Lesson Plan

History and Memory: Contrasting the Civil War South in Film and Primary Documents

Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
State Standards:
Grades 11 & 12:
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How do different forms of media impact our understanding of slavery and the Civil War?


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
Compare and contrast the diverse experience of slaves and the way slavery is often portrayed in media and film
Reflect on the experience of a city slave living in Fredericksburg, Virginia
Analyze primary sources more effectively
Explain the ways in which the experience of one slave can help us better understand the realities of slave life more generally while identifying the limits to this perspective


John Washington lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia prior to the Civil War. Due to its location between the warring capitals in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, Fredericksburg became a crossroads for the major armies operating in the East - the US Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The first major battle in the area, the Battle of Fredericksburg, occurred in December of 1862 and resulted in a lopsided Confederate victory. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Taking effect on January 1, 1863, this document stated that, "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." This was a landmark moment because for the first time the government declared that the Federal armies were not waging a war to restore the Union as it was in 1861, but rather to create a new and different Union.

However, prior to December of 1862, the US Army had already occupied the city of Fredericksburg. During this occupation hundreds of local enslaved people took it upon themselves to self-emancipate and find refuge in the US Army. In many ways, each singular act of self-emancipation by individual enslaved people worked collectively to change the direction of the Union war effort, defining it as a war for freedom before the Federal government officially did so. John Washington was one of the many enslaved people residing in Fredericksburg who chose to liberate himself during the spring of 1862. Following his journey to freedom, Washington spent time with the US Army and eventually settled in Washington, D.C. with his family.


 The only materials required for this lesson plan are primary source accounts (included in packet) and a copy of the movie Gone with the Wind.

  • John Washington's Autobiography

    John Washington was a slave who lived in Fredericksburg during the Civil War. Later in life he wrote an account detailing his experiences as a slave, his journey to freedom, and the life he made for himself once he was free.

  • Gone with the Wind

    Gone with the Wind was an immensely popular movie, based on a book by the same name by Margaret Mitchell. The book follows the journey of the South through the antebellum era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. It features many Lost Cause themes about the causes and results of the Civil War, and paints a grossly inaccurate image of life for enslaved people. However, it is an important source for inspection because it reflects many Americans’ conceptions of the Civil War and serves, even today, as a main point of reference about what people think the South was like.


Download Lesson Plan

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson focuses on the life of John Washington, an enslaved man who lived in Fredericksburg prior to the Civil War. Washington is unique in many ways: he lived in an urban area, could read, and achieved freedom before the end of the Civil War. In this lesson, students will examine parts of Washington’s personal narrative to gain a better understanding of his life. As a group they will compare and contrast what they have learned with their prior knowledge and how slavery is depicted in media and film.


Included in downloadable packet 


Additional Resources

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park protects and interprets four major Civil War battlefields. Additionally FRSP preserves three historic structures that were a part of various plantations. In particular, the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville occurred before and after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, both battles included combat in the city of Fredericksburg where John Washington resided. The arrival of the US Army in the spring of 1862 prompted Washington to emancipate himself, but he returned to the city later with the army. Washington's experience relates directly to that of other slaves who resided on park property but did not leave a written record. 


Included in downloadable packet.

Additional resources provide an illuminating contrast to various elements of Gone with the Wind such as ideas of Southern chivalry, causes of the Civil War, and the role of white women in the antebellum South. These sources can serve as potential points of departure for these various topics.

 Emancipation Proclamation, full text

John Washington's World, audio walking tour

The Exodus Begins: John Washington's Greatest Journey, blog post

Rare Manuscripts Tell Stories of Escape, NPR feature

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Last updated: September 12, 2021