Citizen Historians: Students Help Research Remembering Lincoln

Editor’s Note: Chris Lese, a teacher at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recently worked with Ford’s Theatre to bring his students into local archives and upload responses to the Lincoln assassination to the Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection. Here, he shares his experiences.

How do you help students become independent learners? One way is to meet them where they are in terms of technology and steer students towards projects like Remembering Lincoln. This was a rewarding project to use in my high school Civil War course. The project’s goal is to explore how local communities around the country reacted to the Lincoln Assassination by locating and uploading primary sources to the Remembering Lincoln website.

How We Did It

When we started the project, David McKenzie, the Associate Director for Digital Resources at Ford’s Theatre, Skyped with our class to walk us through the entire project and helped answer our questions. David also provided an interactive Skype session later in the semester that explained the assassination’s history.

My class contacted Milwaukee libraries and historical societies for any primary sources related to the scope of the project—responses to the Lincoln assassination in the time after it took place. These archives, all located within driving distance of our school, were excited to help us and performed an initial search of their facilities to prevent any unneeded student travel.

Unfortunately, these queries turned up only one related letter from an emotional Union soldier who was bitter at the loss of Lincoln. This letter, however, provided an excellent opportunity for students to transcribe a historical document and realize how challenging research can be.

Students then focused their research on local and Wisconsin newspapers located on databases online and microfilm readers at a nearby library. Working in pairs, students scrolled through at least ten Milwaukee newspapers on microfilm.

One student was so intrigued by two German speaking newspapers that he is transcribing the assassination-related articles as a part of his German 4 course.

Online newspaper databases allowed other students to expand their search to other regions of our state. These databases were accessible through our school library and offered a wide array of reactions to Lincoln’s death.

One article, for example, reported how two men celebrated the assassination but were soon thereafter forced to apologize to the community!

The final step was to upload their newspaper articles to the website and write up a short abstract, following the metadata standards for Remembering Lincoln that David provided. Students also placed “tags” that described their document so other users could accurately locate it in searches, following a list of consistent tags for the project. This exercise provided another excellent level of analysis of their documents.

David then went through the documents and standardized the metadata.

Student Reactions

How did this process work for my students? Here are some of their reactions to the project:

Learning through research: How did the project enhance your understanding of the Lincoln Assassination?

“Some of the reactions to (Lincoln’s) death were unexpected.” “You can see people’s thoughts and emotions at the time written out on paper.” “I learned how different the thought processes and speech patterns were compared to modern day.” “You often hear that the nation was very sad but not very often do you hear of individual reactions, especially, from the common-folk.”

Invaluable Skill Development: What did you learn about doing historical research?

“(That) information from the 19th century is available on media other than computers, like microfilm.” “Although less writing than a traditional research paper, I took the research more seriously and learned a ton how historians do it.” “The microfilm was the best part because you were able to see firsthand the reactions of people that lived 150 years ago.” “I had not realized how primary sources are readily available for me to use.” “I learned you have to sift through many primary sources to find the jewel you are looking for.”

The Internet’s Impact: How did posting your research online effect your learning?

“I liked this project because you are doing work a historian would do, not just turning in a research paper that is read and forgotten.” “Making mistakes are 10-times more important to me in this project because it is online and many people can see it.” “You are not only writing for a grade but for other people to see and gain a better understanding of a historical topic.” “(Emphasis) was less on filling in content for a research paper and more on accuracy.” “I thought this was a really cool assignment.”

My students and I thought this was an extremely worthwhile project. It helped me frame historical research with clear, accessible goals and the students were completely engaged.

How You Can Do It

Interested teachers can get their class involved by contacting David McKenzie at He’ll be glad to help guide you through the process.

Chris Lese is a member of Marquette University High School’s Social Studies Department where he teaches a Civil War Legacy course. He has written several articles that focus on Civil War instruction in the 21st Century.