Use the Activities
The following activities will help students connect what they have learned about Abraham Lincoln, the Soldiers’ Home, emancipation, and the importance that retreats can play in people’s lives.
Activity 1: Journal Entry
Historians depend primarily on written records. Much of what we now know about President Lincoln's journey to the cottage at the Soldiers' Home is based upon first-hand accounts. Ask your students to keep a journal for two weeks of what they see, experience, and feel on their way to and from school. Tell them to include cars, people, houses, trees, etc. and whether they sang songs, sat in traffic jams, etc. Emphasize that they should both record repeated sights and experiences and also try to record something new each day. They also may draw pictures as part of the record.
After two weeks, have students review their journal and write a summary about what they saw and felt. Did they feel differently each day when they got to school or returned home based on things they had observed or experienced during their trips? Why or why not? Ask if any students would like to share their conclusions with the class. Hold a general class discussion about what remained similar or formed a pattern during that two weeks and what, if anything, changed. What do students think might change on that route over the course of the next 100 years?
Activity 2: Retreats in your Local Community
Perhaps no American president endured more than Abraham Lincoln during his Civil War era presidency. During this time the cottage truly was a retreat for the Lincoln family. Although the cottage was just three miles north of the White House, the rural setting was much more relaxing. Presidents are not the only people who need beautiful places to relax and get away from the pressures of their work. What places in your own community provide peace and quiet for everybody? Are there parks and nature preserves nearby? Buildings where people go for rest, relaxation, and a change from the demands of day-to-day life?
Have any of these places in your community been used historically as a retreat? Talk with adults and research an area retreat. Students should draw the surroundings of the retreat and the route they would take to get there. Then have the students write a report in which they describe the retreat and answer the following questions. What does the word “retreat” mean to them? How did that influence their selection? Who has used this retreat in the past? How is it used today? What do you see along the way to this place? Would you use it as a retreat today? Find our who owns the retreat and how it is maintained. If upkeep relies on volunteer help, have students sign up to volunteer.
Divide students into groups and ask them to come up with a list of qualities that characterize a retreat. Once they have done this, if they were able to find a retreat in their community, have them compare that retreat with their list. Hold a class discussion about whether the local retreat has the characteristics they listed. Ask students, in groups, to design a retreat for their own community, which might be a building or a site. Students should select a suitable location and create a design for their retreat. Have the class vote on the design they like best and that they believe best incorporates the qualities important to them. Ask students if they would like to submit the design to their local government representative for consideration with arguments for the benefits it would bring to the community.
Activity 3: Emancipation Proclamation and Reparations
Abraham Lincoln struggled with the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Even in its realized form, it was a monumental statement for the future of America, but complex social, political, and racial issues of the 1860s and the prolonged war restrained the document. From today’s perspective it is very easy to see the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Since the Civil War, the issue of reparations (compensation given to the descendants of slaves for the centuries their relatives spent in bondage) has come up again and again. Various forms of reparations have been suggested, from monetary compensation to community improvement projects to free healthcare and education. At the end of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order no. 15, which has come to be known as the “40 acres and a mule” plan. Basically, Sherman’s plan set aside land in parts of Georgia and South Carolina to help the formerly enslaved build a better future. However, after Lincoln’s death, President Johnson struck down Sherman’s orders. Many proponents of reparations point to the termination of this program as proof of the government’s failure to take responsibility for slavery, and the debate over reparations continues today.
Have students research the reparations debate of 1865. Using what they have learned through their research and referring back to the Emancipation Proclamation, ask the students to add an amendment to the Emancipation Proclamation. The amendment should answer the question of what will become of the freed slaves. Would they give reparations to those formerly enslaved? If so, what is their plan? Would the freed slaves stay in the south? Would they move to the north or west? Would students give the freed slaves land, money, livestock, and/or supplies? Where would they get the land and/or money for this? If they displaced southern whites, what would students do with those they displaced? Or would students not intervene and leave those formerly enslaved to work out their own economic situation? Finally, how might students use this newly created section of the Emancipation Proclamation to build an integrated society based on equal opportunity? Encourage your students to be creative. Students should write out their reasoning.
Activity 4: Current Issues
The debate over slavery challenged the United States since its beginning. For decades prior to the Civil War, the debate raged. Many wanted to expand slavery west into the new territories while others called for the end of slavery. Even those advocating the abolition of slavery couldn’t agree. Some thought freed blacks should enter American society; others promoted re-colonization to Africa. After two devastating years of civil war, President Lincoln felt he had to take decisive action against slavery.
Today, there also are issues that spark heated debates within communities, states, and the nation. Ask students to research a current event in which there is an obvious dispute over the best resolution. The issue can be national, state, or local. Students should research both sides of the issue. They should list the main points of contention, the major arguments, and the resolutions offered by each side. They should also state how the issue originated and give a little background as to whether it is new or ongoing. After outlining the different positions, ask students to formulate and write out their own solution to the issue, as if they held elected office. How would they resolve this issue? Would they take one side over the other? Would they come to a middle ground? Or would they do something unique, coming to a totally different conclusion? What factors influenced their decision? Did they have a difficult time making a decision? Stage a debate between two or more students holding different opinions.