The view from the Ford’s Theatre stage looking out to the audience. To the left of the stage is the President Box with an American flag, a framed picture of George Washington and American flag bunting draped over the box. To the right is another box with yellow and white curtains. In the center of the stage is a wooden desk. The view includes two levels of seating and rows of lighting equipment on the third level.
View from the stage of Ford’s Theatre. Photo © Maxwell MacKenzie.

Narrative Writing: Lesson Activity One

First read of “Lincoln’s Assassination Told by an Eye Witness” and Class Discussion

Learning Objectives and Standards:

  • I can analyze the information in “Lincoln’s Assassination Told by an Eye Witness” by identifying facts and events described by the narrator. (RL.5.1)
  • I can draw on evidence from important events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination to support my analysis. (W.5.9)
  • I can participate in group discussions about “Lincoln’s Assassination Told by an Eye Witness” when answering questions about the text. (SL 5.1)


Give historical context for the primary source.

  • Say: Today we will begin reading and analyzing a very important primary source from April 16, 1865. At this time the Civil War was coming to an end. General Lee, of the Confederate Army, surrendered to General Grant, of the United States Army, after the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
  • Say: The primary source that we will read today is a letter. Remember that a primary source, also called a firsthand account, is a description of an event from someone who was there to experience it. This is different from a secondary source, or secondhand account, which is a description of an event based on research or told by someone who was not there to experience it. [Optional: Show these definitions on chart paper or with a projector]. The events described in the primary source that we will read today took place at Ford’s Theatre, a theatre in downtown Washington, D.C., that is still there today.
  • Say: On the night of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Lincoln, attended a show at Ford’s Theatre called “Our American Cousin.” They did not know that a man named John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor who supported the Confederacy and was furious that the Union was about to win the Civil War, was plotting President Lincoln’s assassination. An assassination is when someone is murdered for political reasons. John Wilkes Booth strongly disagreed with President Lincoln’s political views. Note: This is a very abridged version of Booth’s plot to assassinate the President. The full story is very engaging for students, so if time allows, learn more about the story here and share it with students.
  • Optional: Show photographs of the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre in 1865 and today using this link. This will help students visualize where President Lincoln was sitting on the night of the assassination.
  • Introduce content-specific vocabulary: Show these simple definitions on the board (using chart paper or a projector) or give the definitions orally during the reading:
  1. monarchical: related to a king or queen
  2. surrender: to give up or turn over power to someone else
  3. the draft: the system that chooses people for military duty
  4. avenge: to harm or cause suffering towards one who has harmed you
  5. cavalry: soldiers who fight on horseback
  6. contraband: goods smuggled in or out of a country; in this letter, the word is used to refer to enslaved people

First read of “Lincoln’s Assassination Told by an Eye Witness” and Class Discussion

  • Say: The letter we are about to read was written by Julia Adelaide Shepard, a woman who attended the show at Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination. This letter is written in the style of a memoir, which is a type of narrative, or story, with specific characteristics.
  • Display characteristics of a memoir on the board:
  1. Provides factual information
  2. Written in a narrative style
  3. About a significant time, place, person or event
  4. About the author’s life
  5. Explains why the memory is significant
  6. Reveals feelings of the author or storyteller
  • Say: For our first read of this letter, we will use the Reporter’s Notebook Thinking Routine. This routine is very helpful when we want to distinguish, or tell the difference, between facts and events versus thoughts and feelings in a primary source. Before we can deeply analyze a primary source, we need to understand the facts and events that are being described, so we’ll start there today with our first read.
  • Read the letter aloud. Students follow along and underline facts and events on their own copies. Students may also choose a colored pencil if that option is available. They should use different colors for the first and second reading.
  • Note: The difference between facts and events can be subtle. In this case, students don’t need to worry too much about this distinction.
  • Sample responses:
  1. Fact: “It has been announced in the papers he would be there.”
  2. Event: “Miss Harris is wringing her hands and calling for water. Another instant and the stage is crowded- officers, policemen, actors and citizens.”
  • After the first read, students share aloud facts and events.
  • Underline student responses on a master copy.

Independent Work

  • After the first read, students work independently to answer the text-based questions below, using evidence from the letter.
  • On the same paper, students record any questions that they have about the letter after the first read.
Text-based questionsAnticipated evidence-based responses 
According to Julia, who was sitting in the private box with President Lincoln?According to Julia, Senator Harris’ daughter, Major Rathbone and Mrs. Lincoln were in the box with the President.
How does Julia know that the President has been shot? Julia hears a pistol, then a man with a dagger leaps from the President’s box onto the stage.
What happened to the assassin after he shot the President? He escaped through a back alley where a horse was waiting.
How long did the President live after he was shot?The President died the morning after he was shot.
On the Thursday before the President’s death, how did citizens of D.C. show their joy about the war coming to an end?Citizens showed their joy by lighting candles, bursting rockets and setting bonfires.
On the Sunday after the President’s death, how did citizens of D.C. show their grief or sadness?Citizens covered buildings and streets in dark black drapes.


  • If time allows, students engage in a Think-Pair-Share to share their responses to each question with a partner.
  • Use the “Pick-a-Stick” method to call on students to share their responses to hold the entire class accountable for the information.
  1. Students think silently
  2. Pick from a group of sticks with each student’s name
  3. The chosen student responds
  • Call on as many students as possible to share the questions they have about the letter and record all questions on chart paper to be referenced during the following lesson.
  • Say: Tomorrow we will read and analyze the letter again to deepen our comprehension. We will look for Julia’s thoughts and feelings and learn more about her point of view on President Lincoln’s assassination and the events that followed.