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From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans

This unit incorporates three documents tracing the advancement of men and women from the status of fugitive slaves to black soldiers fighting for the Union Army in the American Civil War. Examining an excerpt from the journal of William Still, students will read firsthand accounts of slaves who managed to successfully escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. Still's journal describes the appearance, manner, and circumstances of the runaway slaves who reached Philadelphia.

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation clarifies the geographical regions where slavery was to be abolished and to be permitted in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation states that free black men are allowed to join the military and fight for the Union. Nathaniel Edgerton, a white officer in the US Army, writes of the hardship black soldiers endured throughout the war  and their bravery. These documents combined give a vivid picture of the transition black Americans in the United States underwent during the American Civil War.


19th century


African American

Civil War



Big Ideas

Historical Context

US History

Essential Questions

  • How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?

  • How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


  • Historical literacy requires an understanding of the historical context of events and actions over the course of time.

  • Conflict and cooperation among social groups and organizations are critical to comprehending society in the Pennsylvania. Domestic instability, racial relations, and the Civil War are examples of social disagreement and collaboration.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.


  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.

  • Construct a biography of a Pennsylvanian and generate conclusions regarding his qualities and limitations.

Background Material for Teacher

The unit and lesson plan are a part of Preserving American Freedom, which presents and interprets fifty of the treasured documents within the vast catalog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. All of these documents are digitized with transcriptions and annotations, as well as other user-friendly elements that will help both teachers and students to better understand the materials in the lesson.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has several essays on various people, events, and organizations that played a role in the history of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United States.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has many different collections that are associated with the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society.

End of Unit Assessment

A variety of traditional assessment styles can be applied to these readings. Traditional assessments can include a variety of quizzes (multiple choice or fill in), an essay, or a short paper.Primary sources may also be incorporated into a larger paper, student presentation, or class discussion led by student based questions. An alternative for those students who are unfamiliar with primary sources may be assessing notes taken during the reading to be used later as an open-notebook quiz.

To fulfill writing core standard CC.8.6.11-12.B, one option would be having students combine information learned from the three documents by writing three journal entries from the perspective of an African American during the 1860's: one as a fugitive slave, one after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, and one as a soldier in the Union Army.


Plans in this Unit

From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans, 1855 to 1864

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content






PA Core Standards




The Freedom Teacher Fellow was funded through a Bank of America grant for the digital history project Preserving American Freedom.

About the Author

This unit was created by David Reader, HSP's Freedom Teacher Fellow in the summer of 2012.  David is a social studies teacher at Camden Catholic High School.

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