armies in 1861.  Do they think there were drastic differences in their reasons? Why or why not?


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 – Invite a Civil War re-enactor to come to your school and speak on the Life of the Common Soldier.  If you have a person or more available, perhaps he/they can run your class through some Civil War drill.  This would be particularly fun for the students, as they are now members of a Union infantry company, and would have to do a LOT of drilling before entering combat.


Option Four – If you have access to computers, take your students to a computer lab and ask them to do some research on any number of topics, such as: joining the armies in 1861; a typical day in the life of a Civil War soldier (they actually didn’t fight in battles that often), the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry, and so on.


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


regiment, company, battalion, enlist, enlistment, colonel, major, captain, sergeant, corporal, private