Indiana Magazine of History Image
Indiana Magazine of History Logo

Analyzing Civil  
War Pictorial Envelopes 


Purpose of Lesson: This lesson introduces students to (1) the power of political messages contained in visual artifacts, (2) the political messages conveyed by the illustrations that appeared on personal stationery used during the Civil War and (3) the ways in which those visual messages might have affected the war effort.

Objectives:At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Analyze primary source material from the Civil War
  • Identify and evaluate the messages behind the illustrations on Civil War stationery
  • Describe the impact such political statements might have had on wartime military and homefront cultures
  • Create and describe a Civil War pictorial envelope

Correlation to Indiana Standards (for Eighth Grade Social Studies and United States History)

Social Studies

USH 2.9 Identify the main ideas from primary sources, such as nineteenth century political cartoons, about urban government, corruption, and social reform. (Civics and Government; Individuals, Society, and Culture)

USH 9.1 Locate and analyze primary and secondary sources presenting differing perspectives on events and issues of the past.

Historical and Methodological Context for the Lesson:

Central to this lesson is the concept of Propaganda.

propaganda. noun. 1. ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause

Propaganda exists at all times on various cultural levels. But during wartime, however, its persuasive power reaches a quantitative and qualitative peak, implemented on a much larger scale and in a much wider range of settings. Propaganda is vital to the maintenance of the morale of soldiers and civilians (on both sides of the war effort).

But persuasion does not have to take the form of huge text banners or loudspeaker broadcasts. It can be more subtle in its presentation, using no words or sound, but only photographs or drawings. This type of understated persuasion is illustrated in this lesson: a simple envelope becomes a canvas for the southern and northern causes of the Civil War.

Printers and publishers on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line produced inexpensive envelopes that featured an extraordinary range of symbols and slogans to capture the sentiments of the time.


Lesson Activities:

  • As a group, students will view each pictorial envelope and discuss the issue it represents and/or the viewpoint it puts forth
  • Students should create their own pictorial envelope which depicts some theme of the Civil War (abolitionism, unionism, etc.). The envelope should include a one-paragraph description of the theme and the political message the envelope conveys.


To introduce the lesson, the teacher may wish to read the following:

In the summer of 1862 soldier David Johnson was discouraged about the lack of news from home. He was still in his teens when he left Lafayette Township in Owen County to enlist in Company H of the 59th. He had counted on his sister, Eliza Ann, to be his link with his home so far away. He wrote to her from northeastern Mississippi in September to complain.

Dear Sister,

It is with much pleasure that I seat my self to let you know that I am well at this time and I hope when these few lines reaches you they will find you enjoying the same blessing. I have not got any letters from home yet and I begin to think you have forgotten me as I have wrote three letters home and have not received any answers yet. I want you to write or I will quit writing to you. . .

(Excerpted from "I Take My Pen to Hand," Vivian Zollinger, IMH, vol. xciii, June 1997)

*Note that this introductory statement is meant only to provide a starting point for the lesson (i.e. the importance of letter writing during the war). It should not be assumed by the teacher that the correspondence between David Johnson and his sister was sent in a Civil War “cover.”

  1. Provide copies of the three pictorial envelopes and a copy of the analysis chart to each student and discuss why political images may have been used on envelopes.
  2. Teacher should read aloud the following:

During the War, soldiers wrote many letters as letter writing was the main form of communication with family and friends on the home front. To write their letters home, soldiers purchased paper, envelopes, ink and pens. Stationary makers printed many styles of patriotic stationary and envelopes with engravings of camp scenes or political humor and these were quite popular among soldiers. Envelopes, also known as "covers", with elaborate printed patriotic scenes or political statements were some of the most popular to use.

Allow time for students to study the envelopes and complete the chart.

    • Envelope 1: “The Girl I Left Behind Me”
    • Envelope 2: “American Eagle Coming Down on the C.S.A. Pirates”
    • Envelope 3: “Abraham Lincoln is the Man for the Crisis”
  1. After students have completed the chart, each student should share his or her answers with a partner. Once students discuss their answers, the teacher should prompt discussion of the envelopes and complete a classroom chart, making connections with students' prior knowledge of the Civil War.
  2. Students may want to create their own pictorial envelope, using this template.