The Rise and Fall of Reconstruction in Virginia

Lesson 4: What did People Have to Say?

Time Estimated: 1 days



  1. Analyze written sources to determine the problems, solutions, and attitudes following the Civil War.
  2. Make conclusions based on their understanding of Reconstruction and primary source documents.
  3. Determine the author’s purpose by reading a passage and making inferences.
  4. Define vocabulary words using previous understandings, context clues, or resource materials.







  1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will read some letters that people wrote back in the 19th century. A few days ago, you viewed pictures of that time period showing the destruction in the South after the Civil War. You also read part of a law that created the Freedmen’s Bureau and some letters that people had written requesting assistance. To learn more about this period in history, today, you are going to be an historian again. As you know historians use a variety of sources to learn about history and to make conclusions. They read diaries, newspapers, letters, and other documents to learn about how people lived. Today we are going to read a letter that a black Freedman wrote. Then you are going to practice being historians in small groups.
  2. Place the original letter from Sergeant Sweeny on the overhead. Discuss the handwriting, legibility, title, and other student observations. Explain to students that to make reading original documents easier, many historians read them very carefully and then type them. To make our reading easier today, I typed parts of the sources we will be reading.
  3. Place the Freedmen's Bureau Request from Sergeant Sweeny on the overhead. Point out the vocabulary terms, the box with the document and the questions to answer. Ask students if anyone knows the meaning of the vocabulary words already? Discuss student responses. Record information as it is given.
  4. Read the author information and ask the following questions:
    • Was Tennessee part of the Confederacy or the Union?
    • When did Sergeant John Sweeny write this letter?
    • Was this before or after the Civil War ended?
  5. Read the letter in full. Reread the letter with students. Note and explain the spelling and capitalization. Identify and define vocabulary terms. Add vocabulary definitions to the box as discussed.
  6. Discuss the recipient of the letter and its message and pose the following questions:
    • Why does Sergeant Sweeny think his regiment needs a school? (Sergeant Sweeny thinks his regiment needs an education to operate businesses. The men in his regiment are former slaves and have never been to school. He wants them to learn to read so they can be better people.)
    • What is the author’s purpose? (Sergeant Sweeny is writing to the Freedmen’s Bureau to persuade them to open a school for his regiment.)
    • Based on this primary source, what can you conclude? (Many Freedmen couldn’t read. Many of them wanted to learn because they know that reading and writing are important skills. Sergeant Sweeny tried to be as polite as possible when he asked for a school.)
  7. Students will work in 4 groups of 4 or 5 students. Each group will read one document (Captain Soule's Speech to Sharecroppers and Captain Soule's Description of Sharecropper Contracts). Explain to students that now it is their turn to practice being historians. I have two sources for you to read in groups. They are both written by one person, Captain Charles Soule. Captain Charles Soule was a white United States Army Captain serving in South Carolina. While Soule believed that slaves should be freed, he understood that the South needed to continue to produce staple crops for the Northern market. He thought freedmen should continue to work like slaves to grow cash crops.
  8. Wrap Up (10 minutes) Ask students about their reactions to the primary sources. Review their feelings about Sergeant Sweeney and Captain Soule. Place each source on the overhead. Quickly read each passage. Emphasize the author’s purpose for each source. Ask students the following questions?
    • What did you learn today?
    • What did you think of Sergeant Sweeny’s letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau?
    • What did you think of Captain Soule?

Informal: teacher questioning, group response sheet




  • Small group passages are provided at different reading levels.
  • Students will work in teacher-formed groups based on reading level and/or Social Studies understanding.
  • Students will be prompted with vocabulary words and/or vocabulary word definitions.