HomeTeacher's Guide - Ball's Crossroads Skirmish

Teacher's Guide - Ball's Crossroads Skirmish

 Mapping the Civil War in Arlington - Teacher's   Guide

Topic:  The Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish -
August 27, 1861

Historical Background
During the Civil War there were many small skirmishes and military engagements that took place   in and around Arlington, Virginia.  Overshadowed by   the major battles that took place later in the war, the daily fighting between Union and Confederate forces are a forgotten part of American history.

However, due to the growing access to digital historical collections and primary source material,   this history is being rediscovered. These collections,   including letters, diaries, drawings, regimental   histories, and photographs, include many records   associated well known Arlington landmarks like Four   Mile Run and Upton’s Hill.

For Grades 6-8
The Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish was one of the largest military engagements to take place in Arlington during the Civil War.  Based on newspaper accounts, the skirmish involved over 1,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.  The fighting took place in Four Mile Run valley, and Upton’s Hill, near today’s Bluemont Park, and close to the Ashlawn Elementary school.  The fighting was part of a larger military conflict between both armies at the time to hold on to the strategic high ground.

 Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) Learning Concepts

 Civil War History
 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by:  

 a) Describing the cultural, economic, and constitutional issues that divided the nation;
 b) Explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions;
 c) Identifying on a map the states that seceded from the Union and those that remained in the   Union;
 d) Describing the roles of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E.   Lee,Thomas “Stonewall”           Jackson, and Frederick Douglass in events leading to and during the war;
 e) Using maps to explain critical developments in the war, including major battles;
 f) Describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers(including   African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

 C/T 3-5.6: The student will use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a   variety of sources.
 C/T 3-5.8: The student will use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and   ideas effectively to multiple audiences through collaborative writing, and publishing activities.

Key Learning Concepts

Essential Questions


The teacher may want to discuss the following terms with students prior to beginning the lesson plan:

Historical Thinking and Primary Sources 

Digital history and online collections.

The teacher may want to review the following with the students:

Causes and events leading up to the Civil War. 

Virginia, Arlington, and the Civil War.

Secession, Union Occupation, and military engagements.

Visual Literacy – Learning to observe and discover history from photographs

The Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish - Using a historical event to research and “think historically.”




Why is it important to study primary sources?

What are some of the most well-known historical digital collections?

What role did geography/topography play in Arlington during the early part of the Civil War?

Why was Arlington so strategic to both Armies?

Historical Thinking

23rd New York Regimental History
23rd Regimental History

Photographs of the 23rd New York
Soldiers of the 23rd New York Volunteers
Camp Life of the 23rd New York
Assorted Images of the 23rd New York

Map of Arlington
Seat of War Map

Trigger Events of the Civil War  https://youtu.be/Dr0OyB1Uj8Q

Arlington Mill Skirmish Video https://youtu.be/a3elpxgK6ik

History of CDVs Video

Reading Material
Camp Fires of the 23rd

The Civil War Papers of Lt. Colonel Newton T. Colby, New York InfantryNew York Times Articles

New York Times Articles

Primary Source Analysis

Photograph Analysis Tool

 Task # 1 -  Historical Background

Task #2 - Arlington and the Civil War

Task #3 - Ball’s Crossroads Skirmish

Task # 4 - Class Assignment

Students watch several  short videos providing historical context and respond in writing to   questions from worksheet     (this could also be a group   discussion).  

Students review maps of Arlington and photographs of Union Soldiers (23rd New York) that camped in Arlington.


Step 1:  Review with students how to use photographs to learn about the people who lived then.  Remind them that during the Civil War photography was still a new technology, had certain limitations on and off the battlefield (time and light) but was still widely used.

Step 2:  Introduce students to the activity by distributing copies of the Photograph Analysis Worksheet.  Discuss the worksheet with them and explain that they will examine photographs of soldiers of the 23rd New York Regiment that camped in Arlington.  Review with the students some regimental history of the unit and where they came from in NY (Elmira).

Step 3:  Break students into groups of no more than five students each.  Give each student a copy of the photographs along with the Photograph Analysis Worksheet.  Students should discuss among themselves the questions on the worksheet, but they do not have to agree on the answers.  Encourage students to have reasons for the answers they choose.

Step 4:  After a set amount of time, have students come back together as a class and discuss some of their answers.  Encourage students to explain why they responded as they did.


Students read several firsthand accounts of the Ball’s Crossroads skirmish. This includes Lt. Newton Colby’s diary, Regimental History, and newspaper articles.

Working together in groups or as an individual students can choose from the following:

1)    Pretend that they are a journalist and have to file a news article about the skirmish.

2)    Write an article for the Arlington Historical Society explaining the significance of the military engagement.

3) Pretend that you are a soldier from the New York 23rd and write a letter home to your family describing life in the army and the Ball’s Crossroads skirmish.





Focus on historical thinking and how to ask questions like a historian, why is studying history important?

Encourage questions about what was life like in the Union army and where did the soldiers of the 23rd New York come from?

What role did photography play in recording the history of the war? 

Why did so many soldiers want to get their photographs taken?


What was a skirmish? And how was it different from a battle?

What were some of the important historic details from the reports and accounts?

At one point, tens of thousands of soldiers from both armies faced each other right here in Arlington.  Why do you think there was no major battle?


 Tips for Teachers:

Encourage students to think like a historian by teaching them to ask the how and why questions,   not just the what, where, and who?