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Choosing Civil War Photos from the Liljenquist Family Collection: Selecting Needles in a Fascinating Haystack

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This is a guest post by Mark Sanchez, who developed the new primary source set “Civil War Soldiers’ Portraits: The Liljenquist Family Collection.”  Mark is a senior at Stanford University and worked with the Library’s education team in the summer of 2013 as the Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War?  Hopefully my work this summer will help answer just that.  My main job this summer was to create a Library of Congress primary source set highlighting the rare Civil War photos that comprise the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters

Before I worked on this project, most of the Civil War photos I’d seen focused on the generals and the battles of the war. The photos in the Liljenquist Family Collection, however, are mostly of enlisted men: Northern or Southern, black or white. My challenge was to select photos accurately reflecting both the main themes and the diversity of more than a thousand photos.

I’ve learned here at the Library that for students to get the most out of primary sources they need to connect to them.  I wanted students to realize that despite the 150 years of separation, they really have a lot in common with the soldiers in the photographs.

Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and Hardee hat

To help students connect, I selected many portraits that highlight the youth of the soldiers. The connection factor was important, but I also did not want to downplay the severity of the Civil War.  I had to maintain a delicate balance between photos of friends goofing off or barely fitting in uniform and photos that demonstrate the harsh realities of war.

In the process of creating this primary source set, I realize that I’ve developed a skill that’s crucial to teachers: selecting the right primary sources.

Whether selecting from a primary source set or searching in the Library’s collections, it’s best to choose items that:

Mark Sanchez posing in the Prints & Photographs division with a few ambrotypes and tintypes from the Liljenquist collection.
  • Students can relate to,
  • Support the theme of the lesson,
  • Accurately reflect the time period.

Once you’ve explored the primary source set, please take a look at the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs.

Use the student analysis tool and select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs and Prints to guide your students’ interactions with the photographs.

How could you use photographs like these in your teaching?

Comments (4)

  1. Thanks, Mark for this wonderful new primary source set, and your insights about the importance of choosing the right primary sources to use. I often refer to the previous 4-part blog series about selecting primary sources. (This is the first of the four posts: .) I’m so glad to be getting the feeds again with new blogs posts from the Library. I have missed this connection to the Library, and to the community of educators it serves.

  2. I love the fact that you put a focus on the enlisted soldiers highlighting their youth while also focusing on the harsh realities of war. It will help my current students to possibly feel a connection to the soldiers and help drive home the human connection.

    • Thanks, Debra – we’ve updated the post to reflect these updates to the website.

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