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Comparing Primary and Secondary Accounts of the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay

Name of Corresponding Unit Plan: War of 1812

Grade Level: 6-12

Common Core Standards
RH.6-8.9. Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Content Areas: Reading, Writing, Social Studies

Recommended Length/Duration: Two 45-60 minute periods

Learning Goals: Students will identify the sequence of events that took place during the Battle of Plattsburgh. Students will compare the information available from an eye witness account with a contemporary summary. Students will analyze the strengths, weaknesses, and uses of each type of account.

Description/Sequence:

  1. This activity should be embedded in a larger study of the circumstances leading up to the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay.
  2. Discuss the differences between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include photographs, artifacts, documents, and eye witness accounts. Secondary sources are produced after the event combining information from various sources.
  3. Introduce Commodore Macdonough’s report to the Secretary of the Navy. Point out that this is the official report of the action by the commanding officer of the American forces written two days after the battle.
  4. Have students read the report independently or have it read aloud to the class.
  5. Have students identify the key events that took place during the course of the battle. Have them recorded individually on the worksheet or on the board as part of a whole group discussion.
  6. Introduce the summary of the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay prepared as part of a report by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in 2001. Point out that this report was written nearly two hundred years after the event and that many sources were used in compiling it.
  7. Have students read the report independently or have it read aloud to the class.
  8. Have students identify the key events that took place during the course of the battle. Have them recorded individually on the worksheet or on the board as part of a whole group discussion.
  9. Discuss how the two accounts of the battle compare. Guiding questions might include:
    • What events are in both accounts?
    • What events are only in one account?
    • What did Commodore Macdonough include that David Robinson did not?
    • What did David Robinson include that Commodore Macdonough did not?
    • Which account is more accurate? Why?
    • Which account is more complete? Why?
    • Which account is more interesting? Why?
    • When is a primary source most useful?
    • When is a secondary source most useful?

Assessments: Student worksheets can be collected and be evaluated for completeness and effort. Students could be asked to summarize the events of the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay in their own words based on the two accounts presented. Students could write a short essay on whether primary or secondary sources are most useful for research.

Materials/Resources:
Letters and Analysis Worksheet (pdf), which includes:

Special Considerations: This activity can be managed as an individual reading activity or a group discussion depending upon the characteristics of the students in the class and preferences of the teacher. Macdonough’s report has been provided in both script and print fonts. Teachers may choose to use this activity as an opportunity for students to practice reading script text. Teachers may want to substitute the report by David Robinson for an account in their textbook or some other source they are using for other purposes. This activity can be duplicated with other primary/secondary source accounts.

Extensions: Students may want to try to find an image of the original document in the Naval Archives.