Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Who Fought for the Union?

In this activity students examine sheet music and letters from draft rioters to examine Union attitudes about the military draft during the Civil War.


  • Students will analyze letters and printed sheet music to determine attitudes in the North about the draft during the Civil War.  

  • Students will identify who fought for the North and how the draft affected the composition of the Union army during the Civil War.  


Step 1: Ask students to consider the question: Who fought for the Union during the Civil War? 

Step 2: Break students into small groups of 3-5.  In their groups, have students read the historical background information on the New York City draft riots of 1863. 

Step 3: Next ask students to read "A New York Rioter Explains His Opposition to the Draft" and answer the following questions:

  • What is the letter's point of view?  What is his argument on behalf of those who rioted to protest the draft?

  • What argument does the New York Times make about the draft in response to the letter writer?

  • Can you determine from the documents what each writer thinks about the causes of the Civil War?  

Step 4: Ask students to look closely at the details in the sheet music--both the cover art and the song lyrics--and answer the following questions: 

  • What images appear on the cover of the sheet music?

  • How do the two men depicted differ from each other?  In their hair? facial expressions?

  • What is written over each of the images?  Is this a clue to which man is the "substitute"?  

  • What do the song lyrics describe?  Do you think these lyrics are meant to be satirical?  

  • What might the audience for a song like this have been?  Do you think that the song format influenced the way people thought about its message about the draft?  

Step 5:  Have students discuss within their groups what they learned from the letter and from the sheet music about attitudes toward the Union military draft during the Civil War. As a group, students should summarize who fought for the Union.  As a whole class, lead a discussion comparing and contrasting the information in the sheet music and the information in the letter.  Ask students what kind of information sheet music conveys that is different than a letter to the editor in a newspaper.  

Historical Context

Despite the economic hardships that secession brought on in many northern cities, the outbreak of fighting galvanized northern workers. White workers, both native- and foreign-born, rushed to recruiting stations. Midwestern farmers and laborers, the backbone of the free soil movement, also enlisted in large numbers, making up nearly half the Union Army. Most northerners believed that Union military victory over the Confederacy would be quick and decisive. The North possessed a larger population (more than twice that in the South), a growing industrial base, and a better transportation network. The quick military victory was not to be, however, and Union soldiers (along with their Confederate counterparts) suffered tremendous hardships. For every soldier who died as a result of battle, three died of disease. Food was scarce, as were fresh uniforms and even shoes. Medical care was primitive. 

In March, 1863, faced with inadequate numbers of volunteers and rising numbers of deserters, the U.S. Congress passed a draft law. The Conscription Act made all single men aged twenty to forty-five and married men up to thirty-five subject to a draft lottery. In addition, the act allowed drafted men to avoid conscription entirely by supplying someone to take their place or to pay the government a three hundred-dollar exemption fee. Not surprisingly, only the wealthy could afford to buy their way out of the draft. Workers deeply resented both the draft law's profound inequality and the recent expansion of the North's war aims to include the emancipation of the slaves who, they assumed, would join already free blacks as competitors for scarce jobs after the war ended. When the draft was implemented in the summer of 1863, rioting broke out in several northern cities, and the most widespread and devastating violence occurred in New York City.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Who Fought for the Union?,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 2, 2023,

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