Lesson Plan

Portrait of a Soldier

Ranger Grant Gates Discusses Soldier Life With Students

Leslie McClammy

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Sixth Grade
African American History and Culture, Civil War, History
90 Minutes
Group Size:
60 or more
in the park
National/State Standards:
English:  3.1, 4.1, 4.4, 5.1
History and Social Sciences:  3.12, 3.13, 4.4, 4.7, 5.6, 5.7, 5.8, 5.9, 11.16, 11.17


Taking a tour of the Crater Battlefield and learning about the horror of the this battle, students are given an opportunity to examine and understand a soldier's motivation and willingness to fight. The struggles of the Union soldiers, the Confederate soldiers, and the United States Colored Troops (USCTs) who participated in this battle are brought to life when students are given a letter, a flag, or other props.


1) At the end of this program, students will identify two aspects of the home life of a Union, Confederate, and a United States Colored Troop.

2) At the end of this program, students will name two reasons they wanted to fight.

3) At the end of this program, students will describe two ways the siege of Petersburg altered the lives of these individuals


As the winter of 1864 settled in, a regiment received their shipment of great coats. The men of this unit had sent them off for storage during the spring and summer campaign. Packed away when the unit was nearly a thousand strong, the coats were now reminders of the nearly seven hundred men lost in those five months between the Wilderness and the trenches of Petersburg. This was the price being paid by both armies and the cost had a fundamental impact. The commitment of these soldiers to finishing the war now equaled their commitment to their causes and in this, the strength of their beliefs was revealed. On the fields of Petersburg nowhere was this more poignantly shown than at the Battle of the Crater.

What was to be a surprise pre-dawn mine explosion underneath Confederate lines followed by a quick hitting Union attack to break through and seize Petersburg, degenerated into an emotional ten-hour long struggle which climaxed at the end with savage hand-to-hand combat. Among the stories on that hot afternoon are the actions of the United States Colored Troops and the dedication displayed by those Union soldiers who braved enemy fire to bring water and ammunition to those trapped in the Crater. To have asked Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 39th USCT, Private John Haley of the 17th Maine, and Private William Pilcher of the Richmond Artillery Otey Battery, what the cost was that day they might have pointed out the five thousand casualties that changed nothing. Ask them why they fought that day and words like "freedom," "equality," "democracy," and "home" may have been spoken. Knowing that all three fought until the war’s end, you would not have to ask about the depth of their commitment.


1) blankets

2) flags

3) props - lanterns, chain, tobacco peg, hoe or rake, replica money, etc.

Provided by PNB



Provide the teachers and students report cards to evaluate their likes and dislikes of the activities. Suggestions?

Park Connections

Nine and a half months, 70,000 casualties, the suffering of civilians, thousands of U. S. Colored Troops fighting for the freedom of their race, and the decline of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of No. Virginia all describe the Siege of Petersburg. It was here Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cut off all of Petersburg's supply lines ensuring the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865. Six days later, Lee surrendered.

Additional Resources


For Teachers:

Kinard, Jeff, The Battle of the Crater, Abilene, TX, McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998.

Gladstone, William, Men of Color, Gettysburg, PA, Thomas Publications, 1993.

Silliker, Ruth, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah, Camden, Maine, Down East Books, 1985.

Carmichael, Peter, Lee’s Young Artillerist, Charlottesville, VA, The University of Virginia Press, 1995.

For Students:

Mettger, Zak, Till Victory is Won, Black Soldiers in the Civil War, New York, NY, Penguin Books, 1997.

Price, William, Civil War Handbook, Springfield, VA, L.B. Prince Co., Inc., 1961.

For a complete listing of Park Programs see the Peterbsurg Battlefield Educators Guide.

Last updated: February 26, 2015