John Kay’s Civil War:
A Multimedia Internet Project for Middle School Social Studies


Russell B. Olwell

John Kay was not one of the great luminaries of the American Civil War. But his life, as revealed through his war diary and letters home, did help to illuminate the experiences common to many Civil War soldiers for students in one seventh grade social studies classroom.

Kay, a native of western Michigan, volunteered to fight in the Sixth Michigan Cavalry Division, out of love for the Union and hatred of slavery. He was trained at Camp Kellogg, traveled to Washington, D.C., fought in several battles, and was captured by the Confederate Army. Kay was a prisoner in Richmond, Virginia, and at Andersonville Prison in Georgia, and died of disease shortly after his release from that prison. His story illustrates some of the reasons people volunteered to fight in the Civil War, the daily life of a soldier, and the tragedy shared by so many families during the conflict.


Reshaping the Social Studies through Technology

For over a decade, teachers and scholars have debated the potential for multimedia computer technology to reshape social studies education.1 Computers provide students with greater potential than ever to become active constructors, rather than passive recipients, of historical knowledge.2 Yet the majority of resources developed by software designers do not accomplish this goal; rather, most CD-ROMs are little more than electronic workbooks. The media has changed, but the message has remained the same—students do not make history; history is made for them.3

But there are multimedia programs that have the potential to reshape how we teach social studies by allowing students to combine words, images, music, and video into a single product. These programs place students in the role of creators of their own historical materials, helping them to think like the designers of museum exhibits or historical websites.

The great power of the new technology is to allow students access to more primary sources, either those placed on the schoo#146;s computer network or available via the Internet. These resources can take students beyond both the textbook and secondary historical sources, which may be limited depending on the quality of local libraries. However, tapping the potential of multimedia takes careful planning and structuring to ensure that activities are important and authentic.

The NCHS history standards propose that students need to be taught with primary sources, such as “journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, works of art, quantitative data,” as well as with textbooks and lectures.4 By encountering voices from the past, students can discover that history is an ongoing, difficult process of asking questions, looking for answers in primary documents, and, finally, revising their initial hypotheses.

The use of multimedia programs is particularly appropriate for middle school students. At this developmental stage, students may begin to grasp complex arguments and abstract ideas best through the life of one individual.5 Students at the middle school level are all members of the digital generation, and more comfortable with computer technology than are many of their teachers. To create hypermedia and Internet projects is, to middle school students of today, no more daunting than creating a poster or backboard was for my generation.


Telling a Story through Hypermedia

To create a class project about John Kay, I copied his letters and diary entries, which are archived at the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These letters and diary entries were then loaded into the schoo#146;s computer network, where students could access them for research and editing.

The students’ job was to create Hyperstudio stacks based on Kay’s experiences as a Civil War soldier. Hyperstudio is a program that allows students to make a series of “cards” on the screen. Each card can hold text, images, music, and/or video. Once made, the cards can be placed in any order to tell a historical story.

The goals of the project were to enable students to work with primary sources, learn how to edit documents, use the Internet to access musical and photographic resources, learn how to create Hyperstudio presentations, and, most importantly, experience both the excitement and the tragedy of the Civil War.

Students demonstrated mastery of the material not through simple memorization, but by shaping the information they discovered into a body of knowledge. They learned to read historical documents critically, and to present the results of their research in a persuasive manner.

After reading Kay’s diary and letters, some students built Hyperstudio cards that traced his route from Michigan to Andersonville. Other students used Netscape Navigator to uncover photographs and music from the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.6 These were downloaded into network accounts and used to illustrate sections of the multimedia presentation.

This project also encouraged students to do further research on topics of interest to them. Several students investigated the Andersonville Prison using books and an Andersonville website on the subject. Other students researched music of the Civil War era on the Internet. Students went beyond the website I suggested to discover other Civil War websites. The Hyperstudio function of “hyperlink text” enabled them to create links directly from their own work to Internet sites, demonstrating the open-ended nature of this project.

The inventiveness of the student projects surpassed my highest expectations. Most projects combined Kay’s writings with period photographs to illustrate camp life. As mentioned earlier, one group mapped Kay’s movements during the war, using a clip art map available in Hyperstudio. Another group focused on Andersonville, scanning photographs from a book and adding death statistics to Kay’s account of his imprisonment there. This addition of context brought home the fact that Kay’s experience was but one of a thousand horrors experienced at Andersonville.

One aspect of evaluating this project required students to fill out feedback sheets on what they were learning as they went along. Most students indicated that, while learning about Hyperstudio, they were learning far more about the Civil War. The most important thing one student learned was that “soldiers who died were real people with families, not just blank faces and bodies.” Wrote another: “I also saw things through one person’s point of view, so I knew how people felt about the Civil War.” Still another said the project showed that “instead of just mindless drones gone out to war, they actually have lives and people waiting for them at home.”

John Kay’s transformation during the course of the war, as revealed in his writings, also struck the students. One noted “how the opinions of the young soldiers changed as they realized that the war was not to be taken lightly. They realized they were 1 in 1,000,000.”

Students also reacted strongly to the horror of the war, in much the same way people of the time reacted to the new realism of Matthew Brady’s battlefield photographs. “Soldiers had rough lives in the Civil War,” said one, while another was struck by “how bloody the War was.” Finally, students were shocked by the diary entry and photographs of Andersonville prison. One commented, “The most important thing I learned was how bad the people at Andersonville were treated.”

Unlike most textbooks, John Kay’s diaries and letters gave students an unvarnished portrait of the war. Though this unit did not explore all the important elements of Civil War history, it did give students a real sense of one person’s experiences. The project also gave students the responsibility for depicting Kay’s story accurately, and for creating understandable and compelling presentations.

Although the advantages of having broad student access to computers for this project are manifest, it can be adapted for schools without Internet access or Hyperstudio software. Students can edit letters on paper, use photographs downloaded by teachers or copied from books, and use map outlines to create a project with similar results. This exercise would be closer to creating a museum exhibit than is the Hyperstudio activity. No matter what level of technology is used, what is most important is allowing students choices in editing and creating historical displays based on primary sources. The exact software and form of information sources are secondary to the process of thinking and creation.

Educators and social critics have long debated whether computer technology will lead to greater human connections with the past. Social studies teaching that is designed poorly will not be transformed by multimedia and the Internet, but will simply become one more method of drilling students on a preconceived body of facts. But teachers who prepare the groundwork carefully can help students use the new technology to learn that most important and basic of all historical lessons—that the past is populated by people, who lived and died for their beliefs and ideals, and whose stories can tell students something important even today.



1. For recent contributions to this debate, see Stephen A. Rose and Henry F. Winterfeldt, “Waking the Sleeping Giant: A Learning Community in Social Studies Methods and Technology,” Social Education 62 (March 1998): 151-152.

2. Warren Hope calls for this transformation from passive to active in his article, “It’s Time to Transform Social Studies Teaching,” The Social Studies (July/August 1996): 149-151; for an overview of the constructivist approach, see also Geoffrey Scheuerman, “From Behaviorist to Constructivist Teaching,” Social Education 62 (January 1998): 6-9.

3. Stephen A. Rose and Phyliss M. Fernlund stress the need for active, meaningful multimedia in their article, “Using Technology for Powerful Social Studies Learning,” Social Education 61 (March 1997): 160-166.

4. National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), Exploring Paths to the Present, Grades 5-12 (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 1994), Chapter 2.

5. For descriptions of middle school students’ learning styles, see Gary Manning, Maryann Manning, and R. Long, Reading and Writing in the Middle Grades: A Whole Language View (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1990); and Deborah Butler and Thomas Liner, Rooms to Grow: Natural Language Arts in the Middle School (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1995).

6. For an overview of the American Memory Project, see Laurel Singleton and James Giese, “American Memory: Using Library of Congress Online Resources to Enhance History Teaching,” Social Education 62 (March 1998): 142-144. The URL for American Memory is:


Russell B. Olwell teaches seventh grade social studies and language arts at Emerson Middle School, and is a lecturer in natural sciences at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.




Headquarters, 6th Michigan Cavalry

Camp Kellogg, Grand Rapids.

This is to certify that John B. Kay a sergeant in company G, was mustered into the service of the United States on the 7th day of October, 1862.


Kay to Parents Dec. 16 1862


Just as the day began to dawn the iron horse whirled us into the capital of our country. And now I will try to give you detail of our journey. The cars did not stop at Carun nor Vernon, but at Gaines to let Capt. Royce’s wife off. Stopped at Linden station where the soldiers were treated to a wagon load of apples. On we went. Stopped at Pontiac where a sergeant’s wife got on to spend the few remaining hours with her husband - to leave him at Cleveland. We stopped at Royal Oak to water. We finally reached the junction where we turn off to go to Toledo. While at the junction, the bugler’s parents came to say good bye to him. We arrived in Toledo by the railroad by 11 o’clock. At the depot, all were treated to a good warm cup of coffee. The coffee and the good will of the citizens had an exhilarating effect on the troops. We changed cars for Cleveland, and headed out Thursday morning. We passed through Oberlin, which is a celebrated institution of learning, and quite abolitionist in principle. We arrived in Cleveland at 3 o’clock and changed cars for Pittsburgh. Both cities were dusty and smoky. At 11 p.m., after passing through hilly and mountainous country, we came to Pittsburgh. At Pittsburgh, the citizens had decorated a great hall for us, with banners saying, “Pittsburgh welcomes the country’s defenders.” They served us great tables of bread, butter, crackers, cheese, sausage, 2 types of pickles, apples and coffee. We sang union songs such as “John Brown’s Body,” “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” and “Star Spangled Banner.” The next morning we set out for Baltimore. When we entered Maryland, there were guards at every bridge to make sure they were not blown up by rebels. In Baltimore, there were people waving flags, banner and cheering at us. They served us bread, coffee, meat and pickled cabbage. We stayed in Baltimore till 11 o’clock. We reached Washington Sunday morning. There is a great battle at Fredericksburg, and prisoners and wounded are coming into the city.

John Kay


Headquarters, 6th Michigan Cavalry

Washington, DC December 25

Dear Brother Thomas,

At the close of merry Christmas, I take the pen in hand with pleasure to write you a few lines. I can picture us at home for Christmas—but the horrors of war are all around, spread terror and gloom over every union state, and called forth the sons of freedom to preserve their country. They bravely went—are here—I with them. You know the rest.

I went to Washington DC to the patent office. They have a lot of items at the building—such as Ben Franklin’s printing press, the coat and pants that Andrew Jackson wore at the battle of New Orleans. But I could fill up a whole sheet with what I saw.

Dark, dark indeed the aspect of affairs is at the present time and what the nation is coming to I cannot tell. God, in whose hands are the destinies of nations only knows. I cannot tell you half of how soldiers feel about the war. In every tent you hear arguments about the government, president and abolitionists. The point I argue is that it is against the constitution to take life, but life must be taken to preserve the union. It is against the constitution to abolish slavery, but slavery has got to be abolished to preserve the union. The military situation does not look good. We have suffered defeat at Fredericksberg, and President Lincoln is growing thinner everyday, as discouragement piles on discouragement. New York and Pa. refuse to send anymore troops. Discouragement and discouragement seemed piled upon him in consequence of the reverses at Fredericksberg.

With love,

John B. Kay


July 28, 1863

I was glad to receive your letter. The great battle has not come off yet, but may before this letter reaches you. The attack we make may put the rebels in great confusion. Some Negro slaves told us that Lee did not know which way to go, he was so scared. Our whole brigade fought against 15,000 of the enemy and made an honorable retreat. The Negroes say that the rebels are greatly in need of provisions, having been without for 3 days. There are many Negro slaves coming to our lines—they are all in favor of the union, and give us much intelligence about the rebels. Within two weeks, Grant should have Lee surrounded, and this will decide the war. If we win, we will surround Richmond. If the rebels win, they will surround Lincoln and his cabinet in Washington, and take Philadelphia as well.

Your son,

John Kay


Tobacco Warehouse

Richmond, VA Oct. 16, 1863

My dear parents,

I write you a few lines to let you know where I am and how I am. I was taken prisoner on the 11th at Brandy Station. My captors have treated me well. I enjoy good health, have had plenty to eat, and am in good spirits. I cannot tell how long we will be here. We may stay a month or even less. It is up to our government to arrange an exchange, When I am released, I will try to go home. No more at this time.

From your affectionate son,

John Kay


Camp Sumter, Andersonville, GA

May 25, 1864

My dear parents,

I am happy to inform you that I have just recovered from a severe fit of sickness and feel again quite strong. My sickness was a fever. The mercy of the Lord endureth forever. It is because his compassion faileth not we are spared. How I wish I could write you a good long letter descriptive of all my feelings as in days gone by. ... We hope for a speedy exchange after the Springs campaign is over, according to the president’s proclamation published in the Cincinnati commercial of the 10th. It does seem to me that God will bring me safe to you once more.

As ever, your son,

John Kay


Diary of John Kay

November 19, 1864

Still confined in a close stockade, troubled with lice, dirt and the cold with seemingly little hope or prospect of release. Also, am much reduced in flesh and strength by my illness. I am confident I would not survive the winter in this place. My poor parents mourn me as though I am dead. But God has spared me from death, and when I arrive in our own lines I will declare all his wonderful works.


United States Sanitary Commission

Naval School hospital

Annapolis, MD December 17, 1864

Rev. Mr. Kay

Dear Sir,

You may have already received the sad intelligence of the death of your son, John B. Kay, who came to us with released prisoners from Charleston on Saturday 10th and died on the evening of Thursday the 15th. The large number of very sick and dying ones in my hands have left me of late little leisure for writing - you will therefore pardon my tardiness in telling you what I know concerning the death of your noble son. He was in very low condition when brought in - I felt almost sure when I first looked on him that he would not stay with us long - he had contended as long as possible against hunger and cold and every kind of misery in those terrible prisons. His flesh had wasted away, he was scarcely able to speak, though perfectly conscious and remaining so up to the moment of his departure. I was attracted toward him—he was so gentle and patient, thanking me in a pleasant manner for every service I rendered him.
... Please accept for yourself and wife my heartfelt sympathy and believe me,

Your friend,

Adeline M. Walker

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.