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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.


Photo of partial profile of a man sitting down

Seelye, Sarah Emma Edmonds as Thompson, Franklin


Portrait of Sarah Seelye, 1867. Genesee County. Enlisted in company F, Second Infantry, May 17, 1861, at Flint for 3 years, age 20. Mustered May 25, 1861. Sarah E. E. Seelye of Fort Scott, Bourbon County, Kansas makes affidavit that she and Franklin Thompson were and are one and the same person. Franklin Thompson was granted an honorable discharge by the Secretary of War to date April 19, 1863.


Young boy in military uniform with drum

Smalley, Alburtus D.


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. Mustered Feb. 24 1863. Discharged May 26 1863. (Descriptive Roll Twenty-Seventh Michigan Volunteers).


1862 - 1863
Image of African American man standing in Civil War uniform

Lett, Samuel


Portrait of Samuel Lett 1864-1865. Enlisted in company G First Colored Infantry Aug. 31 1864 at Grand Rapids for 1 year age 26. Mustered Aug. 31 1864.


ca. 1864
Image of man sitting down in military uniform

Balderry, Felix C.


Portrait of Felix C. Balderry 1863-1865. Colon. Enisted in company A, Eleventh Infantry, Dec. 7, 1863, at Leonidas, for 3 years, age 21. Mustered Jan. 4, 1864. 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.


Two young men wearing uniforms and hats sitting in chairs

Haight, James B. and Haight, Sidney


Portrait of James B. and Sidney Haight . Both have separate service records in (Descriptive Roll First Michigan Sharpshooters Volunteers).


1863 - 1865

Company K

Members of Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. Most members of Company K were Odawa and Chippewa from Michigan.

Photograph taken on the Brompton estate near Fredericksburg, Virginia after the battles at Nye River and Spottsylvania, May 1864. Tom Ke Che Ti Go is standing in the light colored clothes

Members of Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters resting after battle. Most members of Company K were Odawa and Chippewa from Michigan.

For more on Michigan in the Civil War

For additional information about Michigan in the Civil War, visit:

Men of the Sixth Michigan Infantry cluster together. Some are standing with rifles, some are sitting with instruments.

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