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Middle School breaks into Civil War

Students learn about historic conflict through re-enactors
by: Jim Clark Civil War re-enactor John Leckie Jr., right, shows Gordon Russell Middle School student Katherine Fisher how to load a cannon.

Soldiers in two clashing armies occupied the campus at Gordon Russell Middle School, 3625 E. Powell Valley Road, Monday, June 6, and the students loved it.

Union and Confederate army re-enactors from the Northwest Civil War Council showed students how cannons were fired, pistols were discharged and ladies were courted during the nation's bloodiest conflict.

About 145 eighth-graders moved between various stations on campus to hear costumed re-enactors talk about life in the battling armies as well as what it was like for women to live in the 1860s.

Two thumbs up

At one station, Bruce Alley played a lieutenant colonel in the Union artillery and asked the students seemingly simple questions.

'Hold your hands up,' he said to the teenagers. 'If you didn't have thumbs, we couldn't use you.'

He also asked one student how much 10 plus 10 was. When the student said '20,' Alley noted his correct answer would have put the teenager on the path to serving in an artillery unit.

'If you were in the artillery, it was a big plus if you could add and subtract,' he said, noting that knowing algebra would have also been an asset. That's because artillery units used such math skills to coordinate shelling, added Jack Bentley, who portrays a sergeant major in the Second Artillery.

'As an experienced gun crew gets used to it, they can just about predict where a case shot can fall,' Bentley said.

Dead horses

At another station, Mike Tamerius played a Yankee cavalry officer. As the students held various unloaded pistols he brought, as well as sabers, he talked about three of the bloodiest days in U.S. history - July 1-3, 1863, when the Battle of Gettysburg took place.

More than 53,000 men died or were wounded in the battle, he said, but they weren't the only casualties - 3,000 to 5,000 horses and mules also perished.

Many of their rotting corpses lay on the battlefield until winter, he said, because it took a long time to burn or bury them, meaning townspeople had to wait until the dead animals were frozen before they could remove them more easily.

'What do you think the townspeople thought of us?' he asked rhetorically, referring to the armies that left so much destruction in their wake.

He also noted that the South enjoyed an early advantage in the war because so many of its cavalrymen rode their own family's horses and were superior fighters to their less well-trained Union counterparts. However, the South began to lose that advantage as the war dragged on, he said, noting the Union cavalrymen eventually learned how to fight as well as their gray uniformed counterparts.

Adam Hottenroth, 14, said he couldn't imagine young men close to his age fighting in such a war.

'It just kind of made me think of how lucky I am because I can't really picture going to war right now,' he said, noting he was amazed that families took different sides in the war.

'I couldn't kill my brother, and it seemed weird to me that they could just do that,' he said. 'I'm just surprised that we fought our own nation against our own nation. It just doesn't seem like something we'd do.'

Women's world

Inside the school's arts center, re-enactor Tammara Hodge wore a hoop skirt dress and talked about life for ladies in the 1860s.

It was an era of modesty, she said, noting the most scandalous piece of clothing a woman could wear was a pair of socks, and showing skin below the neck in the daytime was frowned upon. Public affection between men and women was also a no-no, she said, noting women flirted by using their fans and not the hands that held them.

'This was a lady's best friend,' she said as she unfolded the fan and talked about how couples would court by talking on the woman's family's porch. 'There was no dating,' she added.

Meanwhile, teenagers back then would be considered men and women, ready for marriage and working, she noted.

Haley Coutts, 14, said she found the way women lived back then 'weird.'

'I can't imagine having to do all that stuff now,' she said, referring to the several layers of clothing women wore. 'Taking an hour to get dressed, taking an hour to get undressed - it kind of sucked, to be honest,' she added with a chuckle. 'I feel like now everything's changed so much from what they thought to what we think now.'

On the other hand, she was impressed by how 19th-­century folks saw themselves, especially with their formal approach to courting.

'I really liked the respect that they had for themselves and for each other,' she said. 'We don't really understand that that was the normal thing to do.'

Teacher's pet project

Gordon Russell has invited the re-enactors to come to the school the past four years, according to Laurie Fisher, who teaches eighth-grade social studies. Interest in the war has been heightened during this year, especially, she said, because it's the sesquicentennial of the war's inception.

'I really think that it helps not only reinforce what we've learned in class, but I think it gives a lot of those kids hands-on experience, to be able to see and touch and hear about those things that we've talked about,' she said of the re-enactment.

The teenagers shared that sentiment.

'It was kind of cool to go through and see how they lived and the styles of clothing they had and the different types of guns they had as opposed to what we have now,' Hottenroth said.

'I feel like the re-enactment helped us to learn more about what the people of that time found interesting as opposed to the curriculum,' Coutts added.