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Historical Context

Michigan responded quickly when the Civil War began in April 1861. The First Michigan Infantry arrived in Washington, DC, a month later, on May 16, 1861. The Union army segregated units into white, Black and Indigenous soldiers, but ultimately 90,000 Michigan men – and a few women and young boys – served in the Union army.

During the Civil War, many different people volunteered to fight. Men, eighteen years or older could enlist in the Union army, but there are many cases where boys as young as eleven enlisted as musicians or drummer boys. In some cases, women followed their husbands or brothers into war and became nurses or camp aids. Black and Indigenous solders volunteered to fight, but were separated into their own units, apart from white soldiers.

Photography increased in popularity during the Civil War. Many soldiers and their families took the opportunity to have their photograph taken before they left for battle.

Learning Objectives

Students can analyze the images to interpret point of view, context, bias, and frame of reference. They will gain an understanding of all the people who participated in the Civil War and develop questions about why different people chose to fight in the Civil War.  In addition, students can also build their own questions about the war and the people in the images.

Primary Source Analysis

Students can analyze these photographs as primary sources. For each source ask students to indicate:

For inquiry-based learning, ask students to:

  • Explain how a source tells its story and/or makes its argument
  • Explain the relationships between sources
  • Compare and contrast sources in terms of point of view and method
  • Support conclusions and interpretations with evidence
  • Identify questions for further investigation

Additional Tools

Document analysis worksheets from the National Archives 
Teacher guides and analysis tools from the Library of Congress 

Michigan Social Studies Standards

  • 8–U5.2.5: Construct generalizations about how the war affected combatants, civilians (including the role of women and Indigenous Peoples), the physical environment, and the future of warfare, including technological developments.
  • USHG Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877) – Individually and collaboratively, students will engage in planned inquiries to understand the causes, course, and character of the Civil War and its effects on people, as well as how various Reconstruction plans succeeded or failed.


Sara Emma Edmonds

Portrait of Sarah Emma Edmonds aka Franklin Thompson, 1867 from Genesee County. Enlisted in company F, Second Infantry, May 17, 1861, at Flint for 3 years, age 20 under the name Franklin Thompson.

Photo of partial profile of a man sitting down

Alburtus D. Smalley

Portrait of Alburtus D. Smalley 1862-1863. Ypsilanti. Enlisted in company D Twenty-Seventh Infantry as Musician Dec. 30 1862 at Ypsilanti for 3 years age 15. Discharged May 26 1863.

Young boy in military uniform with drum

Samuel Lett

Portrait of Samuel Lett 1864-1865. Enlisted in company G First Colored Infantry Aug. 31 1864 at Grand Rapids age 26. Mustered out at Charleston S.C. Sept. 30 1865.

Image of African American man standing in Civil War uniform

Felix C Balderry

Portrait of Felix C. Balderry from Colon, Michigan. Enlisted in company A, Eleventh Infantry, Dec. 7, 1863, at Leonidas, for 3 years, age 21. Joined regiment at Rossville, Ga., Jan 28, 1864. Transferred to company F, March 30, 1864. Transferred to company F, (reorganized) Eleventh Infantry, April 15, 1865.

Image of man sitting down in military uniform

James B and Sidney Haight

Portrait of James B. and Sidney Haight . James enlisted in the 13th Infantry out of Genesee County on Nov. 9, 1861 at 28 years of age. Discharged St. Louis, MO Aug. 6, 1862. Sydney enlisted in the 1st Sharpshooters Oct. 23, 1863 in Lapeer County age 17. Mustered out July 28, 1865.

Two young men wearing uniforms and hats sitting in chairs

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