Bull Run/Manassas Pt. 2

Uses the diaries of two soldiers to examine the experiences of soldiers during this first battle.

Dates and Eras 1861
Themes Battles, Soldiers
Grades 5–7
Standards VS.1, VS.7, USI.1, VUS.1; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY. RH9-10.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY. RH9-10.9


Scan of a diary entry from the Battle of Bull Run

Historical Context

Today, communication is easy and nearly instantaneous. Television, the Internet, social media, cell phones, landlines, newspapers, and the postal service serve to spread information about current events across the population. We can use our phones to record what is going on around us at a given moment and transmit this information almost instantaneously to our friends and family. Society runs on fast download speeds, and total information saturation is the norm.

But, how did information about current events travel during the American Civil War? In addition to the telegraph, letters, newspapers, and word of mouth were the main means of communication. During the Civil War, individuals on the home front had to wait weeks or even months to find out what happened to their loved ones on the battlefields. People in the 1860’s experienced the same desire to record and share what was happening in their lives as we do today and some soldiers kept journals and diaries to record these experiences.

Here are excerpts from the diaries of J.T. Petty and J.S. Newman. Use these and the accompanying transcripts to explore these two men’s experiences during the battle of Bull Run/First Manassas.

Suggested Questions

  1. What challenges confronted families on the homefront during the war? What effect would receiving limited information have on families as they tried to cope with the war?
  2. Imagine you are a family member back home and you finally receive a letter from a loved one serving as a soldier during the Civil War. What kinds of things would you want to read about and how would you respond?
  3. If Civil War soldiers had access to social media, list 3-4 things they would document and record.
  4. What would have been some pros and cons to having access to immediate information during the Civil War? Explain how more information might impact someone’s desire to be a soldier at this time.
  5. After reading both diary entries, what are a few differences between the writing styles and word usage between the two?
  6. What are the more important issues that each man writings about? Why do you think each were so different?
  7. What are some words or phrases you did not understand during the readings?
  8. What generalizations can be made about these two soldiers? How does this change or enhance your perception of a Civil War soldier?

Suggested Activities

  1. Instruct students to imagine that they are young soldiers on their way to their first battle and have them write about their experiences. Have students include day to day activities, messages to family, and the battle itself. Students should use the diaries of Petty and Newman for ideas and writing styles.
  2. Have students draw a Venn diagram to list the similarities and differences between the two soldier’s diary entries. After completion, have students gather into small groups to discuss their diagrams.
  3. Have Students gather into small groups and create a newspaper article about the Battle of Bull Run. They should use the diary entries and photos of the battlefield to demonstrate their ability to read and interpret primary sources. After completion, have groups present to the rest of the class.