Primary Source Instructional Tools

Decoding the Civil War

Decoding the Civil War, funded by a two-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), was a consortium project to digitize and transcribe the Union Army telegrams from The Thomas T. Eckert Papers housed at the Huntington Library with the hope that the transcription and decoding of Civil War telegrams will engage, and fire curiosity, in new and younger audiences. The United States Civil War still captures, as does Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the imagination and passion of young and old. While perpetually fascinating, with all we know and have learned, there is still much to discover with new materials, new stories.

President Abraham Lincoln was American’s first “technology” president, using emerging telegraph technology in war, politics, and even his personal life. The educational modules incorporated content from telegrams that were transcribed through the work of citizen archivist on the Decoding the Civil War website. Inquiry materials were developed using the Inquiry Design Model—an inquiry-based instruction design method endorsed by the leading social studies professional organization National Council for the Social Studies. The Decoding the Civil War project offers three types of instructional materials: Inquiries, Explainers, and Activities.

The goal of these instructional tools is to provide educators with high-resolution images of primary source materials from The Huntington’s collections, along with didactics that support using the materials in flexible and dynamic ways across multiple grade levels.



Inquiries feature telegram sources and all the materials needed for 2-4 days of instruction on a range of Civil War topics. The inquiries are designed using a new approach to designing instruction for social studies called the Inquiry Design Model (IDM). Each inquiry includes a Blueprint overview of the lesson along with descriptions of the various tasks that make up the inquiry.


Explainers are direct instruction materials that provide background on topics and issues related to the Decoding the Civil War project. Explainers emerged in journalism as a way to build background knowledge among readers. The concept has been picked up in education as a way to introduce complex subject matter using a variety of media.

Go to Explainer #1


Activities are hybrid lessons that incorporate the best of explainers and inquiries – meeting in the middle to provide students with a structure and direct, but semi-autonomous learning experience with content.

Go to Activity #1

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