Teaching with Historic Places in Real Classrooms: James Percoco on using Film and Place to teach Civil War history

Reeling Students into History: Using Films Creatively

By James A. Percoco, History Teacher West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia

The following case study explains how film can be used to teach visual literacy and source analysis. Comparing different interpretations about historic events also can challenge misconceptions about the past. James Percoco describes how he uses TwHP lesson plans to help students analyze three films about the Civil War.


For better or for worse, history and film are forever wed. History has just got too many stories that filmmakers want to get their hands on and turn into celluloid or cinema magic. Many of these history films can help teach an increasingly important skill for today’s students: visual literacy.

Films can challenge students to look beyond what is on the screen and also offer them terrific opportunities to learn history while getting them to question assumptions. In addition to movies made in Tinseltown, the emergence of high quality documentaries, often voiced by big ticket stars whose voices everyone recognizes, lends a kind of authority to history on film. But it is important to remember that films, like books, have “authors” and present the creator’s interpretation of facts. Students need to apply critical thinking skills not only to films containing the ubiquitous teaser, “Based on a true story,” but also to those produced by History (formerly the History Channel), Discovery, and PBS.

The Civil War on Film

Perhaps more than any other single event, the American Civil War captures our imagination. Let’s take a peek at how you can utilize clips from different films of this particular genre and tie them to historic sites where “real” as opposed to “reel” history took place. In the Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program, there are more than twenty lesson plans that explore the legacy of the Civil War. I am going to focus on three of these and how I incorporate my “R.E.E.L.” process into teaching them. That process involves Retelling history, Evidence collecting from primary sources, Evidence collecting from films, and Learning critical examination of evidence and interpretation. The three lessons I will focus on are First Manassas: An End to Innocence; Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg; and Andersonville: Prisoner of War Camp.

First Manassas: Ken Burns Goes To War

In September, 1990, a national buzz was generated by Ken Burn’s masterpiece, The Civil War. Burns’ series brought the Civil War to life in a way that had not been done before. I remember discussing “Episode One: The Cause” with my colleagues the day after it aired. Everyone agreed that the last four minutes of the film encapsulated much of what men on both sides of the battle lines must have felt in July 1861. Through his artistry, including music and stirring images, Ken Burns turned a little known major from Rhode Island into a household name -- Sullivan Ballou. “The Cause” movingly ends with narrator, historian David McCullough, saying, “Sullivan Ballou died a week later at the battle of Bull Run.” The Sullivan Ballou Letter brought tears to viewers’ eyes with its and Burns’ expressions of pathos.

I use the Ballou letter in my classroom. You can find the letter in the Determining the Facts section of the TwHP lesson plan First Manassas: An End to Innocence. Provide students a copy and then play the related clip from The Civil War. For years I simply used this document, along with the compelling film piece, to animate the reasons that some men used to justify a war to preserve the Union. It was a pretty cut-and-dried lesson, followed by students recording in their journals their reactions to the letter. Then several years ago I discovered that Sullivan never mailed the letter! His wife, Sarah, to whom he had written the letter, received it years later when an official delivered a trunk with Sullivan’s belongings. Personally I felt hoodwinked! How dare my emotions be trifled with! Then I realized I had a golden opportunity to use this letter in a much more complex way with my students—as a lesson in historiography.

Implementing the R.E.E.L. Process:

R: Retelling History: Introductory Discussion
First we hold a general discussion about why film works with young people as opposed to a textbook. “What are its advantages over textual material,” I inquire. Students respond that a film contains music, images, sound, and voices that bring history to life – they can “feel” it they tell me.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Primary Source (TwHP lesson Plan)

Next I provide students with a copy of the letter. One of the great things about using TwHP lesson plans is that there is great cross-pollination and depth in combining a variety of history resources. The easy access to this kind of primary source material can help you meaningfully extend your particular take on your own classroom lessons. For the Ballou letter, you can have the students read the letter individually in silence, ask for a volunteer to read it out loud, or have the class read it aloud together. But what I like to do is have students read along as they listen to the narration from the Burns film.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Film

Once students have the letter in front of them, I turn on the film and we listen to the narration. In the background, strains of a fiddle play the series haunting theme, “Ashokan Farewell.” The whole process takes about four minutes.

Then we hold a discussion and I prompt students to tell me how they felt. Most students say that the letter is really sweet, poignant, and sad. It’s heartfelt. I nod my head in animated agreement with their sentiments. I next ask them how they think Sarah felt. Again responses generally focus on her loss, but also the pride with which she must have had about how and why Sullivan died.

L: Learning to Critically Examine Historic Retellings (by Comparing the Evidence)

Then it is my turn to drop the bombshell by telling them that Sullivan never sent the letter. Cries of righteous indignation resonate in my classroom. Students tell me that they feel cheated.

Now our discussion turns to the “uses” of history. I ask students to talk about whether they think it was fair for Burns to use the letter as he did. Some are quick to point out that it did not matter that the letter was not sent because Burns was trying to capture the attitudes of men who went off to war. Yet other students see it as a form of abusing history to manipulate people’s emotions. Students are pretty savvy in matters like these. In querying them about film, I ask them what it is that drives a film’s emotional punch. They are quick to point out that use of music, the narrator’s tone of voice, and specific imagery in layers of photography all combine to manipulate their feelings. If you follow that up by asking students if they think that it is fair or appropriate to use these techniques in a history film, you will receive a wide range of answers, which reflect the debate on this topic that also takes place in public history and academic circles.

This kind of discussion is crucial to generating serious critical thinking skills. There is no right or wrong answer here. It is simply the mystery of interpretation and the ways in which today’s media allow those interpretations to be shaped. For some students, Ken Burns committed an egregious wrong. Others see it as cinematic genius.

A lesson constructed like this permits teachers to cover necessary information on the Civil War as addressed by state and national standards, while at the same time taking the same material and information and moving them to a higher intellectual level—the place where we want all students to be.

Teachers might want to consider playing around with the name of this TwHP lesson, “First Manassas: An End to Innocence.” In some ways, using this portion of the lesson plan, in this particular way, ends student innocence in looking at history as an open and shut case.

Gettysburg: Sacred Ground/Sacred Story

No Civil War battlefield in America evokes more passion or conjures up more images than Gettysburg National Military Park. In fact, much of our national memory derives from the three days of battle fought there in July 1863, and also from the idea of “a new birth of freedom,” which took root on November 19, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The TwHP lesson plan Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg examines the motivations of men from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line within the context of Civil War America, providing a glimpse into their respective psyches. One way you can enliven this lesson plan is to utilize different clips from the motion picture Gettysburg, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. Michael Shaara’s book and the subsequent film are about more than just physical combat; they are, in part, about the emotions and justifications for waging war for a cause. The several excerpts provided in this lesson plan do the same thing, but using visual imagery from the film heightens student learning.

Implementing the R.E.E.L. Process:

R: Retelling History: Introductory Discussion Because the battle of Gettysburg is included in the National History Standards Grades 5—12, it makes sense to create a classroom extension activity. With the R.E.E.L. approach, you can “show” and not just “tell” students what happened, while also getting them to see beyond a time, place, and date into a complex intellectual minefield. Use the same introductory approach as discussed in the Manassas lesson, but be certain to clarify with your students the differences between a documentary film like that of Ken Burns and a Hollywood interpretation of the Civil War. While the same general rules apply to the approach here, you are dealing with a different kind of character portrayal.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Primary Source (TwHP lesson Plan)

Have students first read “Three Days of Carnage” from the Determining the Facts section of the TwHP lesson plan. Then provide them the three personal accounts that follow in “Perspectives of the Participants.” Have the students answer the question prompts. These questions help students see into the minds of real people from the past, while allowing them to form their own original thoughts about these individuals’ reasoning and feelings without the addition of music, photography, and narration. It is a cleaner, less externally-invasive, approach.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Film

There are many different clips from the film you can use to support the material provided in the readings for this lesson’s Determining the Facts section. There are three clips I think particularly work well. The first clip is where Union Captain Thomas Chamberlain engages in a conversation with some captured Confederates over why they are fighting. Characters here flesh out their respective positions. The second scene is a conversation between Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (older brother of Thomas Chamberlain) and Sergeant Buster Kilrain about race and its place in 1863 American life. The third scene is a lengthy conversation between Confederate General Lewis Armistead and British observer Arthur Freemantle, which takes place moments before the Confederates launch Pickett’s Charge on Day Three of the battle.

There also are several scenes of combat in the film that you can use to juxtapose with “Three Days of Carnage,” particularly the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top and the climactic Pickett’s Charge. If you want to take it even further, you can show yet another film clip on the 20th Maine’s stand on Little Round Top, this one from the Ken Burns series (Episode 5: Universe of Battle). In the latter clip, Burns chose to use the reminiscences of Private Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine to tell the story. So once again, narration overlaid with graphics, music, and sound effects produces a particular kind of historical immediacy. The problem with this clip, however, is that, even though Gerrish was a soldier in the 20th Maine, he was convalescing in a hospital in Philadelphia on July 2, 1863. Once again this raises serious questions with which students must wrestle.

L: Learning to Critically Examine Historic Retellings (by Comparing the Evidence)

After students have read documents in the TwHP lesson, followed by watching the film clips, you can query them as to how much the primary material they read matches what filmmaker Ronald Maxwell captured in his motion picture interpretation. Does the historical record provided by the primary sources validate what students saw on screen? In other words, how accurate is the film to real history?

This takes us back to the primary documents in the TwHP “Perspectives” reading, since they were all written or compiled long after the war. How do we know what is accurate? Script writers created the characters’ dialogue in Gettysburg. Burns chose to use the words of someone who for all intents and purposes appears to have been part of the drama on Little Round Top, but in fact was not. Even the eyewitness accounts may have been skewed by the passage of time. These are the complexities and ambiguities, even with primary sources, with which any good historian must grapple when analyzing the past and then developing a historical interpretation, whether in writing or on screen. Students are quick to point out that Hollywood films have a particular goal in mind—making money is the bottom line—that shapes how a film is created. So not only did soldiers have choices and commitments about their actions, but so do historians, filmmakers, and even the participants themselves, about how to portray those actions.

Andersonville: A Human Hellhole

There is a whole different side to Civil War military history besides warfare itself: Prisoner of War (POW) Camps. In these standards-driven times, teachers often overlook this topic, but it is no less important or compelling than the battles. What happened to prisoners confined behind the stockades during the Civil War tells us something about just how uncivil was our Civil War. Nowhere is this harrowing story told more completely than at Andersonville National Historic Site in a remote corner of southern Georgia.

If you can’t visit the site, then the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan Andersonville: Prisoner of War Camp can bring this horror to your classroom. This is another instance when using a Hollywood film—in this case, Andersonville—will do the job. This lesson plan and this film match up quite nicely and work really well as a team.

Implementing the R.E.E.L. Process:

R: Retelling History: Introductory Discussion All the readings and images provided in this lesson plan provides students with a way to see how accurate a history film can really be when it’s done properly. It matters not in which order you use the readings, the maps, and the images from the Andersonville lesson plan. But, I do think here you use the film first and then deal with the components of the lesson plan. So this switches the evidence “E”s in my R.E.E.L. process, which can work just as well. There are many compelling photographs of men who survived these camps as literally “living skeletons.” Using photographs like these as prompts, images of which can be found on the internet, go a long way in jump starting such a lesson. I also like to prep my students for this lesson using the image in the “Inquiry Question.” Combining these images hooks students into the story visually.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Film

I suggest that you show any number of clips from the film, Andersonville, including the prison riot with the Raiders, the scene where Camp Commander Henry Wirz tries to justify to investigators why the camp and the inmates are in such deplorable condition, and the final overview beauty shot of the actual National Cemetery, which dramatically shows the 13,000 headstones. Give some thought about how you would like to match film clips with maps, readings, photos, or other portions of the Andersonville lesson plan. It works best if you have students read the corresponding section of the lesson after each clip. The beauty shot of the National Cemetery makes for good visual closure.

E: Evidence Collecting from the Primary Source (TwHP lesson Plan)

After watching the film clips, we then read the two readings provided in the lesson. The images and readings in this lesson match perfectly with the clips that I show. While the vast majority of students have some working knowledge of the Civil War period, that same number will be unfamiliar with this arena of the war. In proceeding as I have described, you will help set up your students to wrestle intellectually with the power and emotion of primary source still images, motion picture sequences, and narrative constructions of the Andersonville story. Get your students to consider whether or not these sources are in some way all biased or truthful. Is it possible that depending on how one “uses” the material a particular slant can take shape. Let the students decide.

L: Learning to Critically Examine Historic Retellings (by Comparing the Evidence)

Then let your students become critics of the film based on what they have read and seen from the lesson plan. Prompt your students to consider what director John Frankenheimer got right and why. He had access to the same historical material the students had, so what makes the difference with this film? Is it the story, the people, or both? Is it easier to capture historically on film something with a different kind of chaos as opposed to the chaos of a battlefield?

Beyond R.E.E.L. – Hands-on History

A Different Kind of putting it All Together:

“Putting It All Together” activities provide both inspiration and room for teachers to invent new projects of their own that are more fitting to the specifics of their class: in this case, one related to film. It also gives students a chance to see their teacher working like a historian does and this kind of role modeling is important for all concerned with good history education.

Tell your students that they have been contracted to make a Civil War film. Have them research a moment from the war and draw up a story board, as filmmakers do for their films, about their event. As students work this through ask them to consider what issues they might have in trying to put their story on camera; what constraints might they encounter that they never expected to experience. Provide students a 3 x 5 index card and ask them to complete the following two sentences based on what they have just learned: (a) “ I would rather learn about historical events and people from the past by from text or film (pick one) because….”; (b) “The most accurate way to capture history – in text or on film (pick one) is because… .” Another way for you to frame this is to ask students whether they would rather write a research paper or make a film and why. Which do they think would convey a more accurate sense of history and why?

On-Site Learning

It has been my good fortune to bring students on field trips to the three sites discussed in this article. If you opt to bring students to places, these lesson plans provide good pre-trip preparation. Spending a day at a site where history happened brings a kind of immediacy to your students. It also helps them diffuse the “romance” of history. Because we live in a time and space different than the present of people who came before us there is a tendency in our present to look at the past through a filter that blinds us to reality. After reading excerpts and evidence of the past, as one can do with TwHP lessons, students are more easily able to drop those blinders and face what really happened.

My preference is to do actual readings of participants at site specific locations. For example, our last stop in Gettysburg is the site in the National Cemetery, where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. There is a marvelous reminiscence from George Gitt, who was fifteen years old in 1863. He managed to hide under the speakers platform before the dedication of the ceremony began and “literally stood at the feet of [his] hero,” listening to Lincoln deliver his immortal words. What better way to conclude a trip to Gettysburg than by getting students to hear the words of a peer; someone who behaves at times just like they do, bringing a different kind of humanity to a tale that is so large in our national consciousness.

Lest you think that my approach has always been perfect, it has not. When I take my students to Gettysburg we always go to the Trostle Farm, scene of some horrific fighting on Day Two. It was here that flamboyant Union General Dan Sickles lost his leg to a cannon ball. Numerous textual and film accounts claim that Sickles was carried from the field, “coolly smoking a cigar.” For years I retold that story with relish – it works. But recent research has revealed that this story was the fabrication of someone’s vivid imagination, which has been passed down and embellished over time. With history there is always a learning curve to which both students and their teachers must attend.


What is crucial in all of these approaches is that you have a plethora of resources grounded in terra firma – a place. Combined, they work not only as sources of information, but also to form a special kind of reality check. You can't beat this co-mingling of context and place. In fact, if anything, skillful application of such a method is not only a best practice, but also takes context to a whole new level. Context is what most people need perhaps more than anything else to acquire the truths of history. The genius of TwHP is flexibility. Not only can you use the R.E.E.L. process as outlined here, but you can adapt them in other creative ways, which teachers across the country are already implementing in their classrooms. This then provides for R.E.A.L. learning: history education that is Relevant, Engaging, Authentic, and Lifelong.

Read Jim’s tips for Jumping into the Fray with Teaching with Historic Places

Read Case Study #2:Applied History: Placing Students in the Past

Last updated: December 17, 2015