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Historical Era

Thinking Skill


The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady

Launch Lesson

National Archives Education Team
Making Connections
Historical Era:
Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
Historical Analysis & Interpretation
blooms taxonomy
Bloom's Taxonomy:

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The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady


Students will analyze a series of photographs taken by renowned photographer Mathew Brady to reflect on the lives of soldiers during the Civil War. The holdings of the National Archives include over 6,000 photographs taken by Brady and his associates during the Civil War era.

This activity was adapted from an article formerly published on by Douglas Perry, a teacher at Gig Harbor High School in Gig Harbor, WA.

Author’s Notes

This activity can be used during a unit on the Civil War. For grades grades 6-12. Approximate time needed is 90 minutes.

To begin, ask students to quickly scan through all of the photographs in the activity before choosing 3–4 for deeper analysis. For the photographs that students choose to analyze, tell them to:

  • Study the photo for 2 minutes.
  • Create a chart listing the people, objects, and actions in the photo.
  • Answer: What can you infer from the photo?
  • Answer: What questions does this photo raise in your mind?

After analyzing 3-4 photographs individually, place students in small groups to compare and contrast their findings. Once they are familiar with the photographs of the group, ask them to compile a list of adjectives that they think describe the life of a soldier during the Civil War.

After students discuss these adjectives in small group, bring the class back together and discuss their findings; post them for the whole class to see. For specific adjectives, prompt students to explain their choices with specific evidence from the photographs.

After listing these adjectives, lead a discussion around the following issues:

  • What motivated these men to put up with such difficult circumstances?
  • If there had been television or the internet, would the Civil War have lasted as long as it did?
  • How did soldiers cope with the death of their friends and fellow soldiers?

Extension Activity: Direct students to the Series of Mathew Brady photographs in the National Archives online catalog to find other photographs that show additional aspects of war life for Union and Confederate soldiers. Students can browse or search within the series for specific terms to find photographs. Ask them to print out these photos and add them to a classroom gallery.

Documents in this activity: