Lesson Plan

The Battle of Harpers Ferry, 1862: Emancipation!

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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)
The Battle of Harpers Ferry 1862, Maryland Campaign, The Battle of Antietam Sharpsburg, General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas Stonewall Jackson, General George B. McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, Camp Douglas, Emancipation Proclamation


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 


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