Lesson Plan

The Battle of Harpers Ferry, 1862: Joining Up!

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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)


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



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