Abraham Lincoln: Man versus Legend

Essential Question

How do we use historical documents to create a well-rounded portrait of Abraham Lincoln?


In this lesson, students interrogate their own assumptions about Abraham Lincoln in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of who Lincoln was. They investigate primary source documents in order to analyze the elements of Lincoln’s life that have become legend and those that have been forgotten by history.

Related HDSI Episode: Civil War Sabotage?

It was April of 1865. The Civil War was newly ended, and steamboats were regularly traveling up the Mississippi River to take soldiers back to their homes. One such steamboat, the Sultana, left Vicksburg on April 24 to carry soldiers up to Cairo, Illinois. Tragically, just three days later, the boat caught fire and more than 2000 passengers had an impossible choice to make: burn to death on the boat or jump overboard and risk drowning. More than 1800 people died that day, but to this day, no one knows conclusively what caused the explosion. Was it an accident? Or was it an act of sabotage, one final blow struck by the Confederacy against the Union? Wes Cowan, Tukufu Zuberi, and Kaiama Glover set out to solve the mystery.

Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-10, but can be adapted for use in grades 6-12. For middle school grades, the ink shedding activity can be simplified by reducing the number of documents students investigate and/or assigning students to work in pairs. The primary source material can also be made more accessible by highlighting the important information. For grades 11-12, lesson can be made more challenging by asking students to conduct further research into the personal life of Abraham Lincoln and/or the inner workings of his administration. See “Document Collection: Optional Sources for Extensions” under the “Materials” heading below.

Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson would fit into American History units covering the Civil War and Reconstruction.


Estimated Time Required

2 class periods


Abraham Lincoln is widely considered one of the United States’ best presidents. He authored the Emancipation Proclamation, ended the Civil War by defeating the Confederacy, and was instrumental in the writing and passage of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in America. His Gettysburg Address remains one of the most revered and quoted speeches in American history. But the image we have of Lincoln isn’t all there was to the man: in his time, he was reviled in the South and the measures he took to end the war were sometimes less than savory. The Lincoln of history is far more complex than the often idealized version we think of today.

Set Up

  • Create a series of learning stations by attaching each of the documents in the “Abraham Lincoln: Primary Source Documents” to a large piece of poster-size paper and distributing them throughout the classroom. Make sure there is enough room around the document to allow students to write directly on the paper or attach sticky notes.
  • Make photocopies of the “Evaluating Abraham Lincoln” reproducible.


Show students the video “Lincoln’s Early Views.” The video discusses the difference between Lincoln’s historical actions and views regarding slavery and how American history often depicts him. After the video, have students discuss what they already know about Abraham Lincoln and what they learned in the video. Create a mind-map on the white board/SmartBoard to take notes as the students share their ideas. Use the following questions to spur ideas:

  • What immediately comes to mind when you hear the name “Abraham Lincoln”? (freed the slaves, Emancipation Proclamation; Civil War, saved the union from dissolution, Gettysburg Address; stove pipe hat and black suit, log cabin; Lincoln memorial; Lincoln Douglas debates)
  • How did you learn these details? (history class, Presidents’ Day lessons, history textbook; just have always known; trip to Washington, DC; pop culture, such as  movies, TV or literature)
  • Ask students to define the terms “symbol” (an object or image that represents an idea or another object) and “legend” (a famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well). Then ask if the portrait the class has sketched of Abraham Lincoln sounds closer to legend or to a living human being? How is a human different from a legend or a symbol? (A real human is flawed and complex, and a symbol or legend is one-dimensional and larger than life. Sometimes we create a one-sided picture of historical luminaries and turn them into legends. Popular accounts overlook details that might give a more complete portrait of a person.) What does Abraham Lincoln symbolize in American history? (Liberty, freedom, the American spirit)


Explain to the class that they will be examining primary sources related to the life of Abraham Lincoln through an inkshedding activity. The purpose of the activity is to uncover the reality of Abraham Lincoln and tell a more complex story of his life by adding details to what they already know from history classes and American media and pop culture.

Step 1: Visit Document Stations

In an inkshedding activity, students will visit various document station at their own pace. While at each station, they read the central document, write a comment or question about that document on the poster paper (or on a sticky note) and stick it to the poster paper. They then read and respond in writing to their classmates’ comments and questions that are already on the poster. Students’ responses to their classmates can be as simple as an exclamation point next to an interesting point or as complex as a response of a couple sentences.

The documents students will study are:

  • The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution: declares slavery illegal in the United States; signed by Lincoln
  • Personal Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln: tells the story of a “nanny goat” who destroyed the flowers, slept in their son’s bed, and went missing
  • Photograph, “Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand”: Abraham Lincoln, in his black suit and stove pipe hat
  • Excerpt from Personal Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Jesse W. Fell: a brief autobiography of Abraham Lincoln’s early life
  • Excerpt, First Lincoln Douglas Debate: Lincoln explains the various solutions to the problem of slavery, including his own feelings which “will not admit” allowing freed slaves to be held as equals to whites
  • Optional Sources for Extension include:
    • Political Cartoon, “Bright Goings On”: depicts a drunken or stupid Lincoln trampling the constitution and armed with two swords; Jefferson Davis or Uncle Sam lies beaten in the background
    • Excerpt from book The Martyr President; Our Grief and Our Duty, J. G. Butler: from a sermon delivered immediately after Lincoln’s death, holds Lincoln up as "the Great Champion" of human rights"
    • Excerpt from Personal Letter, Julia Matie to Mrs. A.M. Thomas: illustrates a common anti-Lincoln sentiment

During the inkshedding, encourage the students to “Think Like a Historian." Prompt students to use the 3C’s and an S when investigating the documents related to Abraham Lincoln.

  • Sourcing: Who made this source? Where did it come from?
  • Contextualizing: Imagine the setting surrounding this source: How was the world that made this source different than our own?
  • Corroborating: What do other sources say about the information in this document? Do they agree or disagree with what this document says?
  • Close Reading: What does the document say? Is it biased? What is the tone?

Near the end of the proscribed time, prompt students to cycle back to stations they have already visited to note any comments their classmates made on their original responses.

Step 2: Evaluate the Primary Sources

Next, distribute the “Evaluating Abraham Lincoln” reproducible. Instruct students to pick two documents they investigated during the inkshedding to investigate in more detail. They should pick one document that embodies the symbolic Lincoln and one that represents the real, complex man. Students should answer the questions on the handout based on their own opinions and the questions and comments their classmates left on the poster during the inkshedding.

Once students have finished the chart on the reproducible, bring them back together as a whole group.

Extended Interview: New insights into Abraham Lincoln

Wes Cowan interviews Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about Rueben Hatch,

Show the video “Abraham Lincoln and Reuben Hatch.” The video shows how Reuben Hatch, a quartermaster in the Union Army, committed serial frauds against the Army, one of which potentially led to the deaths of thousands, and how Lincoln himself enabled Hatch’s continued position within the Army.

After students have investigated the documents and watched the video, ask what they learned about Abraham Lincoln.

  • What documents did you choose to investigate more closely?
  • What did the document tell you about Abraham Lincoln?
  • Was the document biased? In what way?
  • Did the document tell you something new about Lincoln? Reinforce what you already knew? Contradict something you already knew? Explain.
  • Did anything you saw in this activity change your opinion of Abraham Lincoln? Why or why not?


Sultana mystery reveal

The History Detectives come to a conclusion about the Sultana mystery.

End the class with an opportunity for students to share the paragraphs they wrote describing the “real” Abraham Lincoln. Then lead a brief discussion about why investigations such as this one are important in the study of history.

  • How did viewing primary sources change your understanding of Lincoln? What do they provide that a textbook cannot?
  • So what? How did this investigation into Abraham Lincoln deepen your understanding of American history?
  • Why is it important to complicate historical stories? What is the danger in turning history into a legend? Turning a man into a symbol?

Going Further

Have students investigate another historical figure who is a legend in American history. Possibilities include: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, among many others. You can organize a similar inkshedding activity or ask students to find and analyze two-three primary sources related to these figures. How do they support the already accepted narrative of the person’s role in American history?  How do they complicate the person? How does this research change your perception of American history?

More on History Detectives

Use the following lesson plans or investigations from History Detectives to support the teaching of this lesson in your classroom. 

Lesson Plan: Kit Carson to the Rescue: Separating Myth and Reality

Lesson Plan: The Civil War: Before the War

Investigation: Lincoln Oath


 Looking for Lincoln
Collection of videos and lesson plans connected to the PBS series Looking for Lincoln

The American Myth: Lincoln’s Mythic Identity
Discussion of how Abraham Lincoln’s life story grew to mythic proportions

Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
Scans and transcriptions of approximate 20,000 documents related to Abraham Lincoln, as well as educator resources for using those documents


This lesson aligns with these National History Standards, US History Content Standards and Common Core State Standards.