Civil War Homefront



When this lesson is completed, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the human cost on both sides of the Civil War

  • Discuss the role women played in the home front.

  • Discuss the impact that the Civil War had on families


Standards Addressed:

Standard 2B- The student understands the social experiences of war on the home front.

Lesson Abstract:

This lesson will examine the impact that the American Civil War had on the life of non-combatants.

Lesson Length:

              1-2 Class Periods (more if including Across Five Aprils)

Primary Sources:

1. Lyrics for the songs of Stephen Foster relating to the homefront.

  • Was My Brother in the Battle?
  • Bring My Brother Back to Me
  • Willie Has Gone to War
  • My Boy is Coming from the War
  • Larry’s Goodbye
  • The Soldier’s Home


2. Lyrics and Melodies from other Homefront Songs via Civil War Poetry


Secondary Sources

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Books and Novels Suitable for Young Adults

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. Newberry Medal winning book describing the trials and tribulations of an Illinois family torn apart by the Civil War. Across Five Aprils Teacher’s Guide from SparkNotes

Background Information:

              The Civil War touched the lives of every American family, North and South. Almost every family had a son, husband, sweetheart, brother or father away at war. However, for those men and particularly women who remained behind, the Civil War made life more difficult and very different than they were used to.

              With so many men at war, women began to take more and more responsibility. In the South, rich women would often take charge of the plantations, serving as plantation masters and managing vast numbers of slaves while their husbands were away at war while poor women took on the back-breaking strain of agricultural labor, often doing work that their husbands and sons would normally have done. In the North, women took over the brunt of manufacturing jobs and were vital to the success of the war effort to supply the Union army.

              Families on the home front faced shortages of every kind as both the Union and Confederate armies struggled their troops. This was particularly severe in the South, as the Union navy blockaded the Southern states to prevent any sort of European goods from being imported to the South.

              Of course, those on the home front lived in a constant state of fear over the prospect that their loved ones away at war would be killed. Newspaper reading reached an all-time high as people scanned the newspapers every day for any scrap of news that may mention their loved ones or their regiment.

              After the end of the Civil War (apart from the brief period of “Reconstruction” in the South) things largely returned to normal. However, the taste of independence that women had during the Civil War would revitalize the suffragette (women’s right to vote) movement in the succeeding decades of the nineteenth century.

Suggestions for Using Streaming Audio and Lyrics:

              Have the students listen to and read the lyrics to some of Stephen Foster’s songs dealing with the concerns of home front life. Compare these songs to the Southern home front songs “The Homespun Dress” and “The Southern Soldier Boy.” Ask the students to consider the following questions while listening to/reading the songs:


Think About Tone

  • What is the mood of each song? Is it happy? Sad?
  • Is the song fast or slow?
  • How does listening to/reading the lyrics of the song make you feel?


Think About the Words

  • What viewpoint is presented in each song?
  • What concerns do the songs express?
  • Do you think these are common concerns for the time?
  • Are the verses long or short?
  • Is there a chorus? If so, does it repeat? What point does the chorus try to make?

Think About the Songs

  • Many of these songs reflect concerns that family members have over those at war. What seems to be their attitude towards the war?
  • In the song “The Homespun Dress” the narrator turns a negative (the material shortages) into a positive (making her own clothes). Why do you think this was necessary?
  • How does the parent in “My Boy is Coming from the War” react to that news?
  • How do you think “The Southern Soldier Boy” could be used for propaganda purposes?

Suggested Points for Discussion:

  • How did life change for women during the Civil War?

  • What were some of the unique challenges faced by those on the home front during the Civil War?

  • Discuss how the songs balanced the modern concepts of “supporting the troops” while calling for them to come home.

  • Discuss the difficulty of receiving current news during the Civil War era.

  • Compare these songs to current songs about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (suggestions include “American Soldier” by Toby Keith, “10,000 Years (Peace is Now)” by Live, and “My City of Ruins” by Bruce Springsteen.

  • How does Across Five Aprils reflect the ideas discussed in this lesson plan?


Suggested Assignments/Classroom Activities

  • Thinking Creatively About History: Have the students write their own stories, poems or songs written from the viewpoint of someone on the home front. Make sure they address some of the major topics (the new role of women, shortages, family members away at war) in their work.

  • Linking the Past and Present: Have the students write a short essay comparing the home front during the “War on Terror” today and the home front during the Civil War as presented in the lesson plan.

  • Analyzing Primary Sources: Have each student choose one of the home front songs or assign one to each student and ask them analyze song, explaining both factual data about the song as well as evaluating the purpose of the song and whether or not they think the song would be successful in achieving its purpose.

  • Analyzing Primary Sources- Show students copies of the Lily Martin Spencer's painting "The War Spirit at Home" or “Celebrating Victory at Vicksburg” and Winslow Homer's “The Empty Sleeve.” Ask them to write a short essay analyzing what the artist was saying about the new roles women were taking. Why did they need to take more responsibility?

  •  Compare and Contrast: Have the students write a short essay comparing one of the Southern home front songs (“The Homespun Dress” or “The Southern Soldier Boy”) to one of the Northern home front songs. What concerns do they have in common? What are the differences between the two?

Special Assignments/Activities for Across Five Aprils

  • Thinking Creatively About History: Have the students read all except the final chapter of Across Five Aprils. Ask them to write an ending for the story based on what they have learned about the Civil War home front from reading the book and from class lessons.

  • Book ReviewAcross Five Aprils was written 100 years after the Civil War ended. Ask the students to review the book, addressing whether or not they liked it as well as whether or not they thought it was an accurate depiction of Civil War homefront life.

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Last updated November 19, 2010