The Garbers: Using Digital History to Recreate a 19th-Century Family


Cheryl L. Mason and Alice Carter


Shepardstown Wednesday Sept 17th 1862

Dear Sister

I received your letter of the 1st yesterday and I set you a good example by answering it promtly you complain of my not writing home often enough I acknowledge I do not but still I write as often as I can for the last three weeks we have been continually on the march night and day some times not seeing our wagons for four or five days then we had to live on the country people I saw Asher and Mike yesterday they were both looking very well said they had not heard from home for some time. I dont think Maryland will go with the south I think more than two thirds of the people are Union…Tell Pa he owes me a letter so does sister Kate for that knife I sent her give my love to Ma, Pa, Kate, and sister Elen and write soon to your Brother.



So writes Thomas M. Garber to his sister, Addie [Martha A.] Garber, as he marches through the American Civil War. This letter excerpt is one example of the primary sources available through a web site called “Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities during the American Civil War” that is maintained at the University of Virginia. The Valley of the Shadow Project is an online interactive archive of digitized primary sources that tells the stories of people in one southern and in one northern county before, during, and after the Civil War. Among the primary sources included in this digital history archive are letters, diaries, newspapers, census records, maps, photographs, church records, and military records. Each of these resources has either been scanned or transcribed and is accessible through the World Wide Web.

The use of digital history in the elementary social studies classroom allows students and teachers to engage in authentic historical research. Bruno Bettelheim has stated, “What children of this age need is rich food for their imagination, a sense of history, how the present situation came about.”1 The primary resources available in online digital archives are just the “rich food” teachers have been searching for to make learning powerful and meaningful. Learning activities in which students interact with the primary sources and construct their own interpretations of historical periods provide students with opportunities to think and act as historians. Discovering and analyzing primary sources such as those included in the digital history archives allows students to interact with and interpret historical data, rather than just memorize lists of historical facts. Students are, in fact, engaging in authentic historical research.

The social studies standards published by National Council for the Social Studies advocate the promotion of a diverse range of skills in the social studies curriculum.2 Students should have the opportunity to: acquire new information and manipulate data; develop and present policies, arguments, and stories; construct new knowledge; and participate in groups. To demonstrate how goals in each of these categories can be met, we describe a lesson in which students will read a letter from the Valley of the Shadow web site and search the site’s 1860 population census to learn more about the author, Thomas Garber, and his family during the era of the Civil War. Through this lesson, students will develop authentic historical research skills, and learn not only about Thomas Garber and his family, but also about daily life in the 19th Century.

Acquiring New Information and Manipulating Data

Digital history archives not only make a vast collection of primary sources accessible to teachers and students, but also invite students to interact with resources in ways typically reserved for scholarly historians. In lessons such as the one we will describe in this article, students use the Valley of the Shadow’s online archive to conduct database searches. The results of these searches reveal pieces of new information that students can then synthesize and use to construct an understanding of the past. Imagine, for example, your students reading the following letter from Thomas Garber, a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War, to his sister at home:

Letter from Thomas Garber, a soldier in the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, to his sister.


From: Camp Gordonsville, Virginia

Aug 15th, 1862

Dear Sister,

I have wanted to write home but I have not had a chance I came up to Cousin John’s for somebread and while they are cooking it I thought I would write a few lines home we have been on picket ever since Tuesday and just got of this morning. On Monday the whole Brigade were drawn up in line of battle I was shure we were going to have a fight but the “Yanks” commenced to shell out and we left the field in double quick time. Gen. Robinson in the front I could see the Yankees very plainly they were about 1 mile off they had a great deal more men than we did I counted six Regiments of them all mounted. You asked me what company I had joined, I have joined Capt C J O’Ferra#146;s from Warren County Va he has some very nice men in his company. I am carring the colors for the Regiment it is not as much trouble as I thought it was at first they only trouble is I have is I cannot manage my horse very well. by the way tell Pa to see Col Frank about them spurs tell him I am very much in need of a pair I have but one and that is a very mean one. Col. Frank promised to have me a pair made at the state shops. I have seen Ash and Mike several times but have not seen Ned but once and then I passed while he was marching and I was caring a dispatch to Gen. Jackson so I could not have much talk with him he was looking very well, how is Sister Seal I hope she is not very sick give my love to her and tell her I will write to her soon give my love to Pa, Ma, Kate and Kelly and all others who ask for me you must excuse me for not writing sooner but I have written a good many times and when I have finished I would have to go some where and would put the letter in my pocket until it was spoiled it is getting dark so I must stop I have to go 9 miles tonight so you must excuse me for not finishing this sheet.

Your Bro.

Thos. M. Garber


Some of the words may be unfamiliar to the students, so we recommend asking the students to identify the words they don’t understand. It may be helpful to list the words on the board, along with their definition in the context of the Civil War.


on picket: on guard duty

Brigade: a very large group of soldiers

Yanks and Yankees: soldiers in the Union Army


Next, ask your students to help make a list of what they learned about Thomas Garber from reading this letter. From reading the letters, students will discover that Thomas is a soldier in the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, he needs to ride a horse to do his job, the leader of his company is C.J. O’Ferral, and he carries the flags of his regiment. Among the family and friends that he mentions are: Cousin John, Pa, Col. Frank, Ash, Mike, Ned, Gen. Jackson, Sister Seal, Ma, Kate and Kelly. From this list, help students to see that they are recreating what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War. To help students connect Garber’s letter with letters they have written before, ask your students who they write letters to, who are some of the people they include in a letter, and what is something someone could learn about them by reading a letter they wrote.

It is important at this point to lead students through the historical inquiry process. Ask students what else they would like to know about Thomas Garber and ask them for suggestions as to how they can learn more about him. Explain to students that a valuable source for learning about Americans who lived long ago is the population census. Explain to students that the census is a list made of the entire United States population every ten years. In addition to people’s names, the census also records their age, occupation, place of birth, and other information.

Because the Valley of the Shadow’s online archive is interactive, students are able to actually search through the 1860 census records. Using an Internet connected computer, ask students to search the Augusta County, Virginia, 1860 population census. This database is available at the following website:

In the last name box, students should enter “Garber”; they should enter “Thomas” in the first name box. Searching primary resources such as the census records provides students with the opportunity to develop research skills to conduct authentic historical research, while at the same time develop an understanding of daily life in the mid 19th Century.


Developing and Presenting Policies, Arguments, and Stories

As students use the digital history archives to conduct their research, they will record the information in charts such as the one that we have included below. Once they have gathered information, they can begin to interpret the primary sources and recreate the story of the Garber family. For example, after students conduct a search of the census records, they will discover Thomas was 14 in 1860, he did not own any property, he was white, and he was born in Virginia. Students can deduce that Thomas was 16 or 17 when the letters were written in 1862-1863. It is important to ask students if they know someone who is Thomas’ age? Follow-up questions may include asking students to imagine what it would feel like to be away from home fighting in a war at this age; or asking them to hypothesize why someone of this age would be fighting in a war.

By recreating the character of Thomas Garber as they uncover historical data recorded in the digital archives, students are acquiring the “sense of history” that Bettelheim reminds us is crucial to meaningful historical understanding. As they pull together the pieces of information they have learned about Thomas Garber, and consider what else they need to know about Thomas Garber to gain a better understanding of what life was like during the Civil War, students may decide that to tell the story of Thomas Garber, they need to learn more about his brothers and sisters, or what his parents did for a living, and how many people lived in the Garber household.

To further help students recreate family life during the Civil War, have them use the census page to search for the Garber Dwelling Number and Family Number. This information will allow students to begin to answer the questions they developed on Thomas Garber. Students will discover that there were eight family members in all. Thomas had two older brothers, one older sister, and two younger sisters; his father was a farmer who owned land (real property) and other forms of property. We can learn more about each of these family members by categorizing the census data in the table below. Additionally, we can ask students to look at the list of people Thomas Garber wrote about in his letter and highlight which ones were family members. From the information found in the census search, we can also deduce that Thomas was probably writing to his sister Martha.

Here again, it is essential to stop and ask students the significance of this snapshot in history. Classroom discussion should encourage students to consider how what they are learning about the Garber family may help us learn about family life in the 19th Century. Likewise, asking students to describe how the Garber family is alike or different from their own family may help students connect personally with people and events from the past.


Constructing New Knowledge

To develop this skill category, students need to conceptualize new information into a form that is meaningful to them. For example, the information listed above about Thomas Garber is simply a list of descriptors. To make meaning of this historical data, students need to place the information in context and discover its relevance to their own lives. For example, students could be asked to draw a picture or write a story using the discovered information. In this particular lesson, students are asked to write a letter from Martha Garber to Thomas Garber. In order to do this, students will need not only to show an understanding of the nature of letters that were sent from the homefront to soldiers during the Civil War, but also an understanding of family life during the Civil War. For example, by studying the Garber family letters, students will discover not only how important letters from home were and the young age of many soldiers who fought in the war, but also that one family could have three sons fighting in the Civil War. An example of an activity for students would be to provide students with an article on small pox from the November 1862 Staunton Spectator (on the web at jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/vshadow2/Browser2/aubrowser/ssnov62.html). After reading this article, students can synthesize the information they have learned from the letters, census records, and newspaper article to write a letter from Martha to Tom reporting on the conditions at home.


Participating in Groups

Activities such as the one we have described call upon students to work collaboratively to conduct digital history searches. The lesson is designed so that groups of students will gather pieces of information that can be pooled together to tell a story. Students can also use digital history archives to research multiple perspectives of common events. For example, the newspaper search engine allows them to collect news stories from newspapers that reported the same event from opposing standpoints. For example, students can enter either a specific date or event in history. Their search will reveal a collection of news stories that were published in both Northern and Southern newspapers. Another example would be dividing students into family groups and having them conduct research on their particular family in 1860 through the letters, newspapers, and census records. Each group of students could then construct a meaningful description of family life during the Civil War. Groups of students could then share their analysis for comparisons and contrasts. Suggestions for other families to research include from Franklin County: James Kennedy, an Irish born farmer with a large family; Sarah Stewart, a seamstress and single parent; and Margaret Moore, a sixteen year-old seamstress. From Augusta County, students could do research on Robert Campbell, a wealthy black barber, and the family of W. Cochran, a free black shoemaker.



By using digital history in the classroom, students can learn to do the same work as scholarly historians: searching, discovering, and analyzing primary sources to learn about people, trends, and events from the past. Activities such as the Garber Family Letters lesson take advantage of technology to allow students to learn social studies in ways that were impossible before the Internet. Not only does the Valley of the Shadow make primary sources accessible to the social studies classroom, it also allows students to interact and manipulate these sources to make meaning of them. By allowing students to “do history,” it makes the content meaningful to them and allows them to develop inquiry skills that contribute to their ability to be lifelong learners.



1. Bruno Bettelheim, as cited in National Standards for History Grades K-4: Expanding Children’s World in Time and Space (California: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994), 2.

2. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).


About the Authors

Cheryl L. Mason is an Assistant Professor in the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Alice Carter is Associate Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

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