Bite-Sized Research: Annotating Civil War Correspondence
Bite-Sized Research: Annotating Civil War Correspondence

Students read, analyze, and transcribe Civil War correspondence and conduct secondary research to create introductions and annotations to their assigned letter.

Students read, analyze, and transcribe Civil War correspondence and conduct secondary research to create introductions and annotations to their assigned letter.

Introduction

In this exercise, students learn to pose questions of primary source documents by reading and analyzing Civil War-era personal correspondence. They conduct research to follow up on these questions and use their findings to create an introduction to and annotations for the letters. My class worked with letters from the Cranston family papers written by Union soldier Alfred Cranston to his fiancée Elizabeth Petford in Brooklyn.

The larger goal of this exercise is to introduce students to research and its practical applications in a fun and accessible way. The scale of the research required is more manageable for beginning or remedial students than a traditional final paper. While students are not required to formulate an original thesis, they learn to conduct independent research and synthesize primary and secondary sources.

The exercise leverages the intimate stories that often unfold in personal correspondence. Students are captivated by the courtship of Alfred Cranston and Elizabeth Petford. My students were indignant on his behalf, for example, when they read that he had not heard from her for awhile, and they debated whether his descriptions of soldiers’ dead bodies would cause her to worry too much.

This engagement with the primary source material motivates students in the next steps of the research project. Students pose questions about unfamiliar concepts or intriguing issues; for example, my students wanted to learn more about the postal system during the Civil War. Next, they find answers in scholarly and popular articles. Ultimately, each student produces about twelve annotations clarifying places, people, and terms mentioned in the letters.

Objectives

Students should be able to:

  • Read and transcribe handwritten documents
  • Pose critical research questions about a primary source
  • Find and evaluate appropriate secondary sources
  • Locate pertinent information in secondary sources
  • Create well-researched annotations for places, people, and terms mentioned in a primary source document

Context

Before the visit to the archives, students are introduced to personal correspondence as a genre. When asked, less than half of my students had written letters. In class, we practice reading and transcribing using photocopies of early twentieth-century letters from my family.

Through lectures and readings, students are provided general historical context about the Civil War and nineteenth-century correspondence and courtship (see Further Reading below). Students also learn about the collection they will encounter at the archives by reading the biographical note excerpted from the Cranston family papers finding aid.

After the visit to the archives, but before the research project is due, librarians at our college introduce students to the following:

  • reference databases including specialized encyclopedias and historical atlases
  • newspaper databases like the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
  • MLA style citations

Visit

Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 1 hour

Agenda

10 minutes


40 minutes
Small group work


10 minutes
Wrap up


3 students work together to read 1 or more letters (depending on the length). In the archives, they begin to transcribe these letters as a group. They take research photographs to continue the transcriptions as homework.

Wrap Up

The class reconvenes to discuss first impressions of Alfred Cranston and his relationship with Elizabeth Petford. Students also share observations about the physical appearance of the letters, and reflect on the process of transcribing.

End Products

Each group collaborates on a proofed transcription of the letter(s) they read in the archives. Each student then compiles a bibliography, writes an introduction to their letter(s), and produces approximately twelve well-researched annotations. Students also post 3 reflections to the course blog.

Group Transcription

The group’s transcription is due 2 class sessions after the visit to the archives.

Individual Research Projects

Students are individually responsible for writing an introduction which analyzes their letter(s), researching and writing at least twelve annotations, and compiling a bibliography.

Students receive the instructions for this research project in advance of their visit to the archives.

Blog Prompts

The class blog provides a useful way to encourage reflection about the research experience and to check in on the progress of their projects. See prompts relevant to this exercise here.

Assessment

Research projects are assessed using the rubric provided by my department for this course.

One challenge in grading this assignment is fact checking the annotations. Final products earning an A grade should contain only factually accurate annotations. Because of this, it is a time-consuming project to grade.

Archival Materials Used

Letter on stationery depicting the Capitol building, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, circa 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Transcription of letter on stationery depicting the Capitol building, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, circa 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Letter with drawing of camp, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, circa 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Transcription of letter with drawing of camp, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, circa 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, September 23, 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, September 23, 1861; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, March 17, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 4; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, March 17, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 4; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, May 27, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 4; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, May 27, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 4; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter with list, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, August 27, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Transcription of letter with list, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, August 27, 1862; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 4; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, January 17, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, January 17, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, June 24 to July 25, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, June 24 to July 25, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, February 10, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, February 10, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, March 4, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, March 4, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, April 25, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, April 25, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter about Gettysburg, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, July 27, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 6; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Transcription of letter about Gettysburg, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Cranston, July 27, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, September 11, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Transcription of letter, Alfred Cranston to Elizabeth Petford, September 11, 1863; Cranston family papers, 1994.013, box 1, folder 7; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Further Reading

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Silber, Nina and Mary Beth Sievens, eds. Yankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters between New England Soldiers and the Homefront. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.


To cite this page:
Melissa Antinori, “Bite-Sized Research: Annotating Civil War Correspondence,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/research-annotations/.

Authors

Melissa Antinori
Assistant Writing Program Director and Assistant Professor of English
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >

Used In

English 16: English Composition

Remedial writing class that is part of a learning community. Fulfills first-year composition and Writing Across the Curriculum requirements.

Adaptability

This exercise works with personal correspondence about any major historical event, including other wars. It can be adapted to history and American studies courses at the high school and college level.

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