Main Content

Middle School Lesson Plan


In Search of the Gray Eagle: Discovering the Civil War through Primary Documents

by Dan Hawthorne

Subject: Social Studies – Civil War, General Robert Huston Milroy

Grade Level: Middle School

Time: 2 to 4 days

Indiana Academic Standards:

(8.1.16) Describe the abolition of slavery in the northern states, conflict and compromise associated with westward expansion of slavery, such as the Missouri Compromise, and the continued resistance to slavery by African Americans. 

(8.1.18) Analyze different interests and points of view of individuals and groups involved in the abolitionist, feminist, and social reform movements and in sectional conflicts. 

(8.1.22) Describe the importance of key events in the Civil War, including the battles of Antietam, Vicksburg , and Gettysburg , and the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. 

(8.1.27) Recognize historical perspective by identifying the historical context in which events unfolded and avoiding evaluation of the past solely in terms of present-day norms.

(8.1.28) Identify, evaluate, and distinguish fact from opinion in a variety of information resources; differentiate between historical facts and interpretations, recognizing that the facts the historian reports reflects his or her judgement of what is most significant about the past. 

(8.1.30) Form historical research questions and seek responses by analyzing primary resources – such as autobiographies, diaries, maps, photographs, letters, and government documents – and secondary resources, such as biographies and other nonfiction books and articles on the history of the United States. 

(8.3.2) Map and locate all states of the United States , major cities, mountain ranges, and river systems of the United States.


History is, in essence, interpretation. As layers of summary and analysis are piled upon any given historical event, alternate points of view are trimmed away and minority voices are silenced. The value of studying history through primary documents is that we get a first-hand view of the event, allowing us to make our own judgements. 

In these lessons, we look at the Civil War using the letters of “The Gray Eagle” Union General Robert Huston Milroy. These lessons should be of interest to any student of the Civil War, and even more so to Indiana residents as Milroy was a native Hoosier. Special thanks to the Rensselaer Public Library for access to the Milroy collection.

Lesson One: background info

A couple of options here to get the ball rolling. A short biography of Milroy is available at Gale's Biography Resource Center (free to Indiana classrooms, libraries and students through INSPIRE.)This background material can be presented either in an overhead / lecture format or by having the students seek out and report relevant information as part of a worksheet assignment (see worksheet). A more in-depth analysis of Milroy’s personal politics and military career can be found in the works of Jonathan Noyalas, some of which are available through INSPIRE (via MasterFILE™ Premier and Academic Search Premier). Some names mentioned in the letters that are not found in the biographies are his children - Val, Ella, Brucy, and Walter- his African American hired hand Ben, and his beloved horse Jasper. 

As Milroy was stationed in the Shenandoah Valley at Winchester, Virginia, a little map work is due to give students a sense of place. Maps of the area can be found online and students can add this information to their worksheet. 

Lesson Two: digging in

Break the class into groups of 2 or 3. Each group will be assigned one letter (or more, depending on class size and desired length of lesson) to deconstruct and search for clues / details about the past. These letters (listed below) can be accessed through the Milroy Collection website. Students will have a topical grid to fill up with information gleaned from the letters about important issues tied to the Civil War and life in the 1860s (see worksheet). 

Not all letters will have information connected to all issues, so the students will need to present their findings, either through group discussion or oral report, to the class to fill in the gaps. The following documents (in bold) provide strong evidence under their respective headings as well as significant evidence for some of the other topics listed.

THE SPEED OF THINGS: What was the main mode of transport for soldiers, supplies, and information and how long did it take? Everything moved by boat, wagon, or rail. Communication was limited to letters by post and telegraph lines. Letters appear to take about 5 days from Rensselaer to Virginia .

1861-13 (sept 6) / 1862-332 / 1862-334

DAILY LIFE IN THE CIVIL WAR: How did soldiers / civilians celebrate? What was medicine like? What challenges did the soldiers face in terms of weather, disease, and boredom? What challenges did the mothers and children of soldiers face at home? Medicine in the 1860s consisted of home remedies and house calls (when and if the doctor could make it). The soldiers were typically hungry, exposed to harsh climate, and vulnerable to disease. The mothers and children back home had to deal with the loss and loneliness of having husbands, brothers, and fathers away for years at a time, or worse. Finding able bodies to bring in the crops and do heavy manual labor (i.e. chop wood) became increasingly difficult as the war went on.

1862-304 / 1862-338 / 1862-341 /

SLAVES AND FREEDMEN: What was contraband? How were free African Americans treated in the North / in the Union Army? How were escaped / freed slaves treated by people in the North? Southern slaves captured by the Union Army were often referred to as contraband. Some in the North felt that captured slaves should be set free and justified this action by classifying these “contraband” slaves as being a help to the enemy. Others in the North disagreed and let slave hunters through enemy lines to reclaim lost “property.” African Americans in the Union Army were often denied the right to fight (especially before the Emancipation Proclamation) and forced to do manual labor – digging ditches / latrines, clearing land, building roads, cooking, etc. 

1862-348 / 1862-(aug 2nd)

THE POLITICS OF OCCUPATION: Who were the Butternuts? Was everyone in the North abolitionist? Was everyone in the South pro-secession? What role did the Dutch play in Milroy’s brigade? The Butternuts were Southern sympathizers in the North. There was a wide range of sympathy and support across both the North and the South. Milroy often complained about the “thieving Dutch” under his command, writing that they often looted and pillaged civilian homes in the South.

1862-305 / 1862-311 / 1862-329 / 1862-345

THE GRAY EAGLE: What can we learn about Milroy’s personal and political views based on his letters? Milroy was an ambitious military leader with a love of battle, a deep commitment to the abolitionist cause, and a strong dislike for the career military men that came from West Point . Milroy was obsessed with proving that a volunteer general without a West Point education could lead just as well as, if not better than, the West Point alternative. He blamed his criminal investigation and subsequent career tailspin on the suspicion that the West Point contingency was out to get him. 

1862-298 / 1863-108 / 1863-157 / 1863-301

Lesson Three: more ideas

If you wish to extend this lesson / exercise with primary documents, have the students take the information they have gathered and write an essay incorporating found facts and stats along with new research on current events. For example, one paper could compare the military communication technology of the Civil War to the technology available in our present war in Iraq . Or have them compare and contrast the reactions and experiences of the occupied citizens of the Civil War (the South) to the experiences of the citizens of Iraq . Make sure the students consider (and comment on) the differences between using original / primary documents and text books / academic reports. This is key.

Another interesting exercise might be to update the monetary figures into today’s dollars to get a sense of what things really cost or find out if the post office has gotten any faster / more efficient / more expensive over the last 140 years.

Feel free to use all or any part of this lesson and be sure to visit the Milroy Collection website for more documents / information if you run short.