Teach PA History
Is Seeing Believing?
Equipment & Supplies
  • overhead projector and overhead transparencies images of recent war scenes


Day 1

Display recent photographs of war scenes (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan). You may want to use discretion given the graphic nature of some of these photographs. (You may find some excellent photographs at the Time On Assignment website.

Display the following questions: "Is Seeing Believing?" and "Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?"

1. Begin class with a 3-minute free writing assignment. Ask students to write their spontaneous reactions to one of the two sayings displayed for the class. After a short time period (3-5 minutes), ask for one or two students to share their thoughts on each of the two sayings.
2. Ask, "Are the photos I have here (from recent war scenes) a fairly accurate representation of the reality of the conflict? Why or why not?" Facilitate discussion, pro and con, for approximately 5 minutes. Discussion may include the following points.
Pro: Photography is powerful because it can "capture a moment."
Pro: Technology (high digital resolution) can hold more and more information, making pictures more accurate.
Pro: Perhaps the photo captures an emotion that seems "real" in conflict. (fear/aggression/courage/etc.)
Con: Who took the picture? What motives did they have?
Con: Is the picture taken out of context? How was it originally intended to be viewed?
Con: Were the pictures "touched up" or changed through technology?
3. Remind students that battlefield photography is a fairly recent phenomenon and introduce the lesson with the following points:
a. Prior to the Civil War, artists drew pictures of battle scenes. In the United States Civil War, many of these photographs were published in Harper's Weekly, a widely circulated periodical.
b. Display an example of Civil War drawings, Currier and Ives: Battle of Gettysburg and a photo of Afred R. Waud, an artist for Harper's Weekly sketching on the battlefield Gettysburg, Pa. Alfred R. Waud.
c. One of the earliest battlefield photographers was Matthew Brady. Show Brady from Bull Run and Three-quarter portrait of Brady.
Other Civil War photographers included Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan. Show stereographic image of what is most likely Gardner and O'Sullivan Discussing the probabilities of the next advance. Gardner sits on the left and O'Sullivan is on the right. According to the title, they are discussing the likelihood of the next military advance.
d. Taking pictures "on the road" was not an easy task. Photographers had to set up transportable laboratories to develop their pictures. Here is an example of one such laboratory. It is Gardner's. Show a rare specimen found on hill.
4. Return to the battlefield drawing from Currier and Ives and ask students to describe their reaction to the drawing. One technique would be for students to brainstorm a list of nouns and adjectives that might describe the picture (e.g., determined, brave, loud, smoky). What impression of the war would the "reader at home" get from drawings such as this?
5. Display A Harvest of Death, a graphic Gettysburg battlefield photographs. Brainstorm a similar list of nouns and adjectives. (Consider displaying two columns of adjectives: one for those describing the drawing and one for those describing the photo. See example below.) Again, what impression of the war would the "reader at home" get from this photograph?

Description of Currier and Ives" "Battle of Gettysburg"








Description of "A Harvest of Death"









6. Lead students through a brief discussion about the relative "power" of the photograph versus the drawing.
7. Bring students back to present-day battlefield reporting. Why are reporters and photographers being sent into the field to take still and video images of the war? Lead students to an understanding that the reasons for graphic battlefield images are more than simply to reflect an accurate accounting of the war. The media always has a message (e.g., to sell newspapers, to sell television time, to increase web page hits).
8. Ask students if they believe things were different in the 1860s?
9. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Ask each group to brainstorm a list of "messages" that reporters and photographers and illustrators might have wanted to communicate during the Civil War.
Examples: "We're winning."
"War is brutal and ought to be stopped."
"Soldiers need our help and support."
"The enemy is barbaric."
"Soldiers are brave and show courage in difficult times."
10. Groups should share their ideas and the class compile a complete list of possible messages. What message is being communicated by the battlefield drawing? By the photograph?

Reinforcement and wrap up: Direct students to watch television coverage of war-related action, examine an article in a newsmagazine or view a story on a website and write down the message they believe is being communicated by that modern media contact. If possible, bring in the newsmagazine article or print out the website article.


Display the phrase "What's the message?" Have students meet in small groups to share their "messages" from modern media outlets (5 minutes).

1. Begin with several Gettysburg battlefield photographs, shown one after another without comment:
Bodies of Federal Soldiers July 1 McPherson woods
Dead Confederate soldiers in slaughter pen
Dead Confederate Soldier-Devils Den
Dead Confederate Soldiers-Devils den
Four dead soldiers near Little Round Top
Harvest of Death

2. Ask: "What's the message here?" "What was the photographer trying to communicate with these pictures?"
Distribute two copies per student of Worksheet 1: NARA Photograph Analysis on reading photographs and images Harvest of Death and Bodies of Federal Soldiers July 1 McPherson woods.
3. Choose one and lead students through the worksheet, explaining how to analyze the photograph, considering the elements of the photo, their placement in the frame, etc. Ask they complete the second image analysis on their own. (15 minutes)
4. Spokespersons from each group or representatives from the class may share their ideas gained from a careful "reading" of the photograph.
5. Now the class will compare the two photographs. Instruct the class focus on A Harvest of Death. Now ask them to number the five nearest soldiers, starting at the far right and working their way toward the left.
6. To the right of the soldier labeled number five is a jacket with a white diamond on it. According to the studies of historian William Frassanito on the Library of Congress website, this white diamond is a badge worn only by Union 3rd Corps soldiers.
7. Next instruct students to spot the same jacket in Bodies of Federal Soldiers July 1 McPherson woods. Explain that the same five men are pictured from a different perspective each photograph.
8. Ask students to use the jacket as a visual marker and identify by number the same men.
9. Tell students that both of these photographs were taken by Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner. A compilation of some of his Civil War photographs are accompanied by text and found in Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War.
10. Now disseminate Student Handout 1-A Harvest of Death Document, Student Handout 2-Field where General Reynolds Fell along with Worksheet 2-A Harvest of Death and Worksheet 3-Field Where Reynolds Fell.
11. Ask students to read the accompanying texts to the photographs and complete the related worksheets.

Reinforcement and Wrap Up: For homework imagine it is 1863, and your local newspaper has just printed one of the photographs taken by Gardner, O'Sullivan or Brady during the Gettysburg Campaign. Write a letter to the editor expressing your reaction to that photograph, and how that photograph has influenced your views on the war.
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