Lesson Plan

History and Memory: Contrasting the Civil War South in Film and Primary Documents

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Grade Level:
Eleventh Grade-Adult Education (general)
African American History and Culture, Civil War, History, Media Studies, Slavery
Two 50 minute class periods or one hour and a half class period
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
Grades 11 & 12:





This lesson focuses on the life of John Washington, a slave who lived in Fredericksburg prior to the Civil War.  Washington is unique in many ways: he was urban slave, could read, and achieved freedom before the end of the Civil War. In this lesson, students will examine parts of Washington’s personal narrative to gain a better understanding of his life. As a group they will compare and contrast what they have learned with their prior knowledge and how slavery is depicted in media and film.


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
  • Compare and contrast the diverse experience of slaves and the way slavery is often portrayed in media and film
  • Reflect on the experience of a city slave living in Fredericksburg, Virginia
  • Analyze primary sources more effectively
  • Explain the ways in which the experience of one slave can help us better understand the realities of slave life more generally while identifying the limits to this perspective


John Washington lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia prior to the Civil War. Due to its location between the warring capitals in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, V.A., Fredericksburg became a cross roads for the major armies operating in the East - the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The first major battle in the area, the Battle of Fredericksburg, occurred in December of 1862 and resulted in a lopsided Confederate victory. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Taking effect on January 1, 1863, this document stated that, "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." This was a landmark moment because for the first time the government declared that the Federal armies were not waging a war to restore the Union as it was in 1861, but rather to create a new and different Union.

However, prior to December of 1862, the Union Army had already occupied the city of Fredericksburg. During this occupation hundreds of local slaves took it upon themselves to self-emancipate and find refuge in the Union Army. In many ways, each singular act of self-emancipation by individual slaves worked collectively to change the direction of the Union war effort, defining it as a war for freedom before the Federal government officially did so. John Washington was one of the many slaves residing in Fredericksburg who chose to liberate himself during the spring of 1862. Following his journey to freedom, Washington spent time with the Union Army and eventually settled in Washington, D.C. with his family.


 The only materials required for this lesson plan are primary source accounts (included in packet) and a copy of the movie Gone with the Wind.


Park Connections

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park protects and interprets four major Civil War battlefields. Additionally FRSP preserves three historic structures that were a part of various plantations. In particular, the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville occurred before and after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, both battles included combat in the city of Fredericksburg where John Washington resided. The arrival of the Union army in the spring of 1862 prompted Washington to emancipate himself, but he returned to the city later with the army. Washington's experience relates directly to that of other slaves who resided on park property but did not leave a written record. 


 Included in downloadable packet.

Additional resources available through the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park provide an illuminating contrast to various elements of Gone with the Wind such as ideas of Southern chivalry, causes of the Civil war, and the role of white women in the antebellum South. Additional primary sources and short, informational clips are available through the park website. These sources can serve as potential points of departure for these various topics. All clips are available at www.nps.gov/frsp/forteachers.

Additional Resources

 Full text of the Emancipation Proclamation

John Washington's World: A Walking Tour & Vodcast 

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Website

Additional Information on Washington from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Biography of John Washington on NPR

For institutions that subscribe to Project Muse - Download chapters from John Washington's Civil War

Free access to a transcript of Washington's original manuscript

Film clips that highlight particular aspects of John Washington's Life

Last updated: August 31, 2015