A Slave, A Plantation, A War: Pre-Visit

At the end of this lesson, each student:

Will describe the possible experiences of a slave, a plantation owner, and a war general through a look at the songs of the period.

Will explain two hidden meanings in the songs.

Will compare songs of the Civil War era to a song of today, and explain how the words reflect the culture.

Copies of the songs and music that will represent slaves, southern plantation owners and soldiers.

The field trip to City Point will provide a tour of the kitchen building, Appomattox Manor, and Grant's cabin. These three structures will be used to explain the life and experiences of a slave, a plantation owner, and a war general. Through the years, songs have been used as a medium to tell stories of peoples' lives and experiences. Just like songs today reflect the cuture of the people, songs of Civil War times also reflected the events and lifestyles of this time period. Students will look at songs from long ago and identify what stories they tell.

Involvment of the Learners:
Have students choose an appropriate, popular song of today and write a few of the lyrics on the board. Students can explain how the lyrics reflect the culture and events of today.

Example: Will Smith - Just The Two of Us
It's a full-time job to be a good dad
You got so much more stuff than I had
I gotta study just to keep with the changin times
101 Dalmations on your CD-ROM
See me--I'm trying to pretend I know
On my PC where that CD go
But yo, ain't nuthin promised, one day I'll be gone
Feel the strife but trust life does go on...
Album: Big Willie Style

Transition to Explanation:
How do the songs of today reflect the current events and lifestyles of our generation? What do the lyrics of the songs say about us and what type of families exist in the 1990s? Let's take a look at songs from another time.

Students may work in pairs to read the lyrics of the song handouts. Handouts will represent the songs popularly sung by soldiers, slaves, or farmers.

Students will need to identify whether the song would have been sung by a soldier, a slave, or a plantation owner. After the student pairs identify who would have sung this song, they must explain why the song reflects the lifestyle of the person they chose.

Upon completing these questions, students will need to look for hidden meanings in the song. Students may pick one verse of the song and summarize what story the verse is telling.

Students will share their songs with the class and explain their interpretation of the song. What does this song say about the events of the Civil War time period?



One Slave's Perspective

We raise de wheat
Dey gib us de corn
We bake de bread
Dey gib us de cruss
We sif de meal
Dey gib us de huss
We peal de meat
Dey gib us de skin
And dat's de way
Dey takes us in

Frederick Douglass recorded this song indicative the the slave's sense of planter's oppression.
Excerpt from: The Slave Community, John W. Blassingame

What image does Douglass give the reader of slavery?

Is slave life portrayed in a positive or negative light from this passage?

Do you believe that all slaves felt this way about their circumstance in life?


One Southern Perspective

Secession is our watchword,
Our rights we will demand;
To defend our homes and firesides
We pledge our hearts and hand.
Jeff Davis is our President,
With Stephen by our side;
Brave Beauregard, our General,
Will join in our ride.

Our wagon is the very best,
The running gear is good;
Stuffed 'round the sides with cotton,
And made of Southern wood.
Carolina is the driver,
With Georgia by her side,
Virginia holds the flag up,
While we all take a ride.

Wait for the Wagon was a popular song written by R.P. Buckley in the 1850s. A Southern Parody of this song became popular during the Civil War.
Singing Soldiers, A History of the Civil War in Song, Paul Glass, Louis C. Singer

What does the word secession mean in these lyrics?

Why might the lyrics refer to cotton and Southern wood?

What is the opinion of the writer and singers of the words above? Do you believe that most southerners felt this way?

Do the lyrics refer more to the issue of slavery or of states' rights?


One Union Perspective

We're fighting for our Union, we're fighting for our trust,
We're fighting for that happy land where sleeps our Father's dust
It cannot be dissever'd, tho' it cost us bloody wars.
We can never give up the land where float the Stripes and Stars.

We do not want your cotton, we care not for your slaves,
But rather than divide this land, we'll fill your southern graves.
With Lincoln for our Chieftain, we'll wear our country's scars.
We rally round that brave old flag that bears the Strips and Stars!

The Bonnie Blue Flag, written by Harry Macarthy, became one of the most popular songs in the south during the Civil War. The success of the song in the South drew Col. J.L. Geddes to write a parody of this song, entitled "The Bonnie Blug Flag with Stripes and Stars."
Singing Soldiers, A History of the Civil War in Song, Paul Glass, Louis C. Singer

What are the reasons for fighting the Civil War according to the lyrics of this song?

What is the opinion of this writer or singer of the south?

Do you believe that all northerner felt this way about slavery?


Pass out a copy of the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd."
While songs are often an expression of the lifestyle of a people during a certain time and place, some songs truly have hidden messages. Songs of the slaves were often sung to communicate certain messages to one another. The song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was often sung by slaves who worked on the Underground Railroad. Read the lyrics of the song, and see if you can identify what the possible hidden messages are in the words.

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd
Follow the Drinkin' Gourd
For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.
When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the Drinkin' Gourd
For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.

What the lyrics could have meant:
"When the sun comes back" - Sunset
"And the first quail calls" - Bird sound
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" - Go north, following the Big Dipper located near the North Star

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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