Often when students learn about large topics like the Civil War, teachers work to help students see the human side of the event. It can personalize an abstract larger-than-life event, given an entry point to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and provide another connection to the overarching events. The Fighting Infantryman: The Story of Albert D.J. Cashier, Transgender Civil War Soldier by Rob Sanders and Nabi Ali gives an opportunity to focus on one individual. Pairing that picture book with primary sources will add depth to that learning.
The Fighting Infantryman is the story of Albert D.J. Cashier, a soldier that was born female. Before entering the Union Army during the Civil War, Albert had changed his name and began identifying as male. Cashier continued to identify as male long after the war. His birth gender was eventually discovered and his military pension threatened late in his life.
Identifying and Selecting Primary Sources
Cashier’s story is certainly a lesser-known one. Considering this, primary sources may be challenging to find. The picture book gives clues though. Mention of the pension dispute and depositions given by fellow soldiers are quoted within the book. Newspaper articles are also mentioned. Sanders, in a recent interview about the primary sources he used, shared that both of these sources were essential ones that shaped the story.
Searches on Chronicling America’s collection of historical newspapers yields many results from Cashier’s later life. A search of the National Archives Catalog led to the full pension file for Cashier.
Sharing a 192-page pension file with students can be overwhelming. Instead, consider targeting selections for students to choose from. I’ve provided a curated list of primary sources from the pension file. Your selection may differ depending on how you envision interactions between the picture book and the historical documents.
Using a Close Reading Method to Analyze Primary Sources
Multiple sources within the pension file are depositions from former soldier colleagues of Cashier. They provided testimony confirming that the person requesting the military pension was the person that they served with. These depositions can be found in my curated set.
Before reading the picture book, ask students to read depositions about Cashier through the lens of understanding who he was as a soldier. There is adequate information to give insight into Cashier, but you may choose to frame the close reading by telling students that these were depositions given when a U.S. citizen had requested an increase in his pension as a former Civil War soldier.
Students may also be interested in the story of the moment, that Cashier’s birth gender was female and that he later identified as male. Acknowledge their recognition and redirect them to the task of looking for information about Cashier as a soldier. As they interact with the text, they may annotate passages that illustrate the person’s memories of Cashier. After reading multiple sources, ask students:
- Identify patterns in the text. What elements show up multiple times?
- What do those patterns tell us about Cashier as a person and as a soldier?
- Is there anything shared in a deposition that seems out of character? What may that reveal?
- Are there any patterns related to the people giving the deposition? What did you notice?
Students may share their findings through a class discussion or short writing.
Connecting Primary Sources to the Picture Book
Introduce the picture book. You may choose to read the book through one time to encourage students to read the story. During a second reading or as students work with the story independently, ask them to return to their work with the primary sources. Ask students if their characterization of Cashier is comparable to Sanders’s writing about the soldier. Students may provide text evidence from both the picture book and their writing.
Students will likely identify the depositions quoted in the picture book text. Encourage them to look for other moments that directly connect to the primary source text they read. As a final check of their own work, they may listen to Sanders describe the primary sources found when researching Cashier’s story and their direct impact on the story itself.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.