Assignment 6

Video Assignment [text version]: How Do Historians Know?

This is the last of the 3-part “How Do Historians Know” segments. In the first, we discussed historical research and were introduced to primary source documents. In the second, we learned about the limits of primary sources and reflected on whether or not certain kinds were useful by themselves in helping to explain the past. The final installment focuses on what historians do when they confront sharply contradictory evidence.

This too will be critical for you to learn as you work on your own projects. As you will see, historical events can be controversial. Historical writing almost always involves a careful weighing of contradictory evidence to try to arrive at a reasonable, logical, and supportable explanation of the past.

I. Incidents on Lake Erie

The US Civil War is, as you are becoming aware, intensively studied in its many aspects. This is especially the case with the military history of the war.
Yet there remain surprising gaps in common knowledge of certain events of the war.
Among these are the various activities of Confederate agents, officers, and soldiers along the US border with Canada, including the Great Lakes.
An example was the 1864 seizure of steamers on Lake Erie by Captain John Y. Beall and a band of Confederates.
Their goal was to use the ships to sail to Johnson’s Island, off Sandusky, Ohio, and liberate CSA prisoners held there.
Beall was caught and executed for being a spy in 1865.

The case, as you will learn, is interesting because it involves a complex of CSA efforts to undermine the Union war effort in 1864.
For our purposes, it is interesting because it provides and opportunity to examine—and practice—how historians evaluate conflicting evidence.

II. The Trial of John Y. Beall

As with the previous two assignments, I will provide you with a guide to the key sources you will need to complete the assignment.
The assignment is as follows:

  1. Go to the MSU Library’s e-resources page ( Click on “ProQuest (all databases); click on “Historical Newspapers”; click on “ProQuest Civil War Era”; enter “john y. beall” in the text box; click on the first entry that reads (could be third to come up) “Trial of John Y. Beall…”.
Trial of John Y. Beall, as a spy and guerrillero, by military commission

Beall, John Yates.Pamphlets on the Civil War, 1861-1865; Ann Arbor : 1-94. Ann Arbor: ProQuest I&L Research Collections. (1865)

  1. Read the Trial of John Y. Beall as a Spy and Guerrillo by Military Commission.
  2. Write a set of notes on the case, specifically focusing on the government’s charges, the evidence the government presented, and the defendant’s (and his attorney’s) presentation of his own case.  Post in D2L, Thursday.
  3. Go to, which is and Open Library copy of Memoir of John Yates Beall, which includes writings by Beall and others that attempt to exonerate him.
  4. Read Memoir of John Yates Beall. Do any of the parts of the pamphlet cast doubt on the government’s case against Beall? What is the main argument that Beall and his defenders use to justify his actions? If you were writing an interpretation of the Beall case, is there anything that you discovered in this pamphlet that would lead you to question the military commission’s decision in his case?
  5. Go to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (;c=1930843488;q1=%22John%20Y.%20Beall%22;pn=1;sort=rel_d).  You will see a search for “John Y. Beall” — we need to be sure to use the quotation marks.  Then click on each entry that comes up for the War of Rebellion and search again for “John Y. Beall” inside these texts (use quotations marks and exact name “John Y. Beall” . [You may do the same for each of the four hits for Beall for the War of Rebellion records.]
  6. Return to your previous notes and conclusions on the case. Does the Thompson report, or other reports that mention Beall in the Official Records change the way that you view his case? Now that you have read more about Beall in a third set of documents that were not written specifically in relation to his trial (but which place his activities in a broader context), how do you interpret his trial, conviction, and execution by federal military authorities? Last, what evidence do you consider most authoritative? Why? What criteria have you used to decide which documents are likely to be the most historically useful in explain why he was executed?
  7. Write a 250-300 word analysis of the case. Provide a thesis statement that argues what your interpretation is, then explain in the body of the essay what has led you to this conclusion. Provide a short conclusion that summarizes what was the most decisive evidence in your examination of the case.

III. Historical Inquiry

The three How Do Historians Know assignments have given you an opportunity to find and use primary source documents to investigate the past.
They have also shown you that history as a field involves efforts to bring new information to light at the same time that scholars carefully evaluate evidence to determine its relative quality before basing conclusions upon it.
The standard of “the preponderance of evidence” applies; that is, what is the most logical, reasonable conclusion that may be reached about why or how events occurred in the past given the fact that documents frequently disagree.
As you build your own research project, keep this in mind. It will make your final argument much stronger and more authoritative.

Guideline for Assignment 6

  1. Post notes in your in D2L, June 20
  2. Notes should focus on on the government’s charges, the evidence the government presented, and the defendant’s (and his attorney’s) presentation of his own case.  Do not worry about style or coherence.  These are notes for your research.  Show how you keep research notes.
  3. Post analytical essay in D2L (you can post essay in same assignment place as notes), Sunday, June 23

    1. 250-300 words
    2. Thesis clearly stated.
    3. Body explains what led you to this conclusion
    4. Brief conclusion, summary.
  4. Essay demonstrates historical thinking about conflicting data.
  5. Assignment is graded on a point scale [maximum points=10]

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